The Pittsburgh Pirates are flying the Jolly Roger at the top of my list as the biggest April surprise of the brand-new baseball season. After stomping into Wrigley Field to take two of three from the Cubs, the Pirates left Chicago with a 9-3 record. They have their hooks in first place in the NL Central.
The Pirates slammed Cubs pitching for eight homers and 19 runs in the series. And manager Clint Hurdle let go with a another blast by calling out the Cubs’ Javier Baez and Willson Contreras after the second game. We’ll get into Hurdle’s crabby but funny “respect the game” sermon in a while.
How about that?
The Pirates are making a lot of noise.
That’s the surprise considering their depressing offseason.
Let’s review: After falling back during two straight losing seasons and killing the buzz from their uplifting three-year run (2013-2015) of making the playoffs, it was time to rebuild and commit to losing by opting for baseball’s fashionable five-year tanking plan. Right?
That appeared to be the plan when the Pirates traded popular center fielder Andrew McCutchen to the Giants, thus removing the living symbol of the Pirates’ brief resurgence. And follow up on that by trading No. 1 starter Gerrit Cole to the Astros — and go ahead and do it a full two seasons before he was eligible to cruise away as a free agent.
Instead of receding deeper into the background — with the losses piling up so high you couldn’t see them — the Pirates came out swinging. They lead the NL in runs per game (6.42), onbase percentage (.353), slugging (.479), OPS (.832), Isolated Power (.200), total bases, and are second in homers per game and extra base hits.
You know how it can be when an entire lineup goes cold? The Pirates are in a rare zone; just about every hitter is hot. The only slightly below-average regular offensively is shortstop Jordy Mercer.
The other picaroons are causing anguish for enemy pitchers: third baseman Colin Moran (acquired in the Cole deal); outfielders Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Corey Dickerson (the latter acquired from Tampa Bay); old-guard second baseman Josh Harrison; catcher Francisco Cervelli; first baseman Josh Bell; utility man Sean Rodriguez and friend of St. Louis David Freese are all well above the league average offensively based on park-adjusted runs created (wRC+).
As a team (non-pitchers) the Pirates are 38 percent above the league average offensively according to wRC+, and that’s No. 1 in the majors. And the Pirates have shown smart plate discipline in the early stages. Their 16 percent strikeout rate is the lowest in the NL. Their swing-miss rate (21.7%) is second-best in the league.
The rotation has been solid, especially new ace Jameson Taillon and lefty Trevor Williams. And the LH closer, Felipe Vazquez, has a nasty strikeout rate of 31 percent.
Few believe this will last, but when the Pirates came alive in 2013, and dueled the Cardinals and then the Cubs, it was a fun time in the NL Central. And baseball came back in Pittsburgh, a great sports town, after 20 seasons of losing and dormancy.
Hurdle must be feeling his oats, because he went into Wrigley and raised hell after the second game. Never bashful, the outspoken Hurdle loudly expressed his disapproval of what he’d seen from Baez and Contreras.
Baez hit two homers in the game, and made it a show by flipping the bat each time. But Hurdle was really bothered by Baez tossing his bat high into air, out of frustration, after popping up.
“Where is the respect for the game?” Hurdle said Thursday morning, before the series finale. “He’s hit four homers in two days, does that mean you can take your bat and throw it 15-20 feet in the air when you pop up, like you should have hit your fifth home run? I would bet that men went over and talked to him, because I believe they’ve got a group there that speaks truth to power.”
Hurdle pointed to his own players as an example of how veterans police each other.
“When a player does something out of line,” he said, “There are one or two guys who go to him right away and say, ‘Hey, we don’t do that here. What are you thinking when you do that? Do you know what that looks like?’ Sometimes, guys don’t understand what it looks like. Usually, you’ve only got to show them once or twice what it looks like and they really don’t want to be that guy anymore.”
Hurdle wasn’t pleased by how Contreras reacted angrily — and theatrically — after taking a called third strike in Wednesday’s game. Contreras stood in place and held his arm out — his way of informing umpire Dan Bellino the pitch was out of the zone.
“The catcher … he’s a talented young man,” Hurdle said. “There is a day, he would have been thrown out as soon as he (gestured) that the ball was high. Those are things you try to help your young players with as they go through it that’s not respect for the game, that’s not the way we do things here.”
Baez was insulted.
“I bust my ass every day to play hard,” Baez said. “No one plays this game harder than me. I respect 90. I respect whatever. But you don’t go out there and talk trash about someone. To be honest, I got a lot of things I can say right now. But I don’t control what’s out there, what people talk about me. I’m just going to keep playing my game.”
Oh, this is good.
On their end, Cubs manager Joe Maddon and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein kept the peace. It’s a long season, and all of that. Besides, the Cubs are used to having NL Central teams go after them hard now. Well, all but one.
The Pirates and Hurdle stirred it up this week. Won two games. Pounded homers. Ripped Cubs players. They weren’t afraid of the NL Central kingpins.
In a few days the Cardinals will venture into Wrigley Field for a three-game series that starts Monday. Perhaps manager Mike Matheny and the Cardinals will make like Hurdle — and clear a hurdle — by raising hell and standing up to the Cubs.
Last season the Cardinals played the Cubs nine times in Chicago …. and lost eight of the nine.
After losing 33 of their last 52 games to the North Siders, some STL aggression is long overdue.
Thanks for reading …