The Pittsburgh Pirates have been baseball’s most surprising team to start the 2018 season. It’s safe to say no one expected this. For stretches of the offseason, the team was actively trading away its best players.
Here they are, though, sitting atop the National League Central with an 11-5 record. Without Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, the Pirates have somehow been better than the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals.
It’s early, and there’s still plenty of time for the Pirates to fall back to Earth. But the team’s strong start deserves our attention. Just how are they doing it?
Let’s look at three reasons the Pirates have gotten off to such a strong start.
NO MCCUTCHEN, NO PROBLEM
The Pirates’ outfield was supposed to get worse after losing franchise icon Andrew McCutchen this winter. Instead, every member of the outfield has been better. Offseason addition Corey Dickerson looks like the guy who made the All-Star team last season. He’s slashing .351/.377/.561 over 61 plate appearances. After a disastrous 2017 — in which he was suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs — Starling Marte seems to have recovered his form as well, hitting .306/.394/.581 in 71 plate appearances.
While Gregory Polanco’s batting average is poor, he’s showing signs of a possible breakout. After hitting just 11 home runs all last season, Polanco has already slugged five in 2018. That might be by design. Early on, Polanco has been hitting way more fly balls than he has in the past. He’s also pulled the ball more and has a higher hard hit rate than usual. His batting average struggles can be linked to a .184 BABIP. If he continues to hit like this, that number, along with his batting average, will rise. Even at his current level, Polanco’s .207 average is higher than McCutchen’s .203 average with the San Francisco Giants.
JAMESON TAILLON TAKES A STEP FORWARD
After everything he went through last season, you would have to call Jameson Taillon’s 2017 a success. He posted a 4.44 ERA over 133 2/3 innings. While those numbers don’t stand out, keep in mind Taillon battled through testicular cancer in the middle of the year. Those numbers deserve some leeway.
While Taillon still managed to show flashes last season, it seems he may have taken a step forward in 2018. His peripherals seem to be moving in the right direction. Taillon’s strikeout rate is slightly up, his walk rate is slightly down and he’s keeping the ball on the ground. Those are all positive developments. If Taillon can emerge as the team’s ace, that would go a long way toward getting Pirates fans to ignore how great Gerrit Cole has looked as a member of the Astros.
THE FLY BALL REVOLUTION HAS COME TO PITTSBURGH
The Pirates might be trying to hit more fly balls this year. The team’s fly ball rate has jumped to 37.5 percent in 2018, which is good for ninth-best this season. In both 2016 and 2017, it lingered around 32 percent, which put the Pirates near the bottom of the league.
Francisco Cervelli and Polanco are leading the way there, flirting with fly ball rates over 50 percent. But Marte and first baseman Josh Bell have made small strides in that area as well.
Fly balls lead to home runs. And home runs are pretty good for winning games. The Pirates finished next to last in home runs in 2017, so maybe that spurred a change in approach. It’s probably too early to declare that this is an organizational change in hitting philosophy, but it’s something we’re going to keep an eye on moving forward.
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Chris Cwik is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Chris_Cwik
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