Are the Pirates for real?

Dilip Vishwanat

Once again, the Pirates are playing well early on, so once again we must ask: can they keep it up?

The Pittsburgh Pirates are tied for the third-best record in baseball. At 29-18, the Pirates boast a .617 winning percentage and are just 1 1/2 games out of first place in what is proving to be the very competitive National League Central. However, after suffering dramatic late-season collapses in each of the last two seasons, one can't help wondering if the Pirates are setting their fans, who haven't seen their team finish a season with a winning record for 20 years now, up for yet another fall.

The glass-half-full view is that the Pirates, who are currently 11 games over .500, are way ahead of their pace of the last two years. In each of the last two seasons, they still had a losing record after 47 games. In 2011, they never got more than seven games over .500, and in 2012, they didn't hit 11 games over until July 8 and topped out at 16 games over. What's more, they've gotten to that point despite ranking 22nd in the majors with just 3.96 runs per game on the season. From that alone, you might assume that this might finally be the Pirates year once the offense kicks in, and though they scored just 4.02 runs per game last year, there is reason to believe that the Pirates offense will improve.

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To begin with, the team has upgraded at catcher, where Russell Martin has replaced Rod Barajas (who hit .206/.283/.434 last year), in left field, where Starling Marte, one of the Bucs' most valuable players this season, made just 38 starts last year, and, to a lesser degree, at right-field and first base where late-2012 acquisitions Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider have thus far shown improvement as part of a four-player job share around the every-day presence of Garret Jones. They can also expect improvement from Neil Walker, who has been both hurt and unproductive thus far (.228/.338/.298) but hit .282/.341/.429 over the last three seasons combined.

Of course, one would expect, with Martin, Marte, Sanchez, and Snider all contributing thus far, that the offense would have already been improved even despite Walker's struggles. However, the reason it hasn't could be considered fluky and due for correction. You see, as a team, the Pirates are hitting .223/.311/.326 with runners in scoring position, which translates to an adjusted OPS+ just 73 percent of league average in those situations and 84 percent of the Pirates OPS in all situations (including that poor showing with RISP). One reason for that poor performance is a .252 batting average on balls in play in those situations. All of that should correct itself as the season progresses.

Photo credit: Justin K. Aller

Unfortunately, and here comes the glass-half-empty view, their pitching staff should also suffer considerable correction. The Pirates scored and allowed the same amount of runs in April (110), which, by Pythagorean logic, means they were effectively a .500 team, even if they did go 15-12. Thus far in May, they have outscored their opponents by 23 runs, but that's largely because they have only allowed 2.65 runs per game. They can't keep that up, because no team can keep that up. The stingiest team in baseball last year, the Rays, allowed 3.56 runs per game on the season. The stingiest team in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, allowed 2.86 runs per game.

Even with run scoring trending downward around the league and the Pirates playing in a pitcher-friendly ballpark with a much improved defense (thanks in large part to Marte and Martin the Pirates have far and away the best Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency in the majors), they simply cannot sustain their current level of run prevention. Indeed, the very same reason one might expect the offense to perk up contributes to the expectations for the pitching to decline: The Pirates' opponents have hit just .218/.295/.316 with men on base, which translates to an OPS+ of 67 relative to the league's split in those situations.

So, maybe the offense will perk up a bit, but the pitching should suffer a much larger correction. Third-order wining percentage, which computes won-loss records from the components of run scoring on both sides of the ball (thus eliminating situational results like those that have skewed the Pirates run differential thus far this season), translates the Pirates' overall performance to this point in the season to a 26-21 record. Still good. Good enough to be in a four-way tie for the second wild card spot in the National League right now, in fact, but no longer elite, and with a bit more correction in run prevention, something that gets awfully close to .500, which is likely where this Pirates team will wind up. Indeed, last year, they fell just two games shy of that mark (they were four games under by the common accounting, but turn two losses into wins and that's all four). I do think they're a better team this year for the reasons stated above, so if you want to dream on that .553 third-order winning percentage (which translates to 89.6 wins over a full season) and a wild card berth, I won't stop you. Just remember I said "dream."

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