I have this problem where I have the ability to be very analytical and objective about just anything until it starts to actually pertain to me, at which point I lose pretty much all ability to think about things with any objectivity at all. This applies to a lot of things and it certainly does to baseball, too. That means that while I have no problem being frank about a 110 loss team in 2010, I have a bit more trouble calibrating exactly how excited I should be about the Pirates' playoff prospects in 2012. They're real and they're tangible right now, but how real are they?
A lot of times, you'll find people like me digging deeper into a team's performance than their record. This is because for actual evaluation purposes, sometimes the result of a game doesn't tell the full story. It gives you the ultimate result in the win/loss column and that's how the sport is judged, but whether a team wins or not on any given night is not necessarily something that's predictive of future results. Just in the last month or so, the Pirates have followed four losses with four wins and three losses with eight wins in their next nine. This sort of thing matters more than record when the Pirates are a bad team and you're trying to gauge how good they are and how good they can be going forwards, but it matters less now because the Pirates have 46 wins and are two games ahead of the Reds in first place.
Still, the ultimate question remains: how much of this is real? How much of it will carry into the second half? It's important to ask, because frankly, the last 62 games of 2011 destroyed me and no matter how much fun this is right now and no matter how much I practice my zen of living in the moment, I'm not going all-in on a team that's got a high collapsibility factor. I can enjoy every single second of every win, but I need to know something more.
So how have the Pirates played so far? Lots of people, myself included, tend to use Pythagorean record -- that is, estimating wins and losses from runs scored and runs allowed -- as a shorthand, but there are some inherent flaws in Pythag, especially over just half of a season. For the sake of our thought experiment, though, let's start there. The Pirates 324 runs scored and 304 allowed gives them a Pythagorean record of 43-39, which is three games short of their actual record of 46-36. If we want to dig deeper, though, Baseball Prospectus has a stat called third-order win percentage. That projects a team's runs scored and allowed totals from their underlying stats (Think of it this way: a team that scores four runs on four hits is much less likely to repeat that four-run performance than a team that scores four runs on 14 hits. The reverse holds true for pitching. That's an awfully simplistic description, but that's the basic concept.) and uses that to estimate record. They have the Pirates' third order winning percentage at .489; that's an approximate record of 40-42, six games short of their actual win total. A third way to estimate wins is to just go to Baseball-Reference, add up the team's wins over replacement, and figure out how many wins that comes to. If we assume replacement level is 45 wins of the season (I'm not sure exactly where it is for 2012, but it's usually around there), and the Pirates as a team have 15 WAR total, that would give them about 38 wins right now, eight fewer than their actual total.
So we know the Pirates are playing a little bit over their heads right now to be 46-36. That much is clear. Since we only have a half-season of data thus far, let's throw WAR out as an estimator since WAR uses defensive metrics and 82 games isn't quite enough to feel comfortable with for our purposes here. Let's stick with third-order win percentage and slant it slightly towards the Pirates on the assumption that the late May/early June Pirates are closer to the Real Pirates than the April/May Pirates that couldn't score runs to save their lives. We'll say that, on the whole, it's not unreasonable to expect the Pirates to go .500 from here on out based on how they've played through 82 games.
The good news is that when we talk about regressing to the mean, that doesn't mean that we have to expect the Pirates to go 36-45 over their last 82 games if we think that they're a True Talent .500 team; we would expect them to go 40-41 or 41-40. The Pirates went 15-13 in May even though they got outscored 110-89. That's a pretty improbable result for the whole month, but the Pirates don't give those wins back just because it's improbable; they count just the same. They're just not likely to repeat the performance in August if they get outscored by 20 runs again. So if we assume the Pirates are a True Talent .500 team based on their first 82 games and we give them the benefit of the doubt for that extra win since they beat the Astros last night, then it's a not at all unreasonable expectation for the Pirates to win 86 games based on their play this year. This is pretty much exactly what Baseball Prospectus pegs them at in their playoff odds today, using a lower win percentage than our guess of .500, but adjusting for schedule.
This is different than last year. When the Pirates were 53-47 and tied for first place on July 25th last year, their third order win percentage was .427, which was the third-lowest in the National League. There was no real uptick in their play from May to June to July and it was obvious that the pitching staff was treading on thin ice. The same red flags don't quite exist with this team.
So if we say that our best guess, without making too many assumptions, is that the Pirates will win 86 games in 2012, is that enough for a playoff spot? You'd have to go back to 2007 to find a year where 86 wins would take the NL Central and 2006 to find a year where it'd take the second wild card. I don't think 86 wins claims a playoff spot this year; the Reds are a very good team and the Cardinals are better than they're currently getting credit for and the East is deep and the Dodgers are getting Kemp back and I could keep going on and on. That being said, if you think a team wins 86 games without making too many assumptions, that team could pretty easily win 92 or 93 games with some good luck (they could also end up with 80 wins with some bad luck, but let's not go there) and that should enough for a playoff spot.
This is a very long way of explaining what we already know. Based on what we've seen through 82 games, there is a very real chance that the Pittsburgh Pirates could make the playoffs this year. This could change pretty quickly with one bad week (NO ONE saw the 2011 collapse coming quite as hard as it did, not even the most skeptical of us), and I don't think we should completely rule out the possibility of that happening quite yet, but we also have plenty of reason to believe that the 2012 Pirates are much more for real than the 2011 Pirates ever could've hoped to be. They're certainly not the favorites at this point and there's some room for things to go wrong, but I feel pretty comfortable in saying that it's been a long, long time since they've been in the position they're in right now. A long time.
One positive thing that's not really focused on here is that the numbers as they stand don't account for what the Pirates do at the deadline. They're playing at about a .500 rate in third-order win percentage despite having two of the least productive players at their position in baseball - http://idevmail.americaneagle.com/message.aspx?d=313&m=1277 Which means if we can upgrade from Clint Barmes to even an average SS, and/or from Jose Tabata/Alex Presley to even an average LF, we immediately improve the team's production by a significant amount. If we pull of a major deal and get an above-average player at either or both of those positions, so much the better.
I've come to the same conclusion...I'm excited about the Bucs this season.
I was excited last season also, but in a giddy kind of way like when I was in high school and the "girl of my dreams" said she'd go to the prom. But, in the end, the usual happened and we moved on.
This year I see a lot of good, concrete indicators over a sustained 1 1/2 month period that make me feel more confident that the Pirates have some staying power. They've consistently hit the long ball and scored runs for a period. They weathered a storm when the hitters, except Cutch, didn't hit and many of them have trended up for several weeks now. They have some pitchers that seem for real.
That's the concrete side of things. The things that give me the most hope are the intangibles...the comeback wins, the games where they blow it and still comeback, the close ones they win instead of lose. These kinds of things create an aura of confidence, especially in young players who have the right vets by their side (e.g. A.J. Burnett and Cutch).
Is this good enough for a playoff spot...I don't think so primarily because I'm still not confident the pitchers all have the legs to sustain for an entire 162 game schedule. The teams that make it that far either have deep farms to go down and get a good starter to give a guy a blow or they have 5 good arms that can make up for it when the 1-2 hit the inevitable wall. A.J. Burnett and James McDonald have been terrific, but can they stay strong for 162+? Not sure how far Correia and Bedard will take the Bucs after the break. They've been okay so far, but will they sustain this level? Do they have a young stud or two in the minors that's ready for the Show in Aug/Sep to give the rotation a lift...admittedly, aside from fellow UCLA Bruin Gerrit Cole, I'm not that up on the state of the farm system, but most of what I read here touts some good outfield help.
Suffice it to say, I'm enjoying the ride to be certain and I expect it to take me deep into September. I hope it takes me to October. Can't wait to make the journey from Northern VA to Pittsburgh for a weekend series in August to see the Pirates in person!
Thanks, Pat. that was the idea I was trying to get across in the comments yesterday, but in better perspective. I agree 100%.
What a blast, to be down 4 runs and think, "That's not so much, there's a lot of game left."
I'm going to look past the analytical and make mention of the feel of this team. They know they can beat any team, and I believe this started last year. Its very impressive , and you did fail to mentionm a couple positive x-factor for the 2012 Buccos. Their record in 1 run games, Which I believe is somewhere around 18-11 if I'm not mistaken. There is also the 22 come from behind victories, which is very reminiscent of the 79 Pirate team that went on to claim the World Series.
A few things definitely need to go the Pirates way, and this mostly pertains to the injury bug. It needs to be avaoided this year, and that is tough to do. The Buccos are not a very deep team, and a loss in the wrong place(starting pitching or the loss of an Alveraz or Jones) would be too huge a blow to overcome. Most importantly, Cutch needs to stay healthy. The positives are there though. This team does have a deep and efficient bullpen, which is HUGE come playoff time.They also have one of the best Pitching coaches in the game in Searage, and in my opinion, Hurdle is 1 of the top 5 managers in the game today. This is truning out to be a really well rounded team that needs to get deeper and a couple tweaks. I think bringing Marte in after the break or in the beginning of August would be a big spark for this team. They are also playing better on the road and looking magical at home.
My big move for this team would be to put a package deal together involving Taillon and trade for Starlin Castro with the motive of locking himup long term. That would imediately make this team better for now and the next 5 years. I don't know how long he is under control so I am speaking out on this, but it is a wish list thing.
Either way, I see the Buccos as a playoff team this year at this point.
@Stevie D Someone like Castro with a 5-year deal is about the only thing I'd consider trading Taillon for right now.
When you say "NO ONE saw the 2011 collapse coming quite as hard as it did", it really needs to be said in a Michael Palin-esque Spanish accent while wearing the attire of a 15th-Century Cardinal.
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I'm sorry, I read your first paragraph and then wrote you off as a closed-minded Luddite. Too many words presumably follow with no logic behind them. Hope you don't mind!
July's schedule is hilarious. San Francisco is the only series against a team with a winning record at this moment, with a possibility of Miami being over .500 in the mid July series. The Pirates face the Astros and the Cubs 13 times this month, with a three game series at Colorado, and a three game series at Milwaukee.
They need to take advantage of this gift from the schedule makers. August and September are not nearly as brutal as April and May, but they are nowhere as potentially easy as July. Taking two thirds of the games in July is not out of the realm of possibility.
@GamingPessimist The schedule is so very important as are pitching match-ups. It seemed early on in 2012 that Buccos faced the #1 and #2 opponents pitchers in every series and it was not pretty much of the time. Now, things have turned around. We won't see Cain or Bumgarner this weekend. Let's make hay against Zito, whomever and a wounded Lincecum!
@GamingPessimist Agree entirely. Stay hot now, deal with the rest later.
"...there is a very real chance that the Pittsburgh Pirates could make the playoffs this year." When I read something like this, my brain short-circuits. It is not that I think it is a ludicrous idea, nor do I immediately start planning the victory parade. It's more along the lines of we've been trudging along in this rut for two decades, our bodies inured to the pain, forgetting what we have been walking for because it is the only way to keep going, and all of a sudden someone taps you on the shoulder and says the finish line is within sight. It requires a mental adjustment to process this possibility.
This is definitely exciting right now, but I'm a "1 step at a time" kind of thinker... and I think before anyone thinks playoffs, we should be thinking "can they make 81 W's this year?". After all, if they do, Pittsburgh should be a party for a day or two. The one thing that is concerning me about this team though, is their RPG in home/road splits. Their pitching & defense is limiting teams at PNC to just 2.6 RPG ... which is THE LOWEST IN THE MAJORS. That can't last ...can it? On the road, they'll allowing opponents to score a massive 4.7 RPG.
Not saying I expect them to start allowing that much in home games, but even if they start allowing an extra RPG to visitors at PNC... well, then they'll have to score more in order to win. Right now, their 27-13 home record is awesome, but the Pirates offense is only scoring 3.5 RPG at home... in order to keep winning, they have to keep visitors down at that 2.6 RPG or start really scoring the runs.
I think all this skews their overall pyth record too... 'cause that's ignoring how different they are at home or on the road.
I think all this might suggest a coming collapse, tho they probably won't collapse quite like last summer.... which leads me to wonder... can the Pirates reach 81 W's? If they do that, then I'll think about playoff potential. What do you think?
@RhymesWith9th I know that I'm one of the only people that thinks like this, but I don't really care about winning 81 games. I don't want to root for a mediocre baseball team, I want to root for a good one. When you're ten games over in July, finishing .500 shouldn't be a question even if you haven't done it since the Paleozoic Era.
Good analysis. I also agree with the comment below about schedule, particularly in July. I believe the Pirates had a very difficult schedule (particularly opponent pitching) in the first month and a half of the season. Also, hopefully the return of Karstens and the Marte-for-Tabata swap (assuming Marte is above replacement level) could help offset potential regression in august & september
One thing I continue to gravitate back to is the schedule. It's only going to get easier, right? Consensus is that it's an easier schedule than the first half...and against teams that will most likely get worse. Sure, The Reds & Cards will be charging...but our head-to-head schedules against them are slightly more than half-way played (9 of 18 for Reds, 9 of 15 for Cards) you factor in the number of teams (ie. Astros) who literally "fire-saled" a player during our most recent series that we will be matching up against also dumping their players...and...well...my pants don't fit.
@psamp I've been thinking about that. The playoffs format is maximum of 20 games, usually with a day or two between games. This emphasizes the front of the rotation, the back of the bullpen, and having a few hitters get hot at the right time. Burnett and McDonald may not be Schilling and Johnson, but I think the 2001 Diamondbacks showed that you can win in the playoffs without a very deep team if you've got star talent in the right places.