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Is Pittsburgh’s second-half surge for real?

Should the Pirates be taken seriously as a contender in the NL Central?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Just before the All-Star break, the Pittsburgh Pirates were essentially being left for dead by the national baseball punditry, expected to sell off any players on their roster that had any value and go back to the rebuilding drawing board once again. But a funny thing has been taking place near the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers in recent weeks: The Bucs have become one of the hottest teams in all of baseball.

Pittsburgh’s turnaround actually began just before the break, when the club took three out of four on the road from the Philadelphia Phillies, then proceeded to take two out of three from the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Still, that stretch didn’t seem all too meaningful — Pittsburgh had a 42-47 first-half record and sat seven games behind Milwaukee in the NL Central. Until now, that is.

The Pirates have begun the second half of the season by winning eight of their first 11 games (13 of their last 17 overall), including a winning streak of six in a row that saw them sweep a four-game set from the front-running Brewers. Clint Hurdle’s squad now sits 50-50, and has made the division a four-team race.

This surge prompts one to wonder how they’re doing it, if it is sustainable, and how it may impact the way GM Neal Huntington approaches the trade deadline.

So let’s break those questions down, starting with the Pirates’ improved performance on the field. On the season as a whole, the Bucs have not been a great offensive team, ranking in the bottom third of the National League in wRC+ (91), wOBA (.312), OPS (.723), and ISO (.148). Yet in the second half to this point, the team finds itself in the top half of the league in these stats.

The story at the plate really has been the reemergence of Andrew McCutchen, who is bouncing back from a lackluster 2016 and a dismal first two months of 2017. McCutchen has simply been destroying baseballs since the beginning of June. In that time, he’s put up a .373/.472/.640 slash line (1.112 OPS), a .460 wOBA, wRC+ of 188, a .267 ISO, and accumulated 2.7 fWAR.

Pittsburgh is averaging 4.88 runs per game in the second half, up half a run from the 4.25 averaged in its first 89 games. While the club still has a negative run differential for the season, the extra scoring the past couple of weeks has helped to accentuate the Pirates’ true strength — their pitching staff. For the season, Hurdle’s hurlers rank seventh in the NL in ERA (4.20) and fifth in FIP (4.13), having induced the third-highest rate of soft contact (20.2%) and given up hard contact at the fourth-lowest rate (31.1%).

Since the break, Pittsburgh’s pitching has been even better, sporting the second-lowest FIP (3.52) and the fourth-highest WPA (1.06) in the NL. Gerrit Cole looks to have returned to form after a bumpy beginning to the season, Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl are both striking out nearly a third of the hitters they face, and Ivan Nova continues to be Ivan Nova, Sunday’s lackluster start in Colorado notwithstanding, perhaps the greatest reclamation project in the career of pitching coach Ray Searage.

In the bullpen, only Juan Nicasio has struggled since the All-Star break. Closer Felipe Rivero and his 99 mph fastball has been all but unhittable, and the quintet of Daniel Hudson, A.J. Schugel, Tony Watson, Jhan Marinez, and Wade LeBlanc have been similarly tough.

The Pirates have outperformed their Pythagorean projection by two games (48-52) to this point. With a pitching staff that has been among the best in the NL, the resurgence of McCutchen, a hot bat from the recently returned Francisco Cervelli, and the steady play of veteran Josh Harrison, it certainly appears within the realm of possibility that the Bucs could contend the rest of the summer.

So, should Pittsburgh view itself as a trade deadline buyer, then? It could be argued that the return of Starling Marte from his 80-game PED suspension is a bigger boost than any acquisition Huntington could make. It’s not often a Gold Glove-winning former All-Star who has been worth an average of more than 4.0 fWAR the previous four seasons can be added to a lineup at no cost.

MLB insider Jon Heyman recently noted that the team is still figuring its buy/sell position out, but seems to be leaning towards the former. “Word out of a Pirates person is that ‘Andrew McCutchen is unlikely to be traded, and Gerrit Cole is even less likely,’” he wrote, though he also pointed out that Harrison and Rivero could possibly be had for the right (i.e. steep) price.

That the Pirates are in such a tenuous position regarding the trade deadline shows just how hot they’ve been. The possibility of being buyers would have appeared ludicrous just a month ago. Let’s not forget, either, that the Bucs are just two years removed from a 98-win season and a string of three consecutive postseason appearances. Given the confounding nature of the NL Central in 2017, they may be getting hot at just the right moment to pull off what not long ago was all but unthinkable.

All data current through Monday, July 24th.

Ben Martens is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score and Let’s Go Tribe. You can follow him on Twitter at @wbennomartens.