The excitement among Pirates' players and management immediately following the Gonzo-LaRoche trade seemed almost silly. This team seems to believe that Adam LaRoche is the Pirates' savior, and he has arrived to lead them from 67 to 90+ wins. Anybody familiar with statistics knows that this simply isn't true. The best players in the league add less than 10 wins a season to their team's total. But is all this excitement a bad thing?
Last season the Bucs were 30-60 before the All-Star break, 37-35 afterwards. Why the dramatic turnaround? They did not suddenly find their swings and start piling up runs. The Pirates scored 411 runs and allowed 474 runs before the All-Star break, while scoring 280 and allowing 323 afterwards. Some will argue that the team was simply luckier in the second half. I can see where that comes from. I remember several instances early in the season where a ridiculous bounce went against the Pirates, and possibly cost them the game. But I think there was more to it.
On June 19, 2006, the Pirates hosted the Diamondbacks for an afternoon make-up of a game rained out earlier in the season. I attended this game with a friend, and our day was going perfectly as the game entered the later stages. The Pirates had rallied from a 4-0 deficit and the bottom of the 9th inning began with the score tied 4-4. The table was set for a walk-off victory. Back-to-back singles and an intentional walk seemed to make that victory inevitable. Jeromy Burnitz stepped in with the bases loaded, nobody out, and the winning run at third. He struck out. No harm done, it was pretty much expected. Besides, Freddy was coming up, and he always came through. But he chased a pitch in the dirt and went down swinging. Now I was nervous, with the always erratic Jose Castillo at the plate and two outs. He also struck out. I vomited all over the empty seat in front of me (NOTE: Exaggeration). All we needed was a fair ball. All three had chased pitches and struck out. We wasted a leadoff double in the 10th and eventually lost 5-4 in 11 innings. Of all the painful losses that I have witnessed in the past few years, this one probably hurt the most. We were supposed to win this game, but we gave it away. It was a perfect example of why we started 30-60 in 2006.
So why did the Pirates improve to slightly above .500 ball after the break. The answer is that the players loosened up. They were out of contention, relaxed a bit, won a few games, gained some confidence, and won some more. They realized that they belonged in this league. The increase in confidence worked wonders, and suddenly these young guys weren't tightening up in important situations. The players that were a bundle of nerves in June were having fun and beating up on playoff teams in September.
Now I am not saying that a confident Pirates team will run off 90 victories in 2007. But it might make the difference between 75 wins and the sacred number of 82. Maybe the addition of Adam LaRoche is what it will take to make all of 2007 look like post-July 12, 2006. With all of the exuberance coming out of the clubhouse since this deal was made, it seems like this is a Pirates' team that honestly believes it can compete this year. If they go on to the field expecting to win, they are going to play much better and hopefully increase that number in the win column.