The Pirates Crumbled Before Our Very Eyes

Before the season started, the National League looked like it would feature one of the most exciting and evenly matched regular seasons in recent memory. While the Dodgers were the clear class of the league, every team except the Marlins and Giants had legitimate playoff hopes. FanGraphs thought the Pirates had the third-lowest chances of making the playoffs, and they came in just above 10%. By contrast, seven teams in the American League had a 5% or less chance of reaching postseason play.

With the benefit of hindsight, even the Giants had their shot at a one-game playoff. They’ve faded now, 3 1/2 games out of the Wild Card race, but even that vastly outstrips what was expected of them before the season. Could this year’s NL be the platonic ideal of baseball, a cellar-less (again, other than the Marlins) league with every team at least somewhat in the running for the playoffs until the last month of the year?

Alas, it wasn’t to be. The Giants have outstripped expectations, but they’ve been replaced at the bottom of the table by another team with marginal hopes of contending this year, the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates don’t look like a team built to play for draft position. They made win-now trades as recently as last year, adding Chris Archer in what now looks like one of the most lopsided deals of all time. They came into the season hoping for breakouts from some of their hitters and got them — Josh Bell started the season mashing, and Bryan Reynolds has been a revelation.

Heck, as recently as the All-Star break, the Pirates looked like contenders. They were 44-45, only 2 1/2 games out of first place in the NL Central race, and one of seven teams within 2 1/2 games of the Wild Card. They’d outperformed their Pythagorean record to get there, sure, but what’s past is past, and the Pirates were a month or two of inspired baseball away from a playoff run. Our playoff odds still didn’t like their chances, giving them a 10.3% shot, but stranger things have happened: the Mets, after all, had only a 4.9% chance of reaching the playoffs on that date.

All of that feels shockingly far away now. The Pirates came out of the break with the kind of historic thud that defines a season. In 29 post-break games, they’ve gone 5-24, dropping from the fringes of the division race to 20 games below .500, so far out of the playoff hunt that they’re around three times closer to the Marlins in record than they are to the Cardinals, who they trailed by only a game before this recent stretch.

Going 5-24 isn’t easy. The only team even close to the Pirates over this stretch is the Tigers, who are 7-23. This is despite the Tigers being really, really bad. They were projected for the third-worst record in baseball before the season, and they steered into the skid, trading almost everything not nailed down and building for the future. The Pirates don’t have that excuse.

To go 5-24, you need “contributions” on the pitching and hitting sides. Only five teams have scored fewer runs per game over this stretch. Only the Rockies (who barely count due to elevation) and Orioles (who barely count due to giving up 7 trillion home runs to Gleyber Torres alone) have allowed more runs. Their best pitcher is Archer, and while that’s what they hoped for when they traded for him, you have to assume Neil Huntington didn’t want Archer to be the best like this:

Pirates Starters, Post-ASB
Player Starts ERA FIP WAR
Chris Archer 6 4.63 3.82 0.7
Joe Musgrove 6 6.53 5.72 0
Trevor Williams 5 6.35 6.57 -0.3
Dario Agrazal 5 5.19 7.06 -0.3
Jordan Lyles 3 14.63 10.59 -0.4
Steven Brault 2 5.4 3.92 0.2
Mitch Keller 1 1.80 3.42 0.1
Alex McRae 1 33.75 7.72 0

Their offense hasn’t been much better. The ten hitters with the most plate appearances have been worth a collective 0.1 WAR:

Pirates Batters, Post-ASB
Player PA wRC+ WAR
Starling Marte 128 138 1.0
Bryan Reynolds 122 136 0.8
Kevin Newman 113 60 -0.3
Josh Bell 104 94 -0.1
Adam Frazier 103 52 -0.3
Colin Moran 93 64 -0.3
José Osuna 71 125 0.4
Melky Cabrera 70 24 -0.7
Elias Díaz 64 12 -0.7
Jacob Stallings 54 95 0.3

Of course, teams are bad all the time. Having a replacement level offense and starting pitching staff is really bad, but clubs like the Orioles, Tigers, and Marlins do that on purpose every year. What’s truly shocking is how much the Pirates have fallen off from a respectable, if lucky, first half.

The pitching staff was expected to be solid, with one of the best few relievers in baseball in Felipe Vázquez anchoring the bullpen, complementing a rotation with four solid starters in Archer, Joe Musgrove, Trevor Williams, and Jameson Taillon. Taillon has missed most of the season with an elbow injury, but even without him, the pitching wasn’t a disaster over the first half of the season. They weren’t good, certainly, but they were somewhere between mediocre and bad. Since then, though — oof:

Pirates Pitching Declines
Statistic Pre ASB Post ASB Pre-ASB Rank Post-ASB Rank
ERA 4.91 5.34 23 24
FIP 4.62 5.18 20 26
xFIP 4.72 4.83 20 27
WAR 6.3 0.5 22 28
ERA- 114 123 27 27
FIP- 105 118 22 28
xFIP- 107 109 24 28

The position players haven’t been much better. Through the first half of the season, the Pirates hitters were above-average. Their 103 wRC+ for non-pitchers was the 12th-best in the league, though abysmal defense (third-worst in baseball) dragged them down. Even with that weight on them, though, they were hanging around. Their 7.7 WAR was hardly less than that of the Cardinals, or the Indians, or any number of seriously contending teams. You can guess what happened next, but the numbers are still shocking, even after putting up 10 runs on the Angels last night:

Pirates Batting Declines
Statistic Pre ASB Post ASB Pre-ASB Rank Post-ASB Rank
wRC+ 103 89 12 24
WAR 7.7 0.6 21 27
AVG 0.276 0.253 1 20
OBP 0.333 0.312 13 24
SLG 0.451 0.415 12 25
ISO 0.174 0.161 21 27
BABIP 0.320 0.284 3 27

Per the definition of WAR, a replacement level team would win around 48 games a year, a .294 winning percentage. In the last month, the Pirates are barely over replacement level (1.1 wins to the good between pitchers and hitters), and their Pythagorean record clocks in at .334. They undoubtedly aren’t that bad — we project them to play .471 baseball the rest of the year. Even if they were one of the worst teams ever, though, their recent run would be impressive.

Think of it this way: the worst team in baseball since World War II, by winning percentage, was the expansion New York Mets of 1962. They were cover-your-eyes awful, going 40-120, a .250 winning percentage. Let’s assume, despite its absurdity, that the Pirates suddenly transformed to a team with a .250 winning percentage overnight. Their odds of going 5-24 or worse over a 29-game stretch would still only be 23%. Even the worst team in baseball history, in other words, would be unlikely to look this bad over a month of play.

Choose even a slightly better team — the 47-115 2018 Baltimore Orioles, say — and the odds vanish to the point of nothingness. Those Orioles managed a measly .290 winning percentage, but their odds of reeling off a 4-24 or worse stretch are less than 12%. The 2019 Orioles, the team with the lowest projected winning percentage in baseball, clock in at 1.1% odds. If you think the Pirates are a true-talent .471 team, as our odds do, wowzers — their odds of going on this ignominious run were a mere 0.08%. In 10,000 sets of 29 games, in other words, they’d project to play this badly only eight times.

If you’re a Pirates fan, there are no silver linings here. Most of the team has been terrible, and the 10% playoff odds at the break and general good feelings around a few promising players have evaporated. For fans of baseball, though, there’s been one silver lining. The combination of the packed NL and the woeful Pirates have led to playoff excitement every time any team plays Pittsburgh. The Pirates have played nine full series since the break, and due to the congestion of the NL, all have been at least marginal playoff contenders. The Pirates, of course, have dumped the vast majority of those games, which means that nearly every Pirates series since the break has shaken up the NL playoff picture.

Take a look at the change in playoff odds from beginning to end of series for each of the Pirates’ nine post-break series:

Play the Pirates, Make the Playoffs
Opponent Pirates Record Opp Playoff% Change
@ Cubs 0-3 +10%
@ Cardinals 1-2 +1.5%
vs. Phillies 1-2 -.4%
vs. Cardinals 0-4 +16.7%
@ Mets 0-3 +6.4%
@ Reds 1-2 +1.6%
vs. Mets 1-2 +6.8%
vs. Brewers 0-3 +7.6%
@ Cardinals 0-3 +11.9%

The odds obviously don’t add this way in any logical sense, but let’s ignore logic for a second and have fun. The Pirates have added a cumulative 62.1% to teams’ playoff odds over their last 28 games, excluding last night’s against the Angels. In other words, teams have added 2.2% to their playoff odds for every game where they’ve played the Pirates. Want playoff excitement? There it is.

The Pirates probably won’t be this bad for the rest of the year. If you trust our Depth Charts projections, they’ll accrue 7.6 WAR over their last 44 games. The offense woke up last night, and Mitch Keller, who looked excellent in his start, should add to the rotation. If that’s the case, if they’re a mediocre team instead of a .190 winning percentage nightmare over the rest of the year, they just might swing the playoff race. The Mets were fortunate enough to get all six of their Pirates games in during this streak. The Cardinals had 10 of their 19 games, and are 12-4 overall against them this year.

The Nationals, meanwhile, are 1-2 against the Pirates with four left to play. The Cubs lead their season series only 6-4. The Reds, still marginally alive, are 5-8 against the Bucs. In a year where the NL Central and Wild Card races could come down to a single game, the road to the playoffs right have run through Pittsburgh over the past month, though we didn’t know it at the time.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Outta my way, Gyorkass
4 years ago

So, THIS is how the Cardinals got back into the hunt.

Nutting Tusiheremember
4 years ago

And this is also why Goldschmidt is “surging”. 1.406 OPS during those 10 games vs Bucs pitching in July/Aug. Only .801 vs everyone else.