As I mentioned the other day, Ken Rosenthal recently quoted a general manager calling this the "best Pirates team I've seen in 20 years." The GM's comment seems to pretty obviously be true, and yet I've seen comparatively little commentary from Pirates fans about the fact that (so far, at least), this year's Pirates are a long, long way from being the joke they were in the past. Where there's been some excitement, it's mostly been on a very small scale. After two straight late-summer collapses, Pirates fans probably don't want to get too attached to this team before it falls apart.
Colin Dunlap nicely articulated what I think is the prevailing viewpoint on 93.7 The Fan the other day:
Until I see that 27th out caught in that 82nd victory, I just can't get all that excited, especially after what happened last year. Everybody in this town was talking, when they were 16 games above .500, talking about NLCS tickets ... I just can't go there until it really happens, because for me, my 20-something years have been filled with failure after failure after failure after failure. I can't hope anymore. I've got to see the proof.
Obviously, this view is understandable. This team hasn't won in two decades. The past two seasons, and especially in 2012, it looked like they would, but the team fell apart in painful, painful fashion.
On top of that, it's not at all clear that the 2013 team will break the streak. The rotation is dubious -- Jonathan Sanchez is still in it, and our best hope to fix it at this point is two more question marks in Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton. Starling Marte and Travis Snider are likely to come back to earth, at least to a degree. Mark Melancon and Tony Watson are on pace to pitch way too many innings. And so on.
And yet if we can't enjoy the way this team has played so far this season, then what are we doing, as fans? We're like a single 40-something who declares he can't enjoy dating until it results in marriage. Ultimately, you've got to enjoy what life hands you, even if you might get burned in the end.
This isn't about optimism or apologists or any of the silly things Pirates fans usually argue about. It's about this Pirates team playing solid baseball, and whatever your perspective as a fan, it's hard to deny that's what's going on. These Pirates aren't playing badly but backing into victories. They're winning because they're playing like they know what they're doing, and it's their opponents making mistakes, not them.
The Pirates have, so far, been one of the better defensive teams in baseball. With the additions of Starling Marte and Russell Martin, there's no reason to think that's a fluke. (In fact, Marte and Martin are two of the Pirates' top three players in WAR so far this season.) The Pirates' bullpen has genuinely been good, and it's been fueled by a bunch of hard throwers and by an offseason trade that currently looks like a steal. The Bucs have been among the best teams at baserunning, and the number of silly baserunning mistakes has come down dramatically since last year.
Think about the games you've watched this season. These Pirates just aren't making many mistakes. On the bases, they take some intelligent risks and mostly avoid trouble with them. Defensively, they gobble up most of the balls they're supposed to get to, and some they're not supposed to. They aren't allowing crazy numbers of stolen bases anymore. Their late-inning relievers have been almost automatic. A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez have been excellent. Travis Snider suddenly looks like a ballplayer.
I'm not making any predictions here. There are certainly some aspects of the Pirates' start that are unsustainable. But the Pirates are playing solid baseball. They've been playing it for a month. The GM Rosenthal quoted was right -- this is the most talented Pirates team since the start of the streak. There are easy jokes to be made there, of course. But I haven't had to watch Pirates baseball with my fingers half-covering my eyes. And I can approach each game with the knowledge that the Bucs have a decent chance of winning, and they aren't likely to do anything too stupid.
Maybe that will change. Maybe National League pitchers will adjust to Marte, and Burnett will suffer a major injury, and Andrew McCutchen will never get on track. Maybe Snider's start will turn out to just be one hot month. Maybe Melancon and Grilli can't keep this going. Maybe Pedro Alvarez will strike out 200 times. Maybe the Bucs will lose 95 games this year. I'm a Pirates fan. No one has to remind me these things are possible.
But you know what will surely someday change? The Pirates will have a winning season. Maybe it won't happen this year. Maybe not next year, either. But someday it will. And anytime it realistically looks like a winning season might be a possibility, I hope I don't wait until the win column hits 82 to enjoy it. Life is short. This Pirates team is playing well. Let's enjoy it now. Carpe diem.