The Incredible, Unexpected, 2023 Pittsburgh Pirates

4-30-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

I said this season would be fun, and took a heap of crap for it too, but believe me, THIS, is not what I had in mind. I thought it’d be fun because of all the prospects who’d come up and impact the franchise.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have shot out the gates with a mix of veterans performing as good as, if not better than their histories could have led you to believe they would.

They’ve infused youth, that hasn’t played like youth is supposed to.

There’s being on a roll, and then, there’s what this team is doing.

Here’s the thing folks. No matter what you thought this team would do before the season, let it go. Take in the new information, and reevaluate now. This is just a clear cut case of everyone missing a whole lot of what was in front of us, because if you really look at it, the biggest surprise isn’t that all these guys are performing at the most favorable of the “if” predictions, it’s that some have completely blown it out of the water.

Your Pirates are 4th in baseball for runs scored at 154, right behind the Red Sox they swept. They’re 4th in hits with 250 already. Doubles? Oh, 3rd place, 2 behind the lead.

Triples? Tops in the Bigs with 8. 9th in Homeruns with 34. 5th in average, 3rd in OBP, 2nd in Slug and OPS, the offense has simply been a juggernaut, and folks, here’s the kicker for a whole lot of us, if we were super optimistic, it was because of Oneil Cruz, and he is in a walking boot.

Then there’s the pitching. You might have thought JT Brubaker would be a work horse, but he’s gone. You might have thought Mitch Keller would be good, but not an Ace. No matter what, you were probably thinking the pitching staff would be an issue until we saw the kids come up.

Um, wrong again.

The entire staff, meaning rotation and bullpen are 5th in the league in ERA at 3.41. Tops for saves with 13, there are only 7 teams who’ve given up less runs. Only 4 teams have allowed fewer home runs.

Best record in the National League at 20-8, second only to the Tampa Bay Rays in all of baseball, and these two teams will go head to head starting Tuesday in St. Pete.

Now, I think most people can accept they weren’t right, but to be this not right, well, that brings about questions of sustainability. Has to be a fluke right?

Yeah, but what’s the fluke?

Let’s start with the rotation.

Mitch Keller emerged in 2022, and largely, he’s doing what we hoped he would in 2023, taking a step, probably still has more room before reaching his ceiling honestly.

Roansy Contreras many were ready to call him an ace already, or at least the future ace, and folks, he looks like he’s harnessed some things that make him super dangerous.

Johan Oviedo went from not in the starting rotation to being called into duty for Brubaker. All he’s done is shoved since his first inning of work in 2023. His “Holy Diver” Slider, might be the most untouchable pitch in the game right now, and he has staff horse written all over him.

Rich Hill, folks, this is what Dick Mountain does. Laugh at his age all you want, this man has a track record, an incredibly consistent track record, he has done this, and he will keep doing this.

Vince Velasquez went from the “Our Guy Vinny” meme to um, well, Our Guy Vinny. He’s on an 18 consecutive scoreless inning streak and the 3rd straight season the Pirates have acquired a guy nobody thought about as help for the rotation and turned him into help.

Backing all of this is Luis Ortiz, who has reportedly put in the work and become comfortable with the changeup he so desperately needed to be an MLB starter. Now the issue is, where? The idea of him being manipulated, yeah, maybe that was the plan, but now it’s about a starting rotation you’d be a complete fool to mess with. Sure is nice to have that backing though, they’ll undoubtedly need it.

Every move Ben Cherington has made this offseason has either worked or an injury caused us to not see it play out.

Every button Derek Shelton has pushed, has been the right one.

I can honestly say, with a 20-8 record, they probably gave away 2-3 games too. That’s how friggin’ good this team is.

This is how good they’ve been. We spent maybe 2 days celebrating the team locking up Bryan Reynolds through the end of the decade with a team record 9 figure deal.

We’ve almost completely ignored that second year player Jack Suwinski is on pace for a 30/30 season. Connor Joe has commanded starting time, how can you even consider taking his bat out of the lineup?

Call up Mark Mathias? 2 bad games, and then yup, join the hitting party. Call Up Miguel Andujar? How about 2 homers in his first two games, and folks, this dude is going to sit more than he plays, again, that’s how good they are right now.

The veterans have helped this team become a team. Easily the closest group I’ve seen in a Pittsburgh dugout since 2013.

After Oneil Cruz was injured, most fans (and me) figured, ok, we’ll see them slow down now a bit. Well, Carlos Santana and Andrew McCutchen saw that eventuality too, and called a team meeting to immediately squash it. Nobody was going to crawl under the blanket and retreat to their shell, no, they were going to make when he returns matter.

This team could very well have a deadline acquisition this year who’s 6’7″ tall, hits the hell out of the ball and adds a whole new dimension to their already ass kicking offense.

Do you really want to keep sitting on the sideline waiting for them to fail so you can be right?

So, how did we miss so badly?

For one thing, many look at the numbers from young players the year before and rarely give them a chance to actually, you know, improve. Especially costly to the prediction game when the Pirates have so very many players like that, and they’re all seemingly doing just that.

The veterans were supposed to all be shells of their former greatness, or goodness as the case may be, instead, they’ve improved, and almost leaching the energy off their younger counterparts.

Honestly, it’s hard to even complain about Endy Rodriguez not being here. Austin Hedges has been simply incredible with this staff and bluntly, Jason Delay has hit, probably more than we should expect a rookie to hit anyway. No more real complaints about Travis Swaggerty not making it out of Spring, I mean how can you say they were wrong about any choice they made there?

Andy Haines stunk, now he might be god. Oscar Marin had something to prove to some, now I’m not sure how you question what he’s become and the reputation he’s built. Derek Shelton didn’t know how to manage, now you have to hesitate to even question anything he does, because time and time again, you’d be proven wrong.

Ben Cherington didn’t know what the hell he was doing bringing in all these scraps, and this evil bastard was manipulating prospects, and yet he too has probably not made a real mistake since maybe the Clay Holmes trade.

Hell, even Bob Nutting has now spent some significant money, pledged to spend more, and on top of that was instrumental in Andrew McCutchen coming back and Bryan Reynolds essentially giving his career to Pittsburgh.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is as real as real gets.

Anything can happen in baseball, but it seems to me, the league at large is not nearly as prepared to exploit baseball’s new rules as the Pittsburgh Pirates. Don’t think I’m applying championship aspirations quite yet, but it reminds me of when Mike Sullivan first joined the Penguins and with youth and speed they skated circles around a league mired in a heavy and slow style of play.

The Pirates are athletic and capable of applying pressure to opposing defenses all game long, quite frankly, teams don’t know how to combat it.

Will they learn? Of course they will, and the Pirates will simply have to keep doing it too well to be stopped.

12 games over .500 doesn’t happen by accident, even in April. And claiming luck as the prevailing reason, well, that just ignores reality.

Don’t buy in yet? Don’t worry, the Baseball World doesn’t know what to make of it either quite yet. One thing is for sure, they certainly won’t be quietly entering ballparks as the hapless and harmless Pittsburgh Pirates most people circled on their schedule back in March.

In fact, it’s far more likely this Pirates team embarrasses their opponent than lose a tight one.

In 2022, the Pirates had a run differential of -226 and in April they’ve already reached +53. That’s good for 3rd in the league, but the number one team Tampa, is at +106.

You can’t get a better measuring stick.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

2 thoughts on “The Incredible, Unexpected, 2023 Pittsburgh Pirates

  1. I promise I would’ve said this a week ago too.

    It’s been great, a lot of fun, a glimpse of what’s to come. The offense earned its runs and blew teams out while the pitching largely matched that excellence and defense played responsibly. The wins weren’t lucky, agreed–they were earned.

    But that doesn’t make it sustainable, even if for some of the individual players it is. Many guys were playing over their heads against a pretty weak schedule most of April. I’d want to see how they handle the mighty Rays and the hard-hitting Blue Jays before declaring this is for real, if by “for real” we’re adjusting projections to 80-some wins and possibly playoffs.

    And now we’ve seen the typical rollercoaster of a young team, not only with the inconsistencies and self-inflicted damage in every facet of the game, but also a test of the depth as injuries amass.

    This isn’t to say they can’t turn things around tomorrow and end up with 80-some wins and a playoff berth. I’m not getting too low on them now in this losing streak either. It’s just to say it’s a long season that was around one-sixth complete a week ago, as we saw in 2011 and historically painfully in the 2012 collapse. April was a loud, forceful pound on the door, but we have some time yet before declaring this new Pirate generation (still playing that song 20 years later, haha) has arrived.

    Liked by 1 person

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