Will Pirates' performance in key spots last?

The success of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013 has been more than just a feel-good story for baseball. Not only are they well on the way from ending a 20-year string of losing seasons, they are very much in contention to win their division for the first time since 1992. The Pirates’ push to the postseason has largely been fueled by effective starting pitching combined with stellar work from their bullpen. Heading into Tuesday’s action, Pirates pitching had baseball’s best ERA at 3.09, the lowest opponents’ batting average at .226, and the lowest OPS at .646.

A part of the success the Pirates are having this year comes from the play of their infield defense. Last week, Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information pointed out that Pittsburgh’s infield defense converted more ground balls into outs than any other team in baseball. One reason for that high conversion rate, according to James Santelli of PiratesProspects.com, is that the Pirates have dramatically increased their utilization of defensive shifts.

Pittsburgh has had to do what they can to emphasize their pitching strengths in order to overcome the shortcomings of the offense. The Pirates have the fifth-worst team batting average at .243 and their .701 team OPS is in the bottom third of the league. Those numbers get even worse when runners are in scoring position, as the Pirates are hitting a league-worst .222 in those situations while only the Miami Marlins have a lower team OPS than Pittsburgh’s .638 in them. The Pirates compensate for their inability to get men into scoring position with an active running game that has generated 69 stolen bases.

At different points this season, Pittsburgh has relied on one or two players to carry its offense. In April, Starling Marte and Garret Jones led the charge while May saw Jose Tabata and Neil Walker do most of the work. June belonged to Pedro Alvarez, who hit .309 with a 1.080 OPS in the month, but July has belonged to the face of the franchise, Andrew McCutchen.

After a slow start in April, McCutchen has hit .330/.405/.534 with 15 stolen bases, 31 extra-base hits and 39 runs driven in. McCutchen’s overall 2013 numbers are not that far off his MVP-caliber numbers of last season. While his OPS is down 70 points from 2012, he has reduced his strikeout rate from 20 percent to 15 percent; on the bases, he has already exceeded last season’s stolen base total of 20 withs 21 in 94 games played this year.

McCutchen’s hot bat is vital to any postseason aspirations the Pirates may have. When a team is built around pitching and defense, as Pittsburgh is this season, it is critical to have one consistent threat that can change a game in key moments. We have seen that the past few seasons in Tampa Bay, where Evan Longoria had to shoulder a lot of the clutch moments for a team that scratched and clawed for multiple runs in games while relying heavily on its pitching and defense to carry the day. McCutchen continues to prove himself worthy of that role.

Monday night’s injury to Jason Grilli is a paramount concern for the team. Grilli has been amazing in the final innings for Pittsburgh, saving 30 contests and striking out 39 percent of the batters he has faced while limiting them to a .186 batting average. Grilli and Mark Melancon have been arguably the most lethal late-inning duo in baseball. One area those two and the rest of the bullpen have excelled at in 2013 is shutting down the opposition when they have runners in scoring position.

The Pittsburgh bullpen has held opposing batters to a .194 batting average and a .586 OPS with runners in scoring position; both efforts are in the top three spots on the league leaderboards. As a staff, the Pirates are tops in both categories with a .218 team batting average and a .623 OPS which is well above the .256 league-wide average and .728 league-wide OPS for pitching staffs.

The ability to maintain that level of production will be important the rest of this season for one reason. Actually, make that 13 reasons, because the Pirates have 13 games against the St. Louis Cardinals between now and Sept. 8. The Cardinals have the best record in all of baseball and are truly in a league of their own when it comes to hitting with runners in scoring position. Their .338 team batting average with runners in scoring position is 49 points better than any other team in baseball and 82 points above the league average. Their .876 team OPS in that split is 47 points better than any other team and 148 points above the league average.

That amazing effort is led by Allen Craig who is hitting .489/.500/.681 with runners in scoring position, but he is but one of five regulars in the Cardinals offense on the RISP lead leaderboard, as he is joined by Carlos Beltran (.418/.447/.627), Matt Carpenter (.403/.488/.582), Yadier Molina (.395/.471/.523) and Matt Holliday (.368/.458/.515).

In what prove to be a classic unstoppable-force vs. immovable-object argument, we’ll find out if Pittsburgh’s numbers against runners in scoring position are awesome because they have only played St. Louis five times so far, or if the Cardinals’ numbers are so incredible because they have faced the Pirates only five times and have been outscored 26 to 22. In what might decide the NL Central, the next six weeks will tell us which group of statistics is the real deal.