Two teams, the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates, are over a decade removed from their latest winning season. The last time the Orioles avoided a losing season (1997), the most popular cell phone in America looked like this.
And the last time the Pirates finished .500 or better (1992), the most popular cell phone in America looked like this.
This is JPEG-speak for "a really really long-ass time." But the Orioles and Pirates have something else in common: so far in 2012, they're both several games above .500. Baltimore is only a game out of the A.L. East lead, and Pittsburgh is tied with Cincinnati atop the N.L. Central.
As a longtime Royals fan, I'm pretty used to the false hope I experience every April, or May, or June, when they hover near the top of the division. By September, of course, they're miles away from contention. So that's what this is, right? The O's and Pirates are the same losers they've been for over a decade, right?
Maybe. But it should be noted that in each team's case, 2012 is different.
Since 2002, the only Orioles to hold the division lead for a meaningful amount of time were the 2005 squadron. They hung around until about Game 100, at which point they fell in a ditch and dropped seven games in the standings in an eight-game span. From there, the O's were finished.
Outside of that team, though, this year's Orioles are looking significantly better in the standings than any other over the last decade. I think it's likely that their record will regress to what we'd expect from this team: yes, they're currently 34-26, but for one, their run differential is negative-4. Everyone else in the East is good-to-great. Regardless: so far, something is different in Delaware. Baltimore's in Delaware, right? Never mind, don't really care, next team:
I could have drawn this back to two decades instead of one, but I preferred to keep things from getting too messy/depressing. The 2002 Pirates led the Central 21 games into the season, and last season's Bucs somehow managed to briefly grab the lead in Game 96 before imploding. And that's it ... except for this season.
Before looking up the data, I honestly assumed that it was nothing unusual for the Pirates to sniff the division lead in mid-June. It is, in fact, unusual.
Now, as for the question of whether they can continue to contend: I look at their negative-17 run differential, and then I look at the plus-55 run differential of the Cardinals, who sit two games back, and it doesn't seem terribly likely to me. Between the Giants and Braves/Nationals, there's so much talent in the wild-card race that, as usual, winning the Central seems less difficult.
My disappointingly safe predictions: neither the Orioles nor Pirates will be in close contention for a playoff slot come September. But as a fan of an eternal loser, I know how important it is to manage expectations. If these teams can finish .500 for the first time in forever and ever, that's a start.