Summer Guide: Pirates navigate unexpected issues in season’s first half

One of Clint Hurdle’s often-repeated mantras is to do “the best you can with what you’ve got at the time.” 

He’s had to follow it himself this year — he will likely need a hip replacement at the end of the season and he currently manages the Pittsburgh Pirates while enduring pain such that he can’t even sit comfortably.

While Hurdle’s mantra is a cliche that translates to trying your best within the circumstances, his team has had to do just that. Following up their 95-win season, the 2014 campaign hasn’t gone as the Pirates likely expected it to when they arrived at spring training in February.

At the All-Star break, Pittsburgh’s record resides at 49-46, bolstered by a recent 15-7 stretch that vaulted the Pirates back into playoff contention. Although 13 of the wins came during a 15-game stretch against sub-.500 competition, a winning record at the break is no small feat for a team that was eight games below .500 on May 20.

Roughly a year ago, the Pirates hit the break at 19 games over .500 with a run differential of plus-46. Pittsburgh has been out-scored by two runs through 95 games in 2014 and the team clawed its way to a winning record.

Why such a difference between this year and last? 

First, Pittsburgh’s pitching has not been quite up to par with last year’s. While a slight drop in performance was expected after the Pirates pitched incredibly a season ago, the sharp decline came as a surprise.  

The pitching staff owns a 3.74 ERA at the break after finishing 2013 with the league’s third-best mark at 3.27.

Pirates starters carry a 28-33 record into the All-Star break after going 64-48 last year and the bullpen carries a 3.42 ERA, which is elevated from the 2.89 clip with which it ended last year.

The pitching staff has also been wracked by injuries this year. Young ace Gerrit Cole has already landed on the disabled list twice this year, alongside Francisco Liriano — two crucial pitchers in Pittsburgh’s run to the playoffs.

Injuries and lack of performance have caused a steep decline for Liriano, who appears to be setting himself up to take a stab at a third National League Comeback Player of the Year Award in 2015. He made his first start since June 10 on Sunday and gave up three runs in four innings.

The loss dropped his record to 1-7 with a 4.72 ERA in 15 outings during 2014, of which only three have been quality starts — at least six innings pitched, three runs or less allowed. This occurred after he went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA in 2013.

Wandy Rodriguez, another starting pitcher, began the season by going 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA in six appearances. It was a poor enough performance that the team was willing to jettison him while continuing to pay his $13 million salary and designated him for assignment on May 22.

The issues facing those pitchers also opened the door for some other phenomena within the team. 

For one, who would have expected Edinson Volquez to lead the team in wins after he gave up more runs than any other pitcher in 2013? Or that Jeff Locke would find his way back to the major-league rotation and pitch better than he did during his 2013 first half, which resulted in his tabbing as an All-Star?

Everyone could have predicted Jason Grilli or Mark Melancon to be the team’s best reliever, but who would have expected it to be Tony Watson instead?

No one thought Grilli’s tenure in Pittsburgh would implode so magnificently and come to such an unceremonious end.

The oddest part of the Pirates’ season? Pittsburgh’s offense has actually carried the team through the first half of its season.

Behind the work of Andrew McCutchen — who is having another MVP-caliber year and leads the team in nearly every major offensive statistical category — Pittsburgh ranks in the top five among NL teams in batting average, runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, hits and home runs.

Through 95 games the Pirates’ offense leads the league in OBP with a .333 clip, 20 points higher than when it finished eighth in 2013.

As anyone from general manager Neal Huntington on down to the players will say, the Pirates have stayed “stubborn” in their approach to being “intelligently aggressive” at the plate. 

Basically, hitters swing at the pitches they like and not the ones that pitchers want them to swing at.

Simple, I know. But it’s actually working.

If the pitching can somehow find its way back to 2013 form, possibly through Cole or Liriano’s health getting back on track, the Pirates could be primed for another playoff run.