A Reason the Pirates are Right Where They Are

The Pirates have done us the favor of getting better gradually. Four years ago, they were absolutely dreadful. The next year, they were fine through July. The next year, they were fine through August. Now they’ve been good through September. We’ve been able to see the Pirates coming, to some extent, and so this 2013 success hasn’t taken us by complete surprise. We were prepared for this, and we can make sense of this, and we’re not fighting whiplash as a consequence of watching the Pirates blow by. The Pirates are evidence that a good plan takes time, and that time can bear fruit.

But it’s still weird seeing the Pirates in the neighborhood of baseball’s best record. They’re still, technically, in contention for the National League Central entering the last weekend, and they’re in line to play at home in next week’s one-game NL wild-card playoff. And you notice something, in the standings: the Cardinals have a +172 run differential. The Reds are at +119. The Pirates are at +47. We know that run differential isn’t everything, and we’ve been over this so many times, but it’s still worth quickly examining one thing the Pirates have been doing in particular to allow them to amass all these wins. In one category, the Pirates have been blowing baseball away.

You’re familiar with the concept of leverage. You pretty much have to be, if you’re a reader of FanGraphs. An example of a high-leverage situation: bases loaded, ninth inning, tie game. An example of a low-leverage situation: bases loaded, ninth inning, down by 12. Leverage is sort of a proxy of heart rate, and high-leverage plate appearances are more important than low-leverage plate appearances. They contain more significance, more value, and this season, in the majors, batters have a collective .303 wOBA in high-leverage attempts. Let’s look at the breakdown:

High Leverage: .303 wOBA
Medium Leverage: .320
Low Leverage: .311

All right, sure. You figure, in high-leverage situations, better pitchers are sent to the mound, hence the reduced offense. It’s not like you can usually send up better hitters. Anyway, this is just to establish some context.

Let’s take a look at baseball’s best pitching staffs so far in situations of particular import. Instead of looking at peripherals, like usual, we’ll look at wOBA allowed, so maybe you can think of this as showing run-prevention units instead, including defense. Anyhow, a top ten:

Pirates 718 0.238
Athletics 647 0.269
Reds 654 0.277
Royals 604 0.277
Braves 576 0.278
Red Sox 579 0.290
White Sox 717 0.292
Rangers 605 0.293
Diamondbacks 817 0.295
Rockies 600 0.296

TBF = Total Batters Faced. You’ll notice the Pirates in first. Maybe you already guessed that, given the way this post was proceeding. But it isn’t just that the Pirates are in first. It’s by how much the Pirates are in first, and you’re looking at a gap of 31 points. Granted, this isn’t park-adjusted, and granted, this isn’t league-adjusted, but the difference between first and second is bigger than the difference between second and 11th. The Pirates are at 79% the league average. The Pirates have a fine pitching staff overall, but this season, in important situations, they’ve just completely shut opponents down.

In low- and medium-leverage situations, the Pirates have allowed a .298 wOBA. The gap of 60 points between that and high-leverage wOBA allowed is, naturally, baseball’s biggest, ahead of the Rockies at 41 points. For the curious among you, the Brewers are in last, at -31 points, but for the Brewers fans among you, you basically already knew that.

The numbers are silly, even when you dig deeper. So far, 13 different Pirates pitchers have faced at least 15 batters in high-leverage situations. Here are their results:

Mark Melancon 101 0.210
Jeff Locke 70 0.284
A.J. Burnett 60 0.290
Justin Wilson 59 0.210
Jason Grilli 54 0.203
Vin Mazzaro 53 0.245
Tony Watson 51 0.083
Bryan Morris 47 0.259
Francisco Liriano 46 0.236
Gerrit Cole 41 0.262
Charlie Morton 40 0.261
Jeanmar Gomez 25 0.193
Kris Johnson 18 0.220

Every single one of them has been above-average. Melancon has been the ace of the bullpen, but he hasn’t been the only stopper, as everyone else has also gone above and beyond. It doesn’t read like a list of baseball’s best arms, but they’ve pitched like it when they’ve had to.

FanGraphs only has this data going back to 2002, but since 2002, these Pirates lead the way. No other staff has allowed a lower wOBA in high-leverage situations during the window, meaning the Pirates have been doing something historic at least in a recent sense. With three games left, one wouldn’t expect the numbers to change very much between now and when they’re official. It’s been a timely year for the arms and the defense.

You can’t help but think about the sustainability, or unsustainability, as it were. Last year’s leader in this category was the Rays, at .247. This year they’re at .311. Last year’s runner-up was the Orioles, at .254. This year they’re at .329. But then, in third last year was the A’s, at .268. This year they’re at .269. Like all things, you figure this has been a blend of talent and luck, and we can’t really speak to the proportions. The Pirates shouldn’t count on this repeating in 2014.

But the Pirates don’t need to worry about 2014. It’s the end of September, and for once, the Pirates don’t need to worry about next year yet. What’s happened has happened, and you can maybe think of this as the Pirates’ version of the Cardinals’ absurd offensive success with runners in scoring position. It’s how the current setting was built, and now what matter are short series. The regular season is just about being in position to make a run in October, and the Pirates have set themselves up. They might not succeed in the same way over the next few days or weeks, but this’ll just be postseason chaos. The important thing is that they’re alive, and they got here in large part by preventing big hits.

The Reds, incidentally, have baseball’s best pitching-staff Clutch score. So you can wonder about sustainability with all the NL Central playoff teams. Or you can just happily accept the baseball and think about 2014 when there’s no more baseball anymore. It’s still 2013. There are three games left before madness. Forget sustainability. It’s September 27. It’s all been sustained.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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2012 Baltimore Orioles Bullpen
2012 Baltimore Orioles Bullpen

Who’s to say they can’t do it again next year?