By: Josh Taylor

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — After 40 games, the Pirates’ record sits at 23-17, good for a second place tie in the National League Central and only half a game behind the Milwaukee Brewers for first place. It is also the second-best position at the quarter-pole since the 1992 NL East Division Champion Bucs started at 24-16. Here are the early front-runners who have contributed (or hampered) the team’s early success in an admittedly far-too-premature-award format.

Most Valuable Player: Francisco Cervelli is healthy and on pace to have the most productive season of his big league career. He leads the team in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, on-base plus slugging (OPS), isolated power, weighted on-base average (wOBA) and wins above replacement (fWAR) via Fangraphs.com. But it’s one thing to lead your team in all of those categories and another to lead every catcher in those same categories. He’s also second on the team in batting average, walk percentage and runs batted in. His offensive prowess in the sixth spot of the batting order has helped the Pirates score 201 runs in 40 games, third-most in the National League and sixth-most in Major League Baseball.

Cervelli’s defensive game has finally swung back around as well. After two years of declining in defensive runs above average (DEF), his current total of 3.3 is already on pace to surpass last year’s 3.5 and 4.5 in 2016. In a season where Corey Dickerson and Starling Marte have both had all-star caliber seasons, Cervelli has been head and shoulders above them at a position where he’s not expected to be an offensive catalyst, and the overall improvement has been seen in every area of his game.

Best Infielder: Colin Moran has been the most consistent and productive hitter among the everyday infielders, even though he has also been their second-worst defender statistically. But Moran leads the regular infielders in every rate statistic (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS) and also has the second-highest on-base percentage in the entire starting lineup (.370). Jordy Mercer continues to be the backbone of the infield defense – his 2.2 DEF is sixth-best among National League shortstops – but his offensive contributions have come in small waves this season. Josh Harrison’s broken hand removes him from a designation that would otherwise be his given his production at the leadoff spot and solid play at second base. Josh Bell has seemingly awakened from an early sophomore slump, and he’s statistically the third-worst in the National League among qualified first basemen (-5 DEF). All told, the expectations for Moran were largely unknown when he came from the Houston Astros in the Gerrit Cole trade, but the early returns have been promising, and not only just by default.

Best Outfielder: Dickerson and Marte continue to establish themselves as one of the best early outfield pairs in Major League Baseball, and their numbers are very similar in some aspects, but Dickerson edges out Marte for a couple specific reasons. Besides being sixth in the National League in batting average (.319), he’s also 19th in OPS (.880). He’s also one of the top players at his position in all of baseball, tied for second among all left fielders in fWAR (1.3), and also fifth in slugging and sixth in OPS. His 10.5 percent strikeout rate is also the second-lowest among his position in MLB, and his approach with two strikes has been a key reason for his success (.283 batting average, .517 slugging percentage). When Dickerson is ahead in the ball-strike count, he’s hitting .333/.463/.515, not too surprising considering that situation normally favors the hitter. But when he’s behind, he’s actually hitting better: .353/.352/.686. That’s unexplainable and probably unsustainable, but it’s still very impressive.

Dickerson came to the Pirates in a trade after being designated for assignment by the Tampa Bay Rays in February, and his 27 home runs last season brought a certain expectation offensively. But he has also thrived in the field, tied for the MLB lead in outfield assists among left fielders and second in defensive runs above average at the position. He’s done it all for the Pirates and the All-Star caliber performance has followed him from the American League so far.

Best Starting Pitcher: In a unit still looking for consistency, the most consistent man has also been the least expected: Trevor Williams. His peripheral numbers suggest he’s due to take a tumble – he’s allowed seven earned runs in 10.2 innings in his last two starts, dropping his earned run average (3.13) out of the top 10 in the NL down to 16th – but he also began the season very efficiently. In his eight starts, Williams has pitched at least five innings in all of them, the only starter in the Opening Day rotation to do so. In five of those eight starts, he went six innings, and the Pirates lost two of them because a lack of run support. The Pirates are 5-3 when Williams is on the mound, and in those three losses they’ve scored a combined three runs. Of the six men who have started at least one game this season for the Pirates, Williams given his team the best chance to win consistently.

Best Relief Pitcher: One could make a case for Richard Rodriguez and his 25 strikeouts in 14.2 innings, but the truth is he’s faced only four batters in high-leverage situations. Three of them got base hits off him, one for a triple and another for a home run. So it should probably come as no surprise that Felipe Vazquez is the runaway favorite. The man with the surname formerly known as Rivero has converted all seven of his save opportunities and given up a run in only two of his 16 appearances. Vazquez was called upon to record more than three outs in a game three times: two of them resulted in saves and he was credited with the victory against the Giants on May 12. If you need something to be concerned about, look no further than his walk and strikeout rates per nine innings (both right now are his worst as a Pirate), but for the most part he has done his job as the team’s closer very well.

Biggest Surprise: Scoring the third-most runs in the National League and averaging five runs per game will always catch people’s attention, but for a team that traded Andrew McCutchen in the offseason, that number will certainly raise some eyebrows. The Pirates are currently in the top five in the league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and it’s been consistent enough despite a slight dip in April to prove it’s no fluke.

Biggest Disappointment: The Pirates’ starters are either in the middle of the pack or near the bottom in the National League in ERA, fielding independent pitching (FIP) and strikeouts per nine innings, but they’re also among the league’s best in innings pitched, walks per nine innings and home runs allowed per nine innings. The numbers tell us things should get slightly better over time, but without a return to form from Jameson Taillon and significant upgrade to the group of five (could hot prospect Nick Kingham or trade acquisition Joe Musgrove be that upgrade?), this group will probably remain league average at best. But will that help them win games when they need to most after June? Only time will tell.

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