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September 13, 2012

Overthinking It

Chicken Soup for the Pirates Fan's Soul

by Ben Lindbergh

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Last year, the Pirates held sole possession of first place in the NL Central as late as July 19th, claimed a share of first place as late as July 25th, and had a record over .500 as late as August 1st. On the next day, August 2nd, their record fell to .500, and their playoff odds flatlined. After that, there was no more good news. The only question was how far they would fall.

The answer? About as far as a team can fall in two months. The Pirates went 8-22 in August and 10-16 in September. They finished in fourth place, which was better than sixth, where they finished the year before. They won 72 games, which was better than 57, their total from 2010.  It was progress, and while the end result was a losing season no better than some of the 18 before it, there were more than the usual amount of good days along the way. Still, the season ended on a sour note.

This year, they lasted longer. Almost long enough, really—it’s not their fault the baseball season stretches on so long. As recently as August 21st, the Pirates were a wild card team. Now, not only are they not a wild card team, they’re in serious danger of extending their streak of losing seasons to its second decade. Unless they lose every one of their remaining 20 games, they’ll finish with more wins than they had last season–at 72-70, they’ve already tied last year’s total. It’s more progress, and there have been even more good days. And still, the season appears poised to end on a sour note.

Well, we’re not going to let it. Too much has gone right for Pittsburgh this season to let the last few weeks spoil it all. So here are nine* facts Pirates fans can take comfort in while trying not to think about being swept by Cincinnati (and before that, the Cubs):

*Why nine? Because I learned a valuable lesson back in June, when I tried to come up with 10 reasons why the Astros hadn’t been historically terrible: some lists aren’t meant to be 10 items long.

The Pirates’ playoff odds were higher yesterday than they were at any point last season.
The Pirates had an 11-17 August and are off to a 2-9 start in September—that’s a .333 winning percentage, almost as low as their .321 clip from the end of last season. Even so, the Pirates’ chances of making the playoffs yesterday—5.3 percent—were better than they were at their high-water mark in 2011. PECOTA never believed in last year’s team. The 2012 team is different.

Over the last few days, a lot of people (including me and Sam Miller, on the last two episodes of Effectively Wild) have been talking about the Brewers and the Phillies, two teams showing faint signs of a pulse long after they were both declared dead. The Brewers and Phillies are on everyone’s mind because they have the momentum—what Josh Lyman would call “The Big Mo’.” But the Brewers and Phillies are both behind the Pirates. If the Pirates had started slow, come on strong in September, and played to the same record they’re sporting now, we’d all be talking about how well things were going in Pittsburgh. Try to pretend they had better timing.

Attendance is up again.
In 2009, Pirates home games had an average attendance of 19,479 fans, the third-lowest total in baseball. Only the Marlins and the A’s drew fewer fans. The next year, that number rose by 500 fans or so, and the rank ticked up to 27th. Last year, Pittsburgh responded to the Pirates’ fun first half, sending an average of 24, 255 fans to see the team. And this year, they’re up to 26,602, good for 20th. It’s not exactly a stampede to PNC Park, but it’s something. The Pirates no longer play in an empty park. Except on April 25th, of course:

(Don’t worry, it was the second game of a single-admission doubleheader.)

Andrew McCutchen got an extension and became a superstar.
Any fears that McCutchen would follow previous Pirates stars out of Pittsburgh were allayed in March, when he signed a six-year extension that ties him to the team through 2017. Since then, he’s been one of the five best players in baseball, and the best hitter beyond Mike Trout and Buster Posey. He’s slowed some in the second half, and his BABIP might be a bit too high to be believed, but his more aggressive approach has served him well. About the only stat it’s possible to take issue with is his 59 percent stolen base success rate—he’ll just have to collect even more extra-base hits next year so he can stop trying to steal his way into scoring position. He’s only 25, so further improvement is possible.

The Pirates have a pair of productive young players who can complement McCutchen.
It’s all well and good when Garrett Jones hits like Albert Pujols in August, but what you really want are players you can count on for years to come. McCutchen is one of the best possible players to build around, but McCutchen alone doesn’t constitute a core. McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez comes closer. Walker worked hard on his defense and has become a good all-around player, not just an above-average bat. And while Alvarez remains a flawed player, he rediscovered his power, avoided the DL, and stayed out of Indianapolis. Jose Tabata went backwards, but two out of three former top prospects progressing ain’t bad.

The pitching staff discovered strikeouts.
From 2008-2011, Pirates pitchers were the NL’s answer to the Twins, striking out batters at the league’s lowest or second-lowest rate. This year, they’ve added a full strikeout per game to their tally and moved up to 11th in the NL. They could stand to miss even more bats, but it’s a start. Credit goes to A.J. Burnett and the roster spot formerly occupied by Erik Bedard, as well as the hard-throwing, bat-missing impostor passing for Jason Grilli.

The position players discovered defense.
A better defense would have come in handy when Pirates pitchers were allowing more balls in play. Pittsburgh has the NL’s third-best defensive efficiency this season, up from 14th last season and dead last in 2010. Welcome, extra outs! We’ve been waiting for you.

Gerrit Cole and James Taillon are close.
We’ve been hearing about the Pirates’ high-ceiling arms for a while, and we’re about to start seeing them. Stetson Allie busted and Luis Heredia is a long way away, but Cole and Taillon are as good a pair of pitching prospects as any team (save perhaps for the Mariners) has in the upper minors. Cole lived up to expectations in his debut season, reaching Triple-A at the end of the year, and Taillon followed up an underwhelming showing in High-A with three strong starts for Double-A Altoona. They should both bring some additional strikeouts to the big-league staff in 2013.

The Pirates aren’t the Orioles.
Okay, so in some sense this is a bad thing, since the Orioles are in first place. But from a glass-half-full perspective, at least the Pirates can be confident that what wins they do have won’t desert them next season. The Pirates are 25-26 in one-run games. They’ve scored right around as many runs as they’ve allowed. Nothing historically anomalous has had to happen to get them where they are. That doesn’t mean they’ll be just as good or better in 2013, but at least they’ve already paid the Pythagorean piper.

A .500 record is still within reach.
For most teams, a .500 record doesn’t mean all that much. It’s just a convenient mental marker we use to determine whether a season can be considered a moderate success. Of course, it means more to the Pirates, who haven’t finished at or above .500 since 1992. For them, it’s a reminder of long-lasting futility, like a “You must be this good to contend” sign at the entrance to October that they can never quite clear. A .500 finish would be a symbol of better times to come. And despite their recent struggles, they might still get there: our sims project them to end up with 82 wins.

Whether the Pirates end the losing-season streak a few weeks from now or not, their season is already a success. If they finish with 81 wins, we can snark about the streak a little longer. But that would still be nine wins better than they were before.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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