When the Pirates found themselves in first place on July 25th last year, it was clear that they'd gotten there on the arms of their pitching staff. The Pirates at that point had allowed the fourth-fewest runs in the National League, behind just the Phillies, Giants, and Braves. The problem was that most of us suspected it was a house of cards; they were dead last in the NL in strikeouts and just in the middle of the pack in walks and home runs allowed. It seemed impossible that the Pirates' pitching was as good as it appeared that point and starting from that day forward, the pitching collapsed along with everything else.
Through 18 games in 2012, the Pirates are 8-10 and the only reason they're anywhere near .500 is the pitching staff. The Pirates' pitching staff hasn't allowed more than five runs in any game and their 51 runs allowed are second in the NL, behind only the Nationals. The obvious question now is this: is this year's pitching staf more likely to hold up than last year's?
It's obviously a bit early to know, but the Pirates are doing a couple of things better thus far in 2012 than they did last year. While the Bucs are still near the bottom of the league in strikeouts (they're 15th), they've allowed the third fewest walks and second fewest home runs in the National League. The Pirates still do have a huge gap between their ERA (2.58) and their FIP (3.40), but that 3.40 FIP is the sixth best in baseball (5th in the NL).
It's too early to make any judgments like whether or not the drop in home runs is a fluke (the Pirates are currently fifth in all of baseball with a 48% groundball rate and they have the third lowest home run rate at 0.63/9, but last year they were seventh in groundball rate at 45.6% and they had the 13th highest home run rate at 0.94/9). If we're just talking about evaluating the staff through 18 games, it's fair to say that the Pirates' pitching staff won't keep going at this rate for all of 2012, but they have at least improved in the places they need to improve given that they haven't improved much at getting hitters to swing at miss, at least thus far.
All of this early season pitching success has had me thinking about the future. Let's say Cole and Taillon do pan out and become the top of the rotation pitchers everyone is hoping for. Where are the runs going to come from? How would what we're seeing now be any different in a few years (ie: strong pitching, with little to no offense)? Outside of Marte and Josh Bell, it doesn't seem that there's too many hitters on their way through the pipeline in the next 3-4 years.
It's probably worth noting that one of our new strikeout pitchers has only had one start so far, so our team K-rate ought to move upward as Burnett sees more time in the rotation. Of course, that ought to add some walks and home runs too.