Pirates starters key to success

Joy R. Absalon/US Presswire

The Pirates are contenders thanks to a 3.30 team ERA.The Pittsburgh Pirates have won eight of their last 11 overall and are just three games out in the NL Central. While it seems like just last year many were talking about the Pirates as a surprise team before a remarkable second-half collapse, 2012 might be different. Below is a look at what’s fueling the Pirates run this season:

What has been the key? Pitching. The Pirates are posting one of their best pitching seasons in the last 30 years. In fact, it’s the best since 1984 and eerily similar to 1992 (3.35 ERA), the last season they had a winning record. The Pirates have seen their overall ERA drop each season since 2010, which is also true for the team’s starting pitching ERA.

However, the relief pitching has experienced an improvement going all the way back to 2008. In fact, the Pirates bullpen ERA is its lowest since 1975 at just 2.58, which ranks third in the majors.

A.J. Burnett Fastball Last 2 Seasons

What makes the Pirates pitching success even more remarkable is how these hurlers were attained; a vast majority of the rotation was acquired for very little cost. A.J. Burnett (3.76 ERA) is making $5M this season, Erik Bedard (3.72 ERA) $4.5M, Kevin Correia $3M and James McDonald (2.14 ERA) just $0.5025M.

What has been the key to Burnett’s turnaround this season? While some of it can be attributed to a move to the National League, it’s much more about his increased effectiveness with his fastball. In 2011, opponents posted an average of .332 against the heater with a home run rate of 6.2 percent. That percentage has dipped to 1.5 this year, which means he's keeping the ball in the park at a much higher frequency.

Elsewhere in the rotation, McDonald’s breaking pitches have been outstanding and among the most effective in all of baseball. Among starters this season, McDonald’s strikeout rate with curveballs and sliders (48.5 percent) ranks fifth best in the majors and just behind Burnett.