O’Neil Cruz’s bat and Jared Jones’ ascendance highlight four reasons why the Pirates are impressing early


At 9-4, the Pittsburgh Pirates are off to their best start since 2018 (also 9-4), and the franchise’s strong start has boosted their postseason odds nicely. SportsLine puts their postseason odds at 17.8%, even after Thursday’s loss to the Philadelphia Phillies (PHI 5, PIT 1). That’s up from 6.7% on Opening Day. FanGraphs has them at 36.2%, up from 16.2% on Opening Day.

I am not here to tell you the 2024 Pirates are actually good. It’s far too early to tell. It is a long, long season, and we did this just last year, right? After all, the Pirates started 20-8 last season, then dropped seven in a row and 11 of their next 12, and finished the season 76-86. If a team goes 9-4 in the middle of June, no one blinks an eye, but if they do it to start the season, then maybe it’s something.

I’m not here to sell you on the 2024 Pirates being legit based on 13 games. I’m only here to note that, for the first time in a while, there are reasons to be optimistic about this team moving forward. Maybe it doesn’t lead to a postseason spot later this year. The Pirates still might be (probably are) a year away. Perhaps two. But the rebuild is beginning to pay dividends.

Here are four reasons the Pirates are finally starting to move in the right direction and might soon be a factor in the National League wild-card race, if not the NL Central race.

Cruz is back and crushing the ball

Oneil Cruz, Pittsburgh’s ultra-talented shortstop, was limited to just nine games last season after fracturing his left leg in a collision at home plate on April 9. He needed surgery to stabilize his fibula and repair ligaments near his ankle. There was hope Cruz could return in September, but his recovery was slow-moving at times, so the Pirates decided to shut him down.

Now healthy, Cruz crushed seven home runs in 16 games in spring training, and early on this season, he’s slashing .294/.333/.431 with two home runs. He is still striking out a ton — 19 strikeouts in 54 plate appearances — though strikeouts are always likely to be part of his game as a 6-foot-7 player with long arms and a large strike zone. Cruz is in the same boat as Aaron Judge.

Early on, Cruz’s hard-hit ability has been exceptional — his 92.8 mph average exit velocity and 53.3% hard-hit rate are well above the 88.7 mph and 38.4% league averages, respectively — and that’s not nothing after a major leg injury. Hitting starts from the ground up. If you don’t have a strong base underneath you, then you can’t impact the ball. Leg injuries have ruined many hitters.

Cruz is healthy and impacting the baseball. Now he just needs to get it off the ground. His 56.7% ground ball rate is extremely high and it will mute his offensive output. It doesn’t matter how hard you hit the ball, a grounder will never go over the fence. Still, it has only been 13 games after a long layoff. The important thing is Cruz is hitting the ball like did before his injury, and that’s what made him a potential star.

“It’s always a blessing to be back on the field,” Cruz told MLB.com earlier this week. “Then to just be on the same field with my teammates. It feels pretty good.”

Jones is a bat-missing machine

All eyes were on 2023 No. 1 pick Paul Skenes in spring training, but it was righty Jared Jones, not Skenes, who won a rotation spot in the end. Jones, a second-round pick in 2020, struck out 15 and did not allow an earned run in 16 1/3 innings in the spring, which landed him on the Opening Day over Roansy Contreras and Luis L. Ortiz, both of whom have prior big league experience.

Three starts into his MLB career, Jones has emerged as one of the game’s elite bat-missers. He has 25 strikeouts in 18 innings — he’s fanned 25 of the 72 batters he’s faced, or 34.7% (MLB average is 22.6%) — and hitters have swung and missed at 22.5% of his pitches. The MLB average is 10.9%. Jones is more than double that. This is filthy stuff against a great lineup:

Our R.J. Anderson ranked Jones as the No. 3 prospect in Pittsburgh’s system entering the season and said he has “at least mid-rotation upside,” due in part to a fastball that plays higher than its upper-90s velocity because he gets so far down the mound when he releases the ball. Hitters have missed with nearly half their swings against his upper-80s slider as well.

The algorithm overlords love Jones. Pitch models like Stuff+ use velocity, spin, movement and the like to grade a pitcher’s arsenal, and it puts Jones out on his own little island early this season. He’s rated very well in both the quality of his stuff and his location:

Jones does need to develop a reliable changeup — he’s thrown only a handful in his three starts — but the foundation is in place. He has a premium fastball, a very good breaking ball and he locates well. Once Jones figures out his changeup and builds up his innings base (his career high is 126 1/3 innings in 2023), he has a chance to be a difference-making starter.

“He continues to show us things that make us continue to realize why he’s going to be a good Major League pitcher,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton told MLB.com about Jones last week.

Hayes has leveled up

Ever since his standout debut during the 60-game COVID-19 season in 2020, Ke’Bryan Hayes has been a trendy breakout pick because he marries elite contact rates with elite exit velocities, and also top of the line defense. He even unseated Nolan Arenado as the NL’s Gold Glove winner at third base. Arenado won the award every year from 2013-22 before Hayes won it in 2023.

Injuries and high ground ball rates have limited Hayes’ production, however, so he remained a tease years after his big debut. That began to change last season. He missed about six weeks with a back issue last summer and, once he returned in early August, Hayes was a different hitter. He began to deliver on the promise he showed as a prospect and during his debut in 2020.

Before back injury

303

.254/.290/.397

5

19.8%

5.0%

43.6%

After back injury

222

.295/.333/.531

10

19.8%

5.9%

39.4%

There was a significant power uptick without an increase in strikeouts, and that isn’t easy to accomplish. It has carried over into this season. Hayes has walked as much as he’s struck out (nine times each) and his hard-hit ability is intact, and although he’s yet to hit a home run, he had one robbed by Riley Greene earlier this week. 

That kind of contact — a ball launched to the pull field — was something Hayes simply didn’t seem capable of from 2021 through the first half of 2023. Now he’s doing that while maintaining excellent strikeout rates and playing incredible defense. At age 27, Hayes is in his prime, and he looks ready to break out as a top hitter in addition to being the game’s best defender at the hot corner.

Skenes is coming

Skenes, the No. 1 pick in last summer’s draft, is the top pitching prospect in the sport, one armed with a fastball that has averaged — averaged — 100.0 mph through two Triple-A starts this year. It has generated a healthy 29.8% swinging strike rate despite concerns about “dead zone” shape, meaning it has similar vertical and horizontal movement and is thus easier for the hitter to track.

In two Triple-A starts Skenes has allowed one single and one walk in six scoreless innings. He’s struck out 11. The Pirates are building him up very slowly — Skenes threw 46 and 44 pitches in his two starts — which is understandable given the current arm injury epidemic. Soon enough, the Pirates will start to stretch Skenes out and we’ll see pitch counts in the 60s, 70, 80s and so on.

Stephen Strasburg was the greatest college pitching prospect ever and he made 11 minor league starts in 2010, the year after he was the No. 1 pick, before being called up to MLB. That seems like a reasonable enough timetable for Skenes. One can assume 10-12 minor league starts, then the Pirates will call him up in late May or early June. Somewhere in that neighborhood.

Skenes is not Strasburg but he is very, very good, and he will join Jones in the rotation at some point later this summer. The Pirates are never going to win a free agent bidding war for an high-end starter like Gerrit Cole or Yoshinobu Yamamoto. They have to develop their own aces, and Skenes has all the makings of a No. 1 starter, and Pittsburgh’s best since Cole.


Still, all is well in “Pirates Land.” All-Star closer David Bednar has blown three of his four save chances and has a 12.46 ERA. The recently extended Mitch Keller has allowed 12 runs in 17 innings. Elsewhere, 2021 No. 1 pick Henry Davis is performing nothing like a No. 1 pick. In the offseason, the front office did little more than bring in stopgap veterans who can be flipped at the trade deadline.

The Pirates haven’t necessarily earned the benefit of the doubt (again, see last year’s hot start), though there is young talent here, and there is more on the way. Will they turn it into a competitive team? Who knows. That remains to be seen. I hope it works out, though. PNC Park is a gorgeous ballpark and deserves a competitive club. That roster of a contender is starting to take shape.



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