The Pirates Are in This Thing

Not to be too harsh to the Pirates, but the club hasn’t been all that relevant for much of the year. They started off the season pretty well and, at the end of April, their 17-12 record put them just half a game out of first place. With three other teams — teams considered more talented — all hovering around the same spot, it was safe to assume the Pirates would eventually get lost in the shuffle. On May 17, after winning eight of nine games, the Pirates were in first place with a 26-17 record and a 30% chance at making the playoffs. Then the expected fade occurred, and the team went 16-32 over the next 48 games. Their playoff hopes looked shot, as the graph below shows.

Now here is what the playoff odds look like after an 11-game winning streak, but before today’s loss.

Simply approaching a 20% chance of qualifying for the postseason might not seem particularly notable, but the National League is a jumbled mess right now. After the Dodgers and Cubs, there are nine teams with a reasonable shot at one of the three remaining playoff berths and none of the teams has odds greater than 60%, as the table below indicates.

Outside of the Cubs and Dodgers, the only team projected for more wins than Pittsburgh that also possesses a significant advantage in talent is the Nationals, but they have a big hill to climb to get back in the race. If the results above hold, the Pirates need to pick up just three or four games the rest of the way against the D-backs or Brewers to make the playoffs. Two weeks ago, that would have been unthinkable, and it still might be too much to overcome. If you haven’t been paying too much attention to the Pirates, there are probably two questions that need answering. First, how did they get here? And also, what do they do now?

How Did We Get Here?

This is how Pittsburgh compared to the league through July 10 of this season:

Pirates MLB Ranks Before the Streak
Metric Through July 10 MLB Rank
wRC+ 100 14
Starter FIP 4.36 19
Starter ERA 4.45 21
Reliever FIP 3.74 10
Reliever ERA 4.48 23
wRC+ is non-pitchers only.

That seems like a pretty good way to get to a 42-49 record, and maybe with more neutral luck from the bullpen, they might have been closer to .500. Here’s what the numbers looked like during the 11-game winning streak:

Pirates MLB Ranks During the Streak
Metric July 11-24 MLB Rank
wRC+ 161 1
Starter FIP 3.77 10
Starter ERA 2.28 1
Reliever FIP 2.39 1
Reliever ERA 1.80 1
wRC+ is non-pitchers only

For other teams interested in procuring an 11-game win streak of their own, here’s all they need to do: have the best offense in baseball, the best bullpen in baseball, and also an above-average rotation. The hitting has been excellent and deserves some discussion, but the Pirates bullpen does, as well. Here are the Pirates relievers this season with at least 20 innings pitched.

Pirates Bullpen in 2018
Felipe Vazquez 44 42.1 12.5 3.6 2.98 1.95 1.6
Kyle Crick 39 37.1 9.4 3.9 1.93 2.70 0.9
Richard Rodriguez 35 39.1 11.4 1.8 2.29 2.29 0.7
Edgar Santana 47 44.2 8.3 1.0 3.22 3.18 0.6
Tyler Glasnow 33 53.0 12.1 5.1 4.58 3.46 0.3
Michael Feliz 38 38.2 10.7 4.2 5.35 3.93 0.2
Steven Brault 25 40.1 9.8 6.0 4.46 4.57 -0.1

Vazquez has been as great as usual. Crick, acquired in the Andrew McCutchen trade, has carved out a valuable role. Rodriguez was a more under-the-radar acquisition as a minor-league free agent. Back in November, he was among those highlighted by Chris Mitchell as a potentially valuable player. Santana struggled some in his debut last season, but he has found the ability to limit walks at the big-league level like he did back in the minors. Glasnow’s FIP is better than his ERA, though he has been used mostly in low-leverage situations. Feliz has probably deserved better results, while Brault has been used in long relief moving between the rotation and pen. If the team wants to add an arm at the deadline, it might make some sense, but the pen is in pretty decent shape.

The offense has really driven the Pirates the past couple weeks, and it isn’t just one or two guys contributing.

Pirates Offense During Win Streak
Corey Dickerson 41 .385 .415 .949 259
Josh Bell 44 .459 .545 .676 231
Starling Marte 50 .354 .367 .771 204
Jordy Mercer 33 .414 .469 .586 178
David Freese 20 .389 .450 .500 161
Gregory Polanco 44 .244 .273 .732 155
Colin Moran 37 .343 .378 .343 102
Josh Harrison 28 .240 .321 .400 98
Elias Diaz 37 .270 .270 .324 59

That’s every Pirates player with at least 20 PA during the win streak, and six of the nine players have been better than 50% above average. Of those players, only Mercer seems out of the ordinary in terms of the ability to get really hot over a couple of weeks. What’s unusual here is that every single guy got hot at the same time. The team has also been missing Francisco Cervelli, one of the team’s best hitters all season long, but the rest of the team has more than made up for it.

What Do They Do Now?

Now that the Pirates find themselves in playoff contention, carving out a path forward isn’t as easy. A few weeks ago, they might have been taking calls on some of their bullpen arms as well as Mercer or Harrison. Now they have the option of adding an arm for a low-level prospect. Still, that isn’t going to move the team forward much. They have somewhat established starters at basically every position and Austin Meadows back in the minors awaiting playing time in the majors after a decent run earlier in the year. They have five MLB-caliber starters where most of the pitchers available won’t net a significant improvement over the last two months.

The Pirates are in weird spot. Nobody expected the team to do anything. Now that the team is somewhat close to a playoff spot, however, it feels like they should do something. Unfortunately, there’s not much the team can do right now to make themselves better. This doesn’t give the Pirates front office a pass for inaction. The moves to trade away Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole have been much maligned, but they received solid contributors for Cole, and moving McCutchen paved the way for others to receive playing time. The valid criticism for the Pirates’ front office is more accurately placed on their conduct several years ago, when they failed to supplement their core by acquiring complementary talent.

This Pirates team is not as far away from contention as we might believe, either this year or in the future. They have a bunch of good, young players at the MLB level, six players on FanGraphs’ midseason prospect list, and they should have a boatload of payroll room in the offseason. The Pirates don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt given their past inaction, but letting the season play out might be the right call, although a much bigger investment needs to be made in next year’s team.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

“they should have a boatload of payroll room in the offseason” Does that mean they will have enough payroll room to buy a literal boat, of which average price is something like $100k?

5 years ago
Reply to  tmcgowan

They’re Pirates, why would they buy a boat when they could just commandeer one.