Why Bucs have started ’24 as one of baseball’s hottest teams

April 5th, 2024

WASHINGTON -- One full week into the 2024 season, the Pirates probably aren’t the surprise of MLB. That distinction probably goes to the Tigers, who remained undefeated for one day longer than the Pirates before they lost the second game of a doubleheader on Thursday evening vs. the Mets.

But the Pirates might very well be the surprise of the National League. They’re winners of six of their first seven games and will arrive at their home opener on Friday at PNC Park as a first-place team after running away with a 7-4 win over the Nationals in Thursday’s series finale at Nationals Park.

Pittsburgh used another all-around effort to continue its hot start to the season, with a four-run first inning and Connor Joe’s two-run homer backing Martín Pérez’s first win in a Pirates uniform. Pérez -- who turned 33 on Thursday -- struck out six over 6 2/3 innings of two-run ball as the Pirates shook off their first loss of the season and improved to 6-1.

In doing so, Pérez became the first Bucs pitcher to win a game on his birthday since Kip Wells in 2005. And it’s the first time the Pirates have won six of their first seven games since 2018, the last year they finished with at least a .500 record.

Here are a few things we’ve learned about them so far:

1. Everybody contributes
The offense has been the driving factor of Pittsburgh’s hot start. Despite hitting only six homers in seven games, they’ve scored 49 runs on 76 hits and drawn 43 walks. The runs and hits rank fourth in MLB. Their walk total and team on-base percentage (.381) lead the Majors.

The patient and productive approach is the result of a remarkably lineup-wide effort. Four different starters enjoyed multihit games Thursday. Six did that in Monday’s series opener.

All of their 13 players with at least one plate appearance have driven in at least one run. Five players have at least five RBIs. Four have at least nine hits.

“The thing I’m most satisfied about is that everybody is contributing,” manager Derek Shelton said. “We’re [seven] games in and we’ve had contributions from everybody on the 26-man roster. That’s really important, to get everybody involved.”

2. They can make it feel late early
Pérez’s outing Thursday wasn’t historic the way Jared Jones’ 10-strikeout debut was, but it was the longest and most effective effort this season from a rotation that’s had its ups and downs already to begin the year.

The real star has been the bullpen, which Pittsburgh made an effort to fortify this winter with the signing of Aroldis Chapman. Chapman earned the save on Monday, got one big out Thursday and is unscored upon so far this season, as are three other active Pirate relievers over multiple innings.

All told, the Pirates’ ‘pen is 4-0 with a 2.15 ERA across 29 1/3 innings in the early going, after doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the club’s four-game sweep over Miami to open the year.

“The guys at the back end of the bullpen, their contributions have really stood out, and contributed to us winning,” Shelton said.

3. The defense is probably better than its shown
Defensive stats aren’t that reflective or helpful in such a small sample, where a few early mistakes can distort a team’s true ability much like a relief pitcher who allows a few homers in a small number of innings. That might be what happened to the Pirates, who rank in the bottom third of teams in several defensive metrics after committing four errors in their first three games and six total on the year.

And yet … late-spring signee Michael A. Taylor’s impact is already being seen in center field. Oneil Cruz’s return from injury and a full season of Jared Triolo at second base should energize an infield anchored by third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, who may be the best defender in baseball at any position.

Indeed, it’s easy to see why the Pirates believe they’ve improved defensively compared even to 2023, when they enjoyed one of their best defensive seasons in years, even if the numbers don’t bear it out just yet.

“That’s going to be really important for us,” Shelton said. “Teams will go through offensive slumps, they’ll go through pitching slumps. Defensively, we have to make sure we maintain. You’re able to stay on course because of that.”