A good way for a team to check its progress is by looking at where you were at the same time last year.
At this point last season, the Pirates sat 15 games behind the eventual World Series champion Chicago Cubs. The Buccos are in a better position now, but it’s not because they’ve gotten better; rather, the rest of the division has gotten worse. This year, the Pirates have no shot at a Wild Card, but are within four or five games of a division title (depending on the day of the week). As we hand out the midseason report cards, some players have had dramatic improvements, while others have fallen off significantly.
First, the head of the class. Ivan Nova and Felipe Rivero are the only two to have straight A’s so far this season. These two pitchers exemplify two great moves made by general manager Neal Huntingdon: the re-signing of Nova in the offseason, and the trade that sent Melancon out of town, only to get a reliever with even more impressive numbers. Rivero’s ERA nudged up from 0.82 to 0.86, so he’s not quite as good as he once was. Rounding out the honors’ class are Andrew McCutchen, Jordy Mercer, Elias Diaz and Jose Osuna. Shame on you if you thought McCutchen was washed up. Cutch is like a vintage car that just needs a little time to warm up before going full throttle down the highway. His resurgence has kept the team in this thing. Same can be said for Mercer, who has upped his average by 50 points since the last grading period. Osuna has also improved like Mercer, but in a more limited role. It’s been so far, so good for Diaz. The perennial “catcher of the future” is becoming a serious threat to take over for oft-injured Francisco Cervelli.
There’s nothing wrong with being a B-student, especially if you got failing grades the semester before. John Jaso raises his F to a B, bringing his average up 75 points in the last 40 games. Sure, he looks like the most un-athletic Pirate since Rick Reuschel, but his hard work is paying off. Gerrit Cole and Juan Nicasio both slip to B’s after standout performances earlier this year. Cole is finally getting a little run support, and Nicasio was probably playing over his head a bit. But these two hurlers are integral to the Pirates if they want to see the postseason for the first time in two years. (It sounds great to even say that instead of “20 years.”) Josh Harrison gets a B+; he has been the most consistent offensive player in 2017.
There’s a logjam of mediocrity at the C-level. That’s the overall grade for the Bucs for the first two semesters. Daniel Hudson and Trevor Williams should be quite happy with their grades after receiving F’s in the first term. They’ve been OK, but even that’s an improvement. They both lowered their ERAs from six to four, and the amount of cringing from fans when either of them are on the mound has been reduced dramatically. Hitters Josh Bell and Gregory Polanco are tough to figure out. Polanco has quintupled his homers (from one to five), while Josh Bell has provided a surprising display of power. But they both struggle to keep their averages in the .240s. For the Pirates to raise a division banner for the first time since George H. W. Bush was president, these two will need to straighten things out. Same with Adam Frazier and David Freese. They replaced Starling Marte (out on a performance-enhancing drug suspension) and Jung-Ho Kang (multiple DUIs and immigration issues) and started off hot. Both have cooled considerably, though, and there’s only three more weeks until Marte comes back. Wade LeBlanc also drops from an A to a C, in case you were wondering. I assume you weren’t.
On to the underachieving D students. Tony Watson got an A on his first report card, but he may have peaked in May. Poor Watson has received the brunt of the fans’ frustrations. People will say things like, “I hate him so much,” just because he had a few bad outings. But, the life of a relief pitcher is all about what you’ve done lately. Starter Chad Kuhl gets a D too, but unlike Watson, that’s an improvement. Chris Stewart really hasn’t played that much, and he has as many home runs as I do. But he has two RBI and gets some extra credit for being OK defensively.
Now, onto the failures. Most of the failing grades belong to the Pirates not-so-deep infield bench. An F is what Max Moroff and his .100 average gets (that isn’t even a very impressive blood-alcohol level). Moroff follows the standard set by Chris Bostick, Phil Gosselin, Gift Ngoepe and Alen Hanson — all of whom failed to produce and were sent away.
It’s possible the Pirates could win the division by winning just 81 games. But they’re going to have to get better to get it done.