Don’t look now, but the Pittsburgh Pirates are on a seven-game winning streak and sit in first place in the National League Central. Pirate fans haven’t been treated to much success in the past few seasons. It’s time to let them have their moment, even if it ends up short-lived.
The last time we met in this space, the Pirates sat at 9-7. They spent this entire week winning game after game and are currently the hottest team in baseball. Manager Derek Shelton was given a contract extension over the weekend. They’ll enter play Monday with the second-best record in all of the major leagues. A quick look at their schedule shows they’ve beaten up on the Cincinnati Reds twice and the Colorado Rockies to open the season. That is true. However, the mark of a good team is taking care of business against bad teams. To this point, the Buccos have done that. Things are trending upwards in the Steel City.
Many things and players have contributed to the Pirates’ 16-7 start. Let’s dive into what went right this week for the Pirates.
Bucco Blasts: Pirates Winning Streak
It’s not much of a coincidence that the Pirates’ hot streak has gone right alongside Ke’Bryan Hayes’ personal heater. Hayes went into the series against the St. Louis Cardinals last weekend as cold as ice. He picked up four hits across that three-game set and it propelled him forward.
In his last ten contests, the third baseman is slashing .317/.383/.561 with a home run and four RBI. Those numbers aren’t gaudy but they’re a stark contrast from his early season struggles. The knock on Hayes in the early part of his career has been his performance at the plate. His career slash line of .258/.323/.385 doesn’t exactly scream excitement. For the Pirates, who signed him to a long-term deal on Opening Day 2022, they’d like to see a bit more power and consistency at the plate.
However, if there is something Hayes can hang his hat on, it is his defense. Hayes won the MiLB Gold Glove Award in three straight seasons from 2017-2019. He has yet to wrestle the National League Gold Glove away from Nolan Arenado but has made a compelling case in his first two full seasons.
He is surely doing the same early on this year as well.
Most Defensive Runs Saved By 3B
Ke'Bryan Hayes 44
Nolan Arenado 27 pic.twitter.com/HNsfezRVn9
— SIS_Baseball (@sis_baseball) April 21, 2023
I got you Pirates Twitter… KE'BRYAN HAYES!!!
— Platinum Ke’Bryan (@PlatinumKey13) April 23, 2023
Now the Pirates’ leadoff hitter, a role he’s really embracing, Hayes is coming into his own. He’s always had some pop, as he showed with six home runs in his first 24 games during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, which was his rookie year. His defense is not only among the best in the league at his position, but maybe among the best in the entire game. The Pirates’ early-season hot streak is getting Hayes some deserved recognition.
Connor Joe’s Homecoming
If you didn’t know much about Connor Joe prior to this past week or two, you’re not alone. The outfielder/first baseman was a 2014 Competitive Balance first-round draft pick of the Pirates. He toiled around in the Pirates system but was eventually traded to the Atlanta Braves for Sean Rodriguez in 2017. He bounced around a bit before the Pirates re-acquired him from the Rockies for a minor-league pitcher.
Joe had 182 games of major league experience prior to this season. He’s a lifetime .257 hitter with a .761 OPS. He’s hit 17 balls out of the park and driven in 71 runs. He is by no means a star player but he’s a guy every team would have a use for. It turns out that giving Joe an actual chance to play nearly every day might prove to benefit both sides of the coin here for both he and the Pirates.
Ji Man Choi was sent to the 60-day IL on Sunday. That leaves Carlos Santana as the lone natural first baseman on the Pirates’ roster. Joe had just 30 starts at the position prior to this season. However, he’s going to see a lot of time at first base for the next two months or so until Choi returns.
He’s repaid his original team’s faith in him by batting .357 to go along with a 1.098 OPS in the early going. His career stats to this point suggest he is outplaying his typical capabilities. The difference is that he’s getting a chance in Pittsburgh that he didn’t have in Colorado. Sometimes a little faith and some opportunity can go a long way for a player’s career.
What to Make of Pirates’ Pitching
Getting a read on exactly what the Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching staff is as a whole is tough. Mitch Keller and Roansy Contreras look dominant on most nights as was expected of them. Johan Oviedo wasn’t even supposed to begin the season in the starting rotation. He’s looked nearly untouchable so far for the Pirates. Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez both had rough starts to the season but have since turned it around.
This collection of pitchers put together a 12-game quality start streak that really spearheaded the Pirates’ winning streak to this point. This isn’t supposed to be the dominant facet of this iteration of the Pirates. So the question becomes, how long can they keep this up?
Keller and Contreras are counted upon to be the top guys, so they shouldn’t regress too much. Oviedo is a largely unknown commodity. The 22-year-old’s surge up the organizational pitching depth chart would be a massive development for the Pirates’ future. Hill is 43 years old and has no choice but to locate his pitches well or he’ll be getting knocked around hard. Velasquez’s career near-5 ERA through 752 2/3 innings makes him a guy that likely is what he is. He’ll be hot for a stretch and then regress.
A total regression figures to come for the pitching staff. Based on the overall track records of the collection of five as well as the seasonal wear and tear that will likely cost them a few starts here and there throughout, regression will come, and probably pretty hard for a period of time. It’s about how they’ll respond.
After mashing the ball at Coors Field early in the week, the Pirates’ bats fell largely silent against Cincinnati. They’re going to need to recover going forward.
Pirates’ Late-Inning Relievers on Fire
Another massive contribution to the Pirates’ winning streak has been the performance of the eighth and ninth-inning guys for Pittsburgh.
As a whole, the Pirates have a 3.36 bullpen ERA, the 10th-best figure in the league. Heading into the season with the collection of guys they did, you’d take that 10 out of 10 times. Having a group of guys that can get outs is huge. Having a reliable setup guy (or two) as well as a dominant closer helps a ton as well.
Colin Holderman was acquired by the Pirates at the trade deadline last season from the New York Mets for Daniel Vogelbach. Holderman missed some of the stretch run for Pittsburgh with an injury but was good in his few appearances with them. So far in 2023, Holderman has tossed 11 innings with a matching number of strikeouts to go along with a 1.64 ERA. His fastball averages 98-99 MPH, with the occasional 100 MPH coming across the gun. He’s been nasty for the Pirates so far.
Since moving into the closer’s role a few seasons ago, David Bednar has been among the best closers in the game. The Pittsburgh native was acquired from the San Diego Padres prior to the 2021 season. He’s a career 30-for-37 in save opportunities. However, a handful of those seven blown saves came prior to an IL stint where he clearly wasn’t himself.
The two have partnered to be nearly untouchable for Pittsburgh this season as they’ve allowed only three earned runs across a combined 22 innings. Pittsburgh has always been a good landing spot for backend bullpen guys like Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, Tony Watson, and Felipe Vazquez. Holderman and Bednar seem to be looking to add their names to the long list of good Pirates late-inning relievers.
The Pirates will be off on Monday before a three-game series at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers starting Tuesday. They’ll travel to DC for a three-game weekend series against the Washington Nationals after that. Oviedo, Keller, and Contreras line up to start for the Pirates against the Dodgers. Hill, Velasquez, and then Oviedo figure to fill the next three turns in the rotation. Can the Pirates keep the winning streak moving along with the Dodgers on the horizon?
Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Players Mentioned: Ke’Bryan Hayes, Nolan Arenado, Connor Joe, Sean Rodriguez, Ji Man Choi, Carlos Santana, Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, Johan Oviedo, Rich Hill, Vince Velasquez, Colin Holderman, Daniel Vogelbach, David Bednar, Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, Tony Watson, Felipe Vazquez
Managers Mentioned: Derek Shelton