The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Depth Has Helped Them Win Ballgames

The Pittsburgh Pirates are receiving contributions from their entire roster, and it has led to their encouraging start to the 2024 season.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 12: Jared Triolo #19 and Michael A. Taylor #18 of the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrate after winning the game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on Friday, April 12, 2024 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Pirates won 5-2. (Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

For the second year in a row, the Pittsburgh Pirates have started the season on a positive note. They’re 11-8 to open the year, and much of that success can be attributed to their valuable depth pieces stepping forward in a big way.

In fact, a good amount of the Pirates’ core has struggled to open the year. The offense has been rather lackluster, and some of their bigger names on the pitching staff have gotten off to inopportune starts.

However, despite the struggles of some of their most important pieces, they have received valuable contributions from the depth pieces on the roster, and that has allowed the Pirates to stay on course in the early goings of the season.

A Struggling Offensive Core

Heading into the 2024 season, there was a good bit of excitement surrounding the offense. After a down year at the plate in 2023, the offense appeared primed for a step forward this year as they build around their young core of players.

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However, the offense has struggled in the early goings of the season. Foundational roster pieces such as Ke’Bryan Hayes and Bryan Reynolds have held their own, as they each are sporting a 115 wRC+ with an OPS hovering around .750. Specifically, it has been Pittsburgh’s young talent that has yet to hit their stride.

After a disappointing rookie year last season, Henry Davis‘ struggles have bled into 2024. There was a lot of intrigue surrounding his potential heading into the season, especially with how well he performed in spring training. However, his possible breakout season hasn’t yet come to fruition.

In 64 plate appearances, Davis is slashing just .173/.286/.231 for a .517 OPS and a wRC+ of just 52. He’s demonstrating strong plate discipline and walking at a solid rate of 12.5%, but there has been too much swing-and-miss in his game thus far. He has the tools to be an important offensive weapon, but he just hasn’t been able to build any momentum at the plate. Still searching for his first homer of the season, Davis has yet to produce at the big league level.

After putting together a monstrous spring training in which he launched seven homers in 16 games, Oneil Cruz has failed to ride that momentum into the regular season. In 81 plate appearances, Cruzs is slashing just .234/.272/.364 for a .636 OPS and a 72 wRC+. He does have three homers on the year, and he is sporting a hard hit rate of 53.3%, but much of that strong contact has been on the ground thus far.

On top of rocking a whopping 62.2% ground ball rate, Cruz is also striking out nearly 40% of the time and is whiffing at a 32.7% clip. When in a groove at the plate, Cruz’s ceiling is sky high. However, there will be growing pains as the 6-foot-7 shortstop works to establish himself at the big league level.

Jack Suwinski is another Pirates hitter who has gotten off to a rough start at the plate. After a breakout 2023 campaign in which he launched 26 homers, the quality of contact has been surprisingly poor for Suwinski to open the year.

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His barrel rate currently sits at just 6.3%, and he has a hard hit rate of just 29.2%. Similarly, Suwinski had an average exit velocity of 90.5 mph last season, but that number has dipped to 85.7 mph in the early goings of 2024.

On the bright side, Suwinski has struck out just 11 times in 67 plate appearances, yielding a strikeout rate of 16.4%, which is roughly half of what his number was a season ago. He’s also rocking a zone contact rate near 90% and posting an impressive whiff rate of just 16.4%. He has been strong in the bat-to-ball department, which is obviously an encroaching sign, but he hasn’t been able to make the same impactful contact that he did a season ago.

Among other everyday regulars in Pittsburgh’s lineup, Rowdy Tellez has an OPS of just .610, Jared Triolo has struggled mightily at the plate in his sophomore campaign, and Andrew McCutchen has had a very slow start to his age 37 season. In aggregate, a vast majority of the Pirates’ lineup has been underwhelming to open the season.

That said, as disappointing as the offense has been, the back of the Pirates’ lineup and their bench bats have stepped up in an enormous way to help buoy the offense thus far.

Offensive Contributions in the Margins

Through Pittsburgh’s first 19 games, it is the role players who have helped carry Pittsburgh’s offense.

Connor Joe has been one of the club’s top run producers thus far, as he leads the team with 11 runs scored and has the second-most RBIs on the roster (11). In 68 plate appearances, Joe is slashing .276/.382/.414 for an OPS near .800 and a 125 wRC+. His quality of contact leaves some to be desired, but he’s walking nearly as much as he is striking out, and he has been great at putting the bat on the ball.

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That type of approach has been a major stabilizer for Pittsburgh’s offense. Joe has historically been a great offensive weapon in the first couple months of the season (he is sporting a career 126 wRC+ and an .839 OPS in March/April), and that trend has continued in 2024. He is tied for the highest fWAR among Pirates position players (0.4), and Joe will once again look to be a versatile asset for the Pirates this season.

Edward Olivares is off to a scorching start and could be in store for a career year in his first season with the Pirates. He has been hitting the cover off the ball in the early goings of the season, sporting a barrel rate of 17.1% to go with a hard hit rate of 40%. In turn, his expected statistics are some of the best in the sport thus far. He is in the 97th percentile in xwOBA (.454), the 100th percentile in xBA (.392), and the 96th percentile in xSLG (.622).

In 49 plate appearances, Olivares is slashing .267/.327/.489 for an .816 OPS, a 123 wRC+, and a .222 Isolated Power. It’s a small sample size, but each of those metrics are on pace to be career highs for Olivares. Acquired this offseason from the Kansas City Royals, Olivares could end up being a key cog in Pittsburgh’s offense as the season progresses.

Backup infielder Alika Williams has also played a big factor in the Pirates’ early season success. He’s hitting .318 to start the year (7-for-22) to go along with a 129 wRC+ and an .830 OPS. It’s a small sample size, but he has been solid and a valuable contributor off the bench for the Pirates.

All in all, the Pirates are floating around the top of the division standings despite their struggling offense. They rank near the bottom third in baseball in several major categories, including 19th in wRC+ (95), 18th in OPS (.694), and they have a team WAR of 1.1, which is 22nd in MLB.

It’s an encouraging sign when a team with as much youth as the Pirates can persevere through the growing pains of their offense. Not only has their bench picked up the slack, but their starting rotation has been perhaps the most surprising storyline of the early season.

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A Good Start for the Starting Rotation

Perhaps the most encouraging part to the Pirates’ start is the impressive performance of the starting rotation. The Pirates’ starting rotation is sixth in baseball in ERA (3.40), fifth in FIP (3.66), and fourth in fWAR (2.0). What’s more, they have done it despite the struggles from staff ace Mitch Keller.

Keller has a 4.50 ERA and a WHIP near 1.50 through his first four starts, and he did not look himself in his first few turns through the rotation. In his first two starts, Keller surrendered 15 hits and eight earned runs across 11 innings, and it was clear he was fighting through some command issues.

That said, he has bounced back nicely in his previous two outings versus the Tigers and the Phillies. In those two starts, he fanned 13 batters and allowed just four runs across 13 innings. The Pirates will need him to return to his All-Star form if they wish to hang around the top of the division standings this season.

However, the rest of the rotation has helped pick up the slack thus far, starting with Jared Jones. Jones, Just Baseball’s No. 44 prospect, has taken the league by storm in his first four starts. He leads all qualified pitchers in whiff rate at 39%, and he has recorded the second-most punch outs in baseball (32).

Not only is he striking batters out at a 36.4% clip, but he is also filling up the strike zone, posting an outstanding walk rate of just 2.3%. Jones has a 3.13 ERA and a WHIP under 0.80 across 23 innings pitched, and he has flashed some spectacular stuff in the early goings of his MLB career.

Beyond Jones, Martín Pérez and Marco Gonzales have helped buoy the rotation thus far. The two veterans have settled in nicely in their first season with Pittsburgh. Pérez leads the rotation with a 2.55 ERA, and Gonzales is right behind him, pitching to the tune of a 2.65 ERA. Both are walking fewer than 2.30 batters per nine innings, and both have been successful at keeping the ball in the park.

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Unfortunately for Pirates fans, Gonzales will be on the shelf for the foreseeable future with a forearm strain. He was going to have an essential role in the middle of the rotation, and his loss will be a big detriment for this pitching staff. They’ll look to tap into their pitching depth to fill his role in the rotation.

There were a ton of question marks regarding the starting rotation heading into the season, and while uncertainty still remains regarding the floor of the rotation, it’s hard not to be impressed with what they’ve done so far.

The Pirates’ ability to hang around the top of the division standings as the season progresses will hinge upon the performance of the pitching staff. They’ve managed to do so thus far despite Keller’s slow start and the shaky performance from their bullpen, and that is a testament to what this team may be capable of if their stars can put it all together.

Final Thoughts

The Pirates have a wide range of outcomes for the 2024 season, and that has already been on display in the early goings of the year. After starting the season 9-2, the Pirates have gone 2-6 since then. If their stars continue to slump, things could go south quickly for Pittsburgh. However, their early season success is an indication that this team has the ability to fight through adversity.

On one hand, it’s concerning that many of their young offensive weapons have disappointed to start the year. On the flip side, it’s encouraging that the bench has been able to pick up the slack during the club’s offensive dry spell. There is a plethora of talent in this lineup, and better days are likely ahead for Pittsburgh’s offense.

The strong performance out of the starting rotation has been the biggest surprise to start the season. Martín Pérez has shown that he can be a viable starter for this club. Combine Jared Jones’ potential with the eventual MLB debut of top prospect Paul Skenes, and there is a lot to like in the rotation for 2024.

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In terms of the bullpen, better days are ahead for David Bednar, who is off to a horrid start to the season. The two-time All-Star is sporting a 13.50 ERA on the year after a couple of blow up outings, but his track record over the course of his previous three seasons suggests that he will bounce back from this rough stint.

The hopeful bounce back of Bednar coupled with the handful of reinforcements on the way should provide a nice boost to the team’s reliever group.

It’s a long season, and there will be stretches of both good and bad baseball throughout the year for the Pirates. While it may be a maturation year for many of their young stars, they have the necessary depth to hang around the top of the division standings. Given the wide-open nature of the National League Central, the Pittsburgh Pirates will be one of the more interesting teams to monitor throughout the season.