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Pittsburgh Pirates time could finally be coming in the National League Central

Why the Pittsburgh Pirates finally have some hope after so many down seasons.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates
Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates have never won the NL Central. The last time they finished first in their division was a three-year run from 1990-92 when they resided in the NL East. The best of those teams during the regular season was the 1991 squad that finished 98-64, which is a record that has not been surpassed by Pittsburgh since.

They have tied it once, in 2015, but due to the expanded playoffs they were bounced in the one-game wild card by the eventual World Series champion Chicago Cubs and Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta. That’s the same year that Arrieta held a 0.75 ERA in 15 second half starts.

The road to right now hasn’t been pretty at times. They have picked in the top seven in each of the last four MLB Drafts, a streak that will end in July when the Pirates select ninth.

Yet, there is hope in Pittsburgh, because over the weekend the No. 3 prospect in all of baseball made his debut on the mound for the Pirates, and what a debut it was.

Related: Everything you need to know about Pittsburgh Pirates rookie Paul Skenes

Paul Skenes debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates

Paul Skenes, Pittsburgh Pirates
Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Do you know how hyped up a pitcher has to be to have one of their pitches given a special name before they even debut? Meet Skenes’ splinker. Of his 84 pitches, 21 of them were splinkers. Twelve of those were swung on by Chicago Cubs bats, and seven times they came up with a whiff. It was his most effective pitch of the afternoon

He had a tough time locating his four-seamer, which sat at 98.5 miles per hour. That is likely due to this being his first start in the big leagues. The slider was got six called strikes, but just two whiffs on 11 swings.

All in all, Skenes went four innings, gave up six hits and walked two, leading to three runs allowed and a 6.75 ERA. He also struck out seven, which is pretty impressive and gives you a sense of just how good his stuff can be when he’s executing. This was also the only game that the Pirates won over the weekend.

For Pirates fans, this was the first start of many in the yellow and black, and it offered a lot to look at and be hopeful for what’s to come.

Part of the larger rotation mix for the Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Jared Jones
Credit: David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports

Along with Skenes, the Pirates have a few other starters that are opening some eyes this season. Chief among them is Jared Jones, a 22-year-old righty that has a 2.68 ERA through eight big-league starts. He sits at 97 with the heater while also bringing an 89 mph slider which has led to 56 strikeouts in 47 innings. Not only are the strikeouts there, but he commands the ball exceptionally well, holding a 3.9% walk rate and a 0.87 WHIP. Skenes will continue to receive the attention, but Jones is already putting it together in Pittsburgh.

Quinn Priester, 23, is another young arm that is having some early success. In four starts this season he has a 3.86 ERA, and unlike Skenes and Jones, is more focused on getting ground balls and mixing pitches than overpowering batters. While the ERA is nice right now, his 6.87 FIP and .232 BABIP suggest that he’s been a bit lucky to this point in the season. With five pitches to work with, he looks more like someone that will have a career based off of weak contact and mixing pitches when he really gets going.

The other Bailey Falter and Mitch Keller are in their late 20’s and produced a little worse than league average, so they’re not necessarily part of the group that we’re talking about here, but they both offer solid innings in the back-end of the rotation.

The other pitcher that gets the fans excited is Johan Oviedo, 26, and out for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery in December. The righty was roughly league average last season, but he’s another hard thrower that has shown promise. His slider ranked No. 13 in run value with a +12, the same value that Spencer Strider had on his slider. His curveball ranked No. 19 at +5, which is exactly where for Pirate Jose Quintana finished last season. Not only is Quintana a former Pirate, but Oviedo and Quintana were actually traded for each other in 2022.

Pittsburgh’s three through six prospects are all pitchers as well, so they have a stockpile of arms that could lead the charge towards the top of the division in the near future.

Related: Updated MLB power rankings

What about the Pittsburgh Pirates bats?

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates
Credit: David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports

The bats have been a little more questionable. Oneil Cruz has played parts of each season since 2021 with the Pirates, topping out at 87 games with the club in 2022. Last year he played in just nine games before missing the rest of the season with a left ankle fracture. This year he is not only recovering from injury, but also attempting to establish himself at the MLB level. He’s still just 25, and thus far he’s hit .265 with a .312 OBP, seven homers and three stolen bases.

The exciting part with Cruz is that he’s absolutely crushing the ball when he makes contact with an average exit velocity of 93.9 mph this season. That ranks ninth among all hitters this season. He’s right behind Matt Olson and a few spots ahead of Elly De La Cruz. His barrel rate (75th) and hard hit% (92nd) are also solid, but it’s his bat speed, which ranks at the top of baseball, that really stands out. If he can nail down his approach at the dish, cutting down on the strikeouts and whiffs, while also drawing more walks, he could be one of the best players in baseball.

Ke’Bryan Hayes, 27, just went on the IL with back inflammation, and he was having a solid season up until May began. He finished up April batting .274 with a .355 on-base, but a 2-for-23 start to May has his numbers looking a little worse.

Unlike Cruz, he doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard, ranking in the 29th percentile in average exit velo (87.5), but his whiff% (90th percentile), strikeout% (82nd), and walk% (67th) are all solid. Hitting the ball harder would be a solid plan, but so would getting a little more lift in his swing. For much of his career, his launch angle has been in the single digits with the lone exception being 2023 when it was at 13 degrees. That’s not enough to really tap into the power numbers. This season it dropped back down to 5.3 degrees.

24-year-old Henry Davis, the first overall pick in the 2021 Draft, began the year with Pittsburgh but has really struggled in his short stints with the team. This year he went 11-for-68 (.162) with 29 strikeouts. While this is a small sample, he was being challenged with fastballs more this year, with heaters accounting for nearly 60% of the pitches he saw. He hit .149 against them and whiffed 34% of the time.

If you take a look at where he has been pitched on Baseball Savant, it sure looks like he’s having trouble with pitches on the inner third of the zone. The highest exit velocity he has on the inner third, whether it be top middle or bottom of the zone, is 81 mph. That’s not going to result in too much damage being done, and so pitchers are just going to keep attacking him there until he shows he can hit those pitches.

In six minor league games this year, Davis has gone 3-for-19 (.158) with a .407 OBP. This would seemingly corroborate what we’re seeing with the Baseball Savant info. The scouting reports are out on him, and pitchers are attacking him inside, but the hurlers in Triple-A don’t have the same command as the ones in the big leagues, which has led to guys missing in and Davis receiving a few free passes.

The Pirates are definitely on an upswing of talent at the moment, and there are plenty of reasons to be excited about this team moving forward. The big question for just how competitive the team will be in the coming years will revolve around how healthy their pitchers remain, what kinds of adjustments their key hitters make, and what additions the club makes to supplement the roster when it’s go time.

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