Are the Pittsburgh Pirates For Real?


Go ahead and say it, Pirate fans: your team is officially first in the National League Central. No, really, let it out. There’s not a fan base in sports that’s experienced more frustration the last two decades, and this has to feel good. While the Pirates edged the Astros 6-4 in Wednesday’s holiday action, the Reds got shut down by the Dodgers. The result? A full game separates the Pirates from the second place team in the division. Write it down, Steel City residents and baseball fans. As of this moment, the Pirates have a 66.7% chance of going to the playoffs.

So it’s nice to celebrate national freedom by also celebrating freedom from the days of cellar dwelling, and I don’t want to do anything to take this moment away from Pirate fans. That said, it’s only July 5th. The mathematical halfway point of the season has only just arrived, and there is a lot of baseball left to be played. By all means this team is to be congratulated for putting themselves in a good position at this point, but the real question is can they make it stick for the remaining 81 games in their schedule? In a word, unlikely.

Don’t get me wrong; this is very much an improving team, especially considering the depths the organization has sunk to in recent years. Just two seasons ago, the Pirates lost 105 games after losing 99 the year before that. They haven’t won more than 78 games since 1992, and they’ve finished in last place a total of nine times in that same period. Last year was a step in the right direction, as that team was as much as seven games over .500 (51-44) as late as July 19. The wheels came off down the stretch, however, and Pittsburgh finished the last two months of the season with a dismal 18-38 record. I’m not suggesting another massive collapse is in store for this year’s team as well, but I have a hunch the second half will not exactly be kind to them, either.

The problem is that there isn’t any one single thing this group of players excels in. They aren’t particularly potent offensively; the team has exactly three players with a wOBA above the league average of .316: Andrew McCutchen (.432), Pedro Alvarez (.332), and Neil Walker (.322). As a team, they’re 13th in the National League in both runs scored (322) as well as OPS (.694). While McCutchen is a proven star, even he’s riding a bit of a fortunate wave to this point. There’s no way he’s going to sustain his .407 BABIP, after all, and since he’s not particularly good at working walks (8.1% this year), look for a big drop in his batting average and on-base percentage before the season ends. I think I just covered all the negative things there are to possibly say about McCutchen.

Things aren’t a lot better on the run prevention side of the equation. James McDonald (the undisputed Pittsburgh ace at present with 2.3 WAR) teams up with A.J. Burnett (1.5 WAR) and Erik Bedard (1.1 WAR) to form a very formidable front three in the starting rotation, but the rest of the pitching is largely mediocre. The bullpen’s 2.70 ERA is hugely misleading, as the relievers as a unit are getting by more on luck than actual talent. Cumulatively, Pittsburgh relief pitchers have stranded a major league leading 81.5% of runners on base; that number is going to drop soon, and the .262 BABIP, second lowest in baseball, is going to rise. When things normalize in the bullpen, the team’s ERA will take a hit and it may result in a few blown leads here and there.

Additionally, the Pirates have not played a very demanding schedule to date. Playing against teams that are currently sitting at .500 or better, they’re just 21-25 on the season. This leaves them with a 24-9 record against all other opponents, and while there’s no shame in beating up on weak teams, the discrepancy may indicate that the overall record is inflated. Furthermore, since they sit at a +18 run differential on the season, the team’s adjusted Pythagorean record subtracts a few wins as well. No matter how you want to approach this, the Pirates are an overachieving team and are a likely candidate to regress a considerable amount in the second half.

I won’t end this on a negative note, however. Things are getting better in Pittsburgh. Even though the 2011 club ran out of steam at the end, they played four months of solid baseball first, and this year’s team is continuing that trend. The overall talent is still lacking on the Pirate roster, but it may not be for much longer. No matter which minor league ranking system you turn to, you’ll find the Pittsburgh organization somewhere around the top third of the 30 systems. Four players inside the system (Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, and Starling Marte) made Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects prior to this season. There are no long-term, unseemly contracts to limit the front office’s financial wiggle room. In short, the Pirates are in a perfectly good place as an organization, and they should continue to get better in the coming years. Just don’t mistake the current edition as a real post-season candidate; that’s simply not a very good bet to happen right now, no matter what the percentages say.

Can’t get enough of Spencer? Check out his work at StanGraphs and follow him on Twitter at @shendricks221.