There was a lot of frustration yesterday after the Pirates dropped a winnable game in Chicago. But kind of lost in all that was that the Pirates still took 2 of 3 from the Cubbies, winning their 7th road series of the year, and as Jennifer Langosh (I think) pointed out, matching their total from 2009 AND 2010.
I thought we should take a quick minute and look at where the Bucs stand at the end of May 2011 compared to this time last year.
2010 Record on May 30**: 20-31
2011 Record on May 30: 24-27
A clear improvement. Not drastic, but an improvement nonetheless.
Run Diff. 2010: -130
Run Diff. 2011: -7
So far, the Bucs have scored about 25 more runs, and given up about 100 less. After last year's abysmal pitching, there was really only one way to go, but this is better than I think anyone expected. Surely, not all the pitching will keep it up, but Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton, and Kevin Correia seem locked in for the time being, and McDonald is showing signs of finally rounding into form. The bullpen, aside from a few hiccups has been excellent.
Further, despite a week or so of fairly anemic offense, and massive slumps at one time or another already from each of the "Core Four," the offense has scored more runs.
ERA Pre-ASG Break 2010 (couldn't narrow it down further): 5.10 (29th in MLB)
ERA through May 29, 2011: 3.47 (10th in MLB)
xFIP 2010 (full year): 4.35 (last MLB)
xFIP 2010: 3.70 (12th)
The Pirates are clearly pitching better this year, and even with the early-season "lucky" wins, where Bucs pitchers walked a bunch of guys, while striking out none, they're not out-pitching their xFIP by too much, so it doesn't seem too fluky.
BA through ASG Break 2010: .235 (last in MLB)
2011 BA: .237 (27th in MLB)
OPS through ASG Break 2010: .658 (28th in MLB)
2011 OPS: .671 (24th in MLB)
The offense, as the runs scored improvement would suggest, has improved just incrementally, but I think there's reason to expect further improvement: I haven't checked, but the Wood/Alvarez combo at 3rd has to be by far the worst line among Third Baseman this year...but Pedro Alvarez almost can't play worse when he gets back, and in fact, with some time to work on mechanics and get in a better mindset, I expect Pedro to have a big second half.
Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, and Neil Walker have all gone through big slumps in the first two months. Cutch has been digging out of his and his numbers are improving greatly, while Tabata, after a hot first week or two, seems to be rounding back into form after an ice cold month. Walker started off scorching and has come back to earth. His slump seems like a regression to the mean, more so than usual, but he'll end the season with a bit better rates stats than what he's got now.
The rest of the hitters are going to be wildcards. Garrett Jones has cooled, but should turn in a decent and valuable season thanks to the platoon (except his platoon mate, Matt Diaz can't hit anything). Lyle Overbay had a good series in Chicago, and if he can continue to provide even a little power, that will help.
Bottom line though: The Pirates don't have a complete offense. They have four guys, with a couple power platoon pieces (Jones and Doumit). Still, they've improved, and that's heartening.
Finally, yes, the Pirates strike out a ton, but they also walk a ton. They're seventh in the league in walks, and for a young team, that's even more great. It shows they're learning patience and the strike zone and grinding out pitchers. As they work on this, I'd look for that K rate to drop as well. I am REALLY happy with the Pirates plate eye and discipline on the whole.
One more thing and I'll stop.
2010 Full season UZR: -8.5 (Last in MLB)
2011 UZR: 5.6 (10th in MLB)
2010 Full Season Defensive Efficiency: .689 (Last in MLB)
2011 Def Efficiency: .721 (6th in MLB
2010 Full Season Fielding Percentage: .979 (last in MLB)
2011 Fielding Percentage: .983 (17th in MLB)
I don't care much about Fielding Percentage, but I put here for those that do, because I know there's a lot of controversy around advanced defensive metrics. Still, so far, the Bucs have turned what was (by literally any measure) the worst defense in baseball into a top-ten defensive team.
Which, combined with the much improved pitching, and slightly better hitting, has made a marked improvement on the team.
The record isn't leaps and bounds better, but it's better, and the run differential is MUCH better, so maybe more of those 1 and 2 run games will fall the Pirates way as the season goes on.
Given the current record, the current run differential, the current pitching and fielding, and a offense projected to be a little better the rest of the way, I actually think .500 is very much within reach.....
....Of course, there's a ton of baseball still to played, and the Pirates have already had some struggles. But for all the frustrating things that the Pirates do, I think the above shows there's a lot to be happy/optimistic about.
UPDATE: As "Bobby" alluded to in the comments, a lot of people aren't too concerned (or are too concerned, depending on who you talk to) with a .500 season. I'm not overly concerned about a .500 season in the sense that the Pirates shouldn't be shooting for just a .500 season and make trade, free agent, and other personnel decisions with that in mind. They should be playing for future, winning, championship baseball teams.
That being said, I'd love a .500 season for obvious reasons, and the fact that, so far, they've got a good shot without diverting from the long-term plan is heartening.
**UZR, xFIP from Fangraphs.com, Defensive Efficiency from Baseball Prospectus, and all other stats from ESPN. The links below can get you started. Sort and adjust from there.