Bucs are surprising MLB. The numbers from their sweep show why

April 20th, 2023

DENVER -- On the first day of Spring Training, Pirates manager Derek Shelton told his players that 2023 was going to be different for Pittsburgh.

“He made it clear that we’re not just graduating you into more playing time or this and that this year,” third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes said after the Bucs completed a sweep of the Rockies at Coors Field with a 14-3 victory on Wednesday afternoon.

“We want to win right now.”

Winning has been a frequent feeling for the Pirates in the early going this season. Their latest victory was another convincing rout to cap their first sweep in Denver since September 2019. It was also Pittsburgh’s second sweep of the season and improved the record of the most surprising team in baseball so far to 12-7.

It was a historic day on multiple fronts. With 14 runs, the Bucs totaled 33 in the three-game set, the most they have scored in any three-game series since they scored 34 against the Padres from July 28-30, 2000.

The 14 runs came on 18 hits, the vast majority of which were hit hard. In fact, for the first time since Statcast began tracking in 2015, the Pirates put 15 balls in play with an exit velocity of more than 100 mph. Not bad for a club missing its hardest-hitting slugger, Oneil Cruz, who is out after fracturing his left ankle.

It was more than just the lineup doing things that the Pirates hadn’t done in years. With his six strong innings, right-hander Johan Oviedo turned in Pittsburgh’s ninth consecutive quality start. The last time the Bucs had nine or more quality starts in succession was from June 30-July 8, 2015 (also nine).

The Pirates were unrelenting Wednesday, just as they’ve been over the first three weeks of the season. Few expected them to win 12 of their first 19 games, particularly when their schedule included series against the Red Sox, White Sox, Astros and Cardinals. But there is something qualitatively different with this year’s squad.

“When you add veteran players into it -- when you add [Andrew McCutchen] and [Carlos] Santana -- and with Bryan Reynolds having another year under his belt, and then the young kids are starting to progress, [it makes a big impact],” Shelton said. “… And I think the energy in our dugout from Game 1 of the season has been different. I think there's a different belief level in themselves.”

The meshing of veteran additions like McCutchen, Santana and left-hander Rich Hill with young stars like Reynolds, Hayes and Cruz seems to be producing unexpected -- at least from the perspective of the wider baseball world -- early success. But it was far from unexpected for the players leaving the visitors' clubhouse at Coors Field as they embarked on a flight home for series against the Reds and Dodgers.

“I think the last few years, we were super young and didn't really have that clear person in our locker room that had been there and done that on winning teams,” Hayes said. “So we were just trying to figure out how to do that, and I think now that this is kind of the third year with a lot of familiar guys knowing each other, I think it just all adds up.

“And then whenever you get guys like Cutch, Santana, Ji-Man Choi, guys who have been in the World Series and stuff like that, as a young player, to see how they go about it is huge.”

McCutchen was a big contributor Wednesday, with a double and his fourth home run of the season to continue his red-hot start. The first-inning double was his 296th in a Pirates uniform, tying him with Dave Parker for seventh in franchise history. It was also his 1,480th hit as a Pirate, breaking a tie with Parker for 13th all time. His six total bases in the contest gave him 2,486 with the Bucs, vaulting him into ninth place in the franchise’s record books.

The 36-year-old veteran is enjoying an early-season renaissance in his return to the Pirates, but McCutchen is bringing much more than offensive production to the franchise with which he became a superstar. He’s well aware of that, and he’s ready to see things through for a team on the rise. 

McCutchen also knows there’s a lot of baseball ahead.

“Guys are vibing. They’re feeling good with the way things are going,” he said. “But I’m one of the guys who has been around long enough to say that’s good and all, but in the words of Kobe [Bryant], ‘The job’s not finished.’ 

“It’s not just about being here. It’s about trying to win here.”