At 10-1, the Mets own the National League’s best record, but the bigger surprise relative to preseason expectations may be the Pirates, who after Thursday’s 6-1 victory over the Cubs are 9-3, are tied with the Diamondbacks for the league’s second-best record. After a 75-win 2017 campaign and then an offseason during which they dealt away Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen and pared their payroll to the majors’ fourth-smallest, the Bucs appeared destined to spend 2018 languishing with the other rebuilding teams. They may do so yet, but for the moment, their hot start is worth a closer look.
The 2017 Pirates were not much fun. They had just one month with a record above .500 (a 14-11 July), never got further than a game above .500, and finished 13th in the NL in scoring, with a lineup featuring just four players to produce a 100 wRC+ or better (McCutchen, Josh Bell, David Freese, and Josh Harrison) — and just two with a WAR of at least 2.0 (McCutchen and Harrison). Starling Marte drew an 80-game PED suspension, Jung Ho Kang missed the entire season after failing to secure a work visa in the wake of his third DUI conviction in South Korea, Francisco Cervelli was limited to 81 games by a variety of injuries, and Gregory Polanco regressed significantly (more on him momentarily).
On the other side of the ball, they were seventh in run prevention, but Cole looked more plow horse than thoroughbred, and while Jameson Taillon made an inspiring in-season return from testicular cancer, top pitching prospect Tyler Glasnow was pummeled for a 7.69 ERA and 6.30 FIP. Travis Sawchik has the gory details of the big picture.
In the wake of what appeared to be a pair of era-ending trades — McCutchen to the Giants, Cole to the Astros — that failed to bring back anybody who could assume the mantel of franchise player, the Pirates were projected for a 76-86 record and an 8.8% chance at the playoffs, lower than all but four other NL teams.
Already, their playoff odds are up to 19.7%. While battling bad weather that caused two postponements in the season’s first three days, the Pirates opened with a three-game sweep of the Tigers in Detroit, split a two-game series with the Twins, took three of four from the Reds, and most recently took two of three from the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Their 9-3 start is their best since 1992, the year they began 10-2 en route to their third straight NL East title, the last one before Barry Bonds skipped town. In each of the three seasons since in which they’ve made the playoffs (2013-15), they started 6-6, a split they apparently liked so much that they did it again in 2016 and -17, minus the Wild Card berths.
Historically speaking, a 9-3 start isn’t an automatic ticket to the playoffs, but it does bode very well. Of the 32 teams to get out to such a start 1995-2017, 22 reached the playoffs, 19 by winning their respective divisions. Fourteen of the last 15 such teams reached the postseason, 12 by winning their respective divisions:
|Yankees||2010||95-67||Won Wild Card + LDS|
|Cardinals||2012||88-74||Won Wild Card + LDS|
|Royals||2015||95-67||Won World Series|
|Cubs||2016||103-58||Won World Series|
From the larger set of 32, the 2000 Yankees were the only other team to win the World Series, while the 2002 Giants were the only other pennant winner. The 32 9-3 teams combined for a .567 winning percentage over the course of their full seasons, roughly the equivalent of a 92-win season.
(If you’re wondering about the fates of teams that started the year 9-3 or better, the count is 31 out of 49 for the playoffs, 26 of those by winning the division. Nine won pennants, with the 1998 Padres and 2003 Yankees, both of whom started 10-2, the ones not mentioned thus far.)
The Pirates have rolled to their hot start thanks in large part to an offense that has bashed out an NL-high 6.42 runs per game. Let’s see if we can figure out why:
As a team, the Pirates lead the NL in all three slash stats (.278/.353/.479) and wRC+ (129), the last two figures by 44 and 17 points, respectively. Nobody is suggesting that’s sustainable, but if you’re getting average-or-better production from every position but one, yeah, you’ll put up runs galore. Note the hot starts of Moran, the new third baseman acquired in the Cole trade, and Dickerson, added in a February deal that was primarily a salary dump for the Rays, as Daniel Hudson, who was sent to Tampa Bay, didn’t even make the team. Marte and Cervelli have bounced back from subpar 2017 seasons (91 wRC+ for the former and 93 from the latter).
On the other side of the ball, the Pirates haven’t done a great job of keeping opponents off the board (4.83 runs per game, 13th in the NL), but Jameson Taillon is showing signs of emerging as the staff ace, and the rotation as a whole ranks a respectable fifth in ERA (3.36) and seventh in FIP (3.82). The less said about the bullpen’s 6.97 ERA and 4.43 FIP, both the league’s second worst, the better.
Turning attention back to the offense, of the most interest, at least to these eyes, is the performance of Polanco, who homered twice against the Cubs on Thursday. The 26-year-old right fielder now has five dingers in 11 games, a particularly notable showing for a player who managed just 11 homers in 108 games last year while serving three separate disabled list stints for a strained left hamstring.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Polanco has had a hard time living up to the expectations that come with his size. As a prospect, he was viewed as having plus power potential, albeit with some concerns given his long swing. Yet from the time he debuted in June 2014 through the end of the 2017 season, he’d hit just .252/.315/.401 with 49 homers in 1,920 plate appearances, which prorates to 15 homers per 600 PA. Only in 2016 did he homer more than 11 times or slug above .400; that year, by far the best of his big-league career, he hit .258/.323/.463 with 22 homers for a 106 wRC+, still just three points ahead of all corner outfielders as a group.
As a starting point for a 24-year-old player, that’s okay, but last year’s .251/.305/.391 (81 wRC+) was a setback. Among players with at least 400 PA, Polanco was in the bottom quartile in O-Swing% (34.4%), BB% (6.6%), BABIP (.272), OBP (.305), SLG (.391), and ISO (.140). One thing that particularly stands out is his lack of success when pulling the ball, which he did with some frequency (44.1%, just within the top quartile). One of these things is not like the others:
Woof. Only six out of 161 qualified players had a lower wRC+ when pulling the ball last year, and only nine had a lower SLG. Don’t blame the shift, as Polanco had better numbers against it (.426 SLG, 95 wRC+) than overall. It’s quite possible the issue was injury related, and what we’re seeing now is simply the healthy version. A return even to his typical career performance would probably make him an average player again, but he’s exceeded those thus far. In the teensy sample of 15 PA in which he’s pulled the ball this year, he’s slugging 1.200 with a 363 wRC+. Through Thursday, he’s hitting .262/.385/.714 overall and has walked in 17% of his plate appearances, roughly double his career rate. He’s hitting more flies than grounders for the first time (0.69 GB/FB this year vs 1.20 for his career), and his average exit velocity of 91.6 mph is a 5.1-mph increase over last year, and a 2.0 mph increase over 2016.
Obviously, Polanco won’t slug .714 for the rest of the season, but the Pirates can hope that their young right fielder, who’s under control through at least 2021, is becoming the cornerstone that they envisioned. If he is, then their chances of converting this 9-3 start into a playoff berth and erasing the sour taste of the winter’s trades, will be much greater.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.