High Seas: Undefeated Against Baseball
In 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected U.S. president and gave about the worst victory speech in recent memory. This came as a surprise to, well, pretty much everyone — to his wife, who had allegedly been waiting until he lost to divorce him; to the American people, who had by a margin of a couple million votes preferred his opponent; and most of all, to himself. Allegedly, such was the certainty of defeat that he didn’t even have a victory speech written.
Surely, he should have. FiveThirtyEight predicted going into Election Night that Trump had a 29 percent chance of pulling off the upset. Loads of things are less likely than that. For instance, in that infinitesimally brief moment between when you wake up tomorrow and remember the context of your life, there is about a 14 percent chance that it’s Saturday. It won’t be, of course, but that’s still a decent chance. There’s about a 10 percent chance that on Tuesday, May 3, at 2 p.m., the entirety of the student body will throw our pencils at the whiteboard and walk out of our final exams. (If you’d like to increase that chance, and you absolutely should, contact Cole Skuse at email@example.com; he’s organizing it.) There’s about a four percent chance that you can play Russian Roulette eighteen times and keep your brains intact, but you sure wouldn’t sell off all your possessions beforehand.
And then there’s the two percent chance that FiveThirtyEight gave to the Pirates winning all six of their games this week, clocking twelve straight quality starts, climbing to half a game back of the Brewers in the NL Central, and being closer to the best record in baseball than they are to not making the playoffs. I’m gonna be honest. I wanted to be prepared and I wrote an article in advance for every other possible outcome, but not for this one. What were the odds? Losing all six would be a very Pirates thing to do. Three and three, sure. But winning six in a row? That was enough success to send me back to the drawing board at 10 p.m. Saturday evening, stone-cold sober, to rewrite my article through the rose-tinted glasses of a fan of the 15-7 Pittsburgh Pirates.
So what’s going on at PNC Park? Simply put, the pitching has been far, far better than in previous years, and they’re keeping the Pirates in way more games.
Of the five Pirate starters — Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, Johan Oviedo, Vince Velasquez, and Rich Hill —these four have been excellent this season. All have posted under a .235 batting-average-against, and the entire rotation has an ERA under 5.00. Even more impressively, Keller (3.64) and Oviedo (2.22) have posted ERAs under four, a historically rare feat for a Pittsburgh pitcher in recent years.
And then there’s the big four relievers — the closer David Bednar, setup man Colin Holderman, and the two Mr. Mop-ups, Wil Crowe and Duane Underwood.
Bednar — well, he’s the best closer in baseball. He has an ERA of 0.90, he has seven saves (for those keeping score at home, that’s on pace for fifty-two), and he’s won two games of his own. Opponents are hitting against him at a measly rate of .179. A deeper look at the Statcast analytics reveals that this might not be a fluke. Bednar relies on three pitches — a four-seam fastball, a changeup, and a curve. His fastball brings the heat, at 96 mph, but his change-up is nearly as hard, maxing out at 95 with an average at 92. His curve is one of the best breaking balls in the game, with a widely varying break and obscene strikeout rate. Also of note is the number of innings he’s been able to throw — he’s one of just seven closers in the game who have thrown ten innings or more this season. If he keeps this up, the Pirates should feel very, very good about ninth-inning leads.
Holderman is rapidly coming into his own, too, with an ERA of 1.80 and ten innings of his own. Last year, he was far from being a fan favorite when he came to Pittsburgh, the consolation prize the Bucs got for giving up Pittsburgh icon Daniel Vogelbach. Yet increasingly, fans are feeling more and more confident when he walks out, as he so often does, in the eighth inning. Crowe and Underwood tend to take the sixth and seventh innings (although Pirate starters have gotten into the seventh inning quite a bit this year), and although they’re utility guys, they’ve put up decent numbers themselves; Crowe allows opponents an average of just .243, while Underwood has posted an ERA of 3.48.
As a result, the pitching — the starters, the bullpen, all of it — has been magical. In the Bucs’ 22 games this season, the pitching has pieced together fifteen wins, allowing more than five runs just six times. On the season, Pittsburgh has allowed just 86 runs while scoring 109, giving the team as a whole an opposing-run average of less than four.
If this continues, and the bats stay hot, we could be in for a fun summer. Next week features a series against the Dodgers at home, the conclusion to a homestand which, if the Pirates beat the Reds on Sunday (which you will know by the time you read this, but I, dear reader, cannot see in my oracle), we will have already won. Then comes a road trip, with six games combined against the Nationals and Rays, before playing the Blue Jays and the Rockies at home. None of these are unwinnable series (with the possible exception of Tampa, but hey, we’re only three games behind them!), and if the Buccos keep up this pace — or anything close to it — it would not be surprising were we to find ourselves at the top of the National League Central by May’s end.
ADDENDUM, Apr. 23, 3:58 p.m.: David Bednar has just shut down the Cincinnati Reds, finishing the Bucs’ second sweep this week. Seven in a row. Seven. In. A. Row. Longest streak in baseball. Vince Velasquez went seven strong, two hits, no runs. Holderman and Bednar closed it out. This is how baseball is meant to be played. This is not how Pirates baseball is meant to be played.
ADDENDUM, Apr. 23, 5:35 p.m.: The Milwaukee Brewers, top of the National League, lost to the Boston Red Sox, 12-5. This means that, at 16-7, the Pirates are in first place, both in the Central Division and in the National League, leading the NL for the first time in decades. God bless America.