The Pirates are a team that tend to just go away. They play well the first half of the season, getting Pittsburgh fans excited they may make the playoffs, or at least hit the .500 mark, and they end up imploding in the second half like no other team. It’s come to the point where I don’t really pay attention to them in the standings. If they are in first and the Cardinals are second, it means the Cardinals are in first. If the Reds are in first, the Pirates are 2 games back and the Cardinals are 3 games back, it means the Cardinals are in second place and just 3 games back.
But I don’t necessarily look at past seasons for this. Regardless of what has happened in the past, the Pirates this year are a team playing over their heads. Players who have struggled in the past don’t all just suddenly become good, do they?
Well the Pirates have a few cases where this seems to be case.
Francisco Liriano – Career era: 4.20. Career WHIP: 1.34. Career FIP: 3.63.
2012: era: 5.34, WHIP: 1.47, FIP: 4.34
2011: era: 5.09, WHIP: 1.49, FIP: 4.54
2009: era: 5.80, WHIP: 1.55, FIP: 4.87
Compare all of that to 2013: era: 2.68, WHIP: 1.20, FIP: 2.81
A.J. Burnett – Career era: 4.00. Career WHIP: 1.32. Career FIP: 3.90
2011: era: 5.15, WHIP:1.43, FIP: 4.77
2010: era: 5.26, WHIP: 1.51, FIP: 4.83
Compare that to 2013: era: 3.18, WHIP: 1.25, FIP: 2.86.
Russell Martin – Career slash: .259/.352/.399, wRC+: 104
2012: .211/.311/.403, wRC+: 96, WAR: 2.0
2011: .237/.324/.408, wRC+:100, WAR: 2.8
Compare that to 2013: .252/.352/.407, wRC+: 117, WAR: 4.0
So several players on The Pirates are definitely playing over their heads. But if you look at their advanced stats, especially FIP for both Liriano and Burnett, you can see they aren’t just getting lucky. Which doesn’t mean they still can’t regress greatly. But for now, being the middle of August, it may be best to assume they won’t regress. For some reason, a few players on The Pirates who have not been very good for quite a while, have become good.
So why are The Pirates so good? Some articles have chronicled why the Pirates are playing so well.
The only problem is, The Pirates have not really been playing that well. If you look deeper, even going by the generous assumption that none of these players are going to regress from just having a fluke season, The Pirates are not better than The Cardinals and possibly not even The Reds.
In many ways, The Pirates are what The Orioles were last year. A team that’s squeaking out wins. That’s much less a skill and more just luck. The Cardinals run differential is +140. That’s the best in the National League and second best in all of baseball behind The Tigers. The Pirates run differential is +42. That’s worse than The Reds +87. The Pirates have only scored 478 runs this year, compared to The Cardinals 595 and The Reds 533. The Pirates RS/G is 3.93 compared to The Cardinals 4.67 and The Reds 4.19.
So The Pirates can’t score runs. But they can prevent runs. Their Runs Against is 436, which for all of the talk about their rotation and amazing bullpen versus the chatter about The Cardinals problems with keeping starting pitcher healthy, The Cardinals Runs Against is a very comparable 455.
So what do The Pirates do well? They win 1-run games. This year in 1-run games, their record is 23-18. Compared to The Cardinals at 15-14 and The Reds at 19-19.
The only thing The Pirates have going for them is a weak schedule the rest of the year. They have series gainst bottom feeding teams like The Giants, The Cubs and The Brewers. Besides The Cardinals, The Rangers and several series against The Reds, they don’t have it too bad. The Cardinals however have a similarly easy schedule. They too have several games with The Reds and the extremely tough Braves, but have some pretty weak teams like The Mariners and Cubs to beat up on too.
Per Fangraphs, The Cardinals are projected to have a better record and a better run differential the rest of the year. Per ESPN, The Cardinals still have a higher percentage of making the playoffs than The Pirates (though both teams are projected over 90% to make it).
But The Pirates need two things to happen for the rest of this season: 1) all of the players playing over their heads to continue to do so. There is zero room for any of them to regress to who they were before this season. And 2) The Pirates continue to win 1-run games against teams that score more runs than them. In other words, they need to keep getting very lucky.
There are still 38 games left to go. The Cardinals are 1 game behind The Pirates as of Tuesday morning. That is a lot of games remaining for those things to happen to go just right for The Pirates. So maybe for the first time, it’s time for me to acknowledge The Pirates. But only to an extent, as I expect The Cardinals to be on top of the standings for the NL Central come October 1st.
So like the title states, it is time to start paying attention to The Pirates.