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2012 was a season of false hope for Pirates' fans.
       As the Cincinnati Reds celebrated around Homer Bailey after throwing the 16th no-hitter in club history, the Pittsburgh Pirates walked off the field with disappointment and frustration. A season that started with unexpected excitement and success came to be epitomized by the futility shown on Friday night. With the longest consecutive season losing streak in the history of sports, the Pirates were finally on the brink of breaking out of their nineteen year slump. Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen has put together an MVP caliber season with a .329/.401/.559 slash and 31 home runs, acquired ace A.J. Burnett has experienced a solid season in his first year with the black and gold, and closer Joel Hanrahan has saved 36 games for the upstart Bucs.

            However, since July 18th (last time Pirates had a share of 1st place), the Pirates have gone 26-41 and have scored 55 less runs compared to runs allowed since the start of the second half. A post all-star break fielding percentage of .981 (fifth worst in MLB), 49% stolen base success rate (last in MLB), and 4.05 runs per game (8th worst in MLB) all have contributed to Pittsburgh's second half slide. While their hitting has not changed much since the break (only .01 decrease in runs per game), the Pirates' pitching has been its undoing. The first half success was clearly built on the strength of its pitching (3.47 ERA, 85% save success rate, .242 opponent average, .308 opponent OBP), while the staff has just collapsed in the second half (4.39 ERA, 65% save success rate, .257 opponent average, .322 OBP). Pitchers such as James McDonald (sparkling 2.47 ERA pre all star break, ugly 7.42 ERA post all star break) and Jason Grilli (1.87 ERA pre all star break, 4.50 ERA post all star) are two examples of pitchers that have experienced second half regression.

             In addition, Andrew McCutchen and his red hot first half (aided by a .400 + BABIP) has been unable to sustain his early season success. McCutchen's second half line of .292/.387/.483, while still productive, is a far cry from his first half numbers that included a .363/.414/.625 line and 180 OPS+. His struggles, whether from the pressure of  trying to guide his team to a winning record for the first time in 19 years, or from his inevitable regression to the mean, have been magnified even more because of the weaknesses around him. Only two other hitters have OPS+ above 100 (Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker) with the rest of the team having below average batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage lines. The level of incompetence in the batter's box has even reached to the point where starting left fielder Alex Presley and starting shortstop Clint Barmes, both have a lower offensive WAR compared to starting pitcher James McDonald (Barmes' -.5 oWAR, Presley's 0.3 oWAR, to McDonald's 0.4 oWAR). This inability for any sort of offensive production has greatly hindered any sort of success even when pitchers have throw well (of their last nine losses, they have scored two or less runs in seven of those games).

            The past two seasons have given hope to a fan base that has seen nothing but absolute futility and failure for nearly two decades. Yet, the Pirates have a minor league system rich in talent that is only a year or two away. Flamethrowers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon have the stuff to front a big league rotation and could be up by next season. Shortstop Alen Hanson as well as outfielders Josh Bell and Gregory Polanco, all have impact potential with the bat and could fill serious needs with the big league club. Help is on the way, and with the progress made so far, Pittsburgh has a realistic shot a contending in the coming years. A core centered around McCutchen, a talented rotation, and a steady bullpen should bring Pittsburgh baseball some credibility for the first time since 1992. Although this season brought both enthusiasm and heartbreak, excitement and disappointment, this season was a major stepping stone towards future success. 


 

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