It’s July 5th and the PIttsburgh Pirates are just 1 1/2 games out of first place in the National League Central. Outside of the career rebirth of Ryan Vogelsong, this has to rank as the most surprising outcome of the first half of the season. While there are some good young players on the roster, this team was not expected to be a contender, especially not in a tough division with three other teams all chasing the brass ring this year.
But we are 85 games into the season and the Pirates are still hanging around. They’re not exactly blowing away the competition, but at 44-41 Pittsburgh has held their own to date and benefited from the fact that no other team in the division have yet to really establish themselves as the team to beat. So, now we’re a little less than four weeks from the trade deadline and the Pirates are the team that is going to have to make the toughest call on what they should do before July 31st. Do the Pirates believe in their team in order to make a move to try and chase down a playoff spot, or should they sell off some of their potentially interesting trade chips in order to keep building for the future?
From an empirical perspective, the Pirates probably shouldn’t expect their surprising success to continue. Yes, they have a positive run differential (barely, coming in at 328 RS and 326 RA), but that’s mostly due to some fortunate timing on when they have gotten their base hits. With the bases empty, the Pirates are posting just a .289 wOBA, third worst in baseball. With men on base, that climbs to a .315 wOBA, right in the middle of the pack. They’re maintaining that .315 wOBA with runners in scoring position, putting them 12th in baseball with RISP.
Realistically, that split is probably unsustainable. Most teams hit better with men on base than with the bases empty, but they don’t do it to nearly the same degree that the Pirates have so far this year. In the first half of the season, the Pirates have just gotten a lot more timely hits than what we would have expected them to get in those situations, and so their positive run differential and winning record is dependent on something that may not continue.
So, yes, the Pirates are great candidates to regress in the second half, and odds are pretty good that they will fall short of winning the NL Central. Because of that, you’ll probably hear a lot of people suggest that they take this information and use it to justify trading players like Paul Maholm. But I’d like to suggest that even if the most likely outcome is that the Pirates fall short of the playoffs, they should still be buyers instead of sellers at the deadline.
Making decisions based only on the most probable outcome might lead to being correct more often than not, but it can also lead to missing opportunities for huge payoffs. In poker, it’s well understood that there are times when it’s worth betting into a pot that you will probably lose because the potential payout on those few times that you do win is so large that it overrides the smaller amount of losses you’ll incur during the more likely hands when you’re on the losing end of things.
The same is true in baseball, where landing one of the eight playoff spots available in any given year represents a big payoff that can pay significant dividends for a franchise both in the present and for the future. Estimates done on revenue generated for hosting a home playoff game have come in at about $1 million per game for the home team based on ticket sales, parking, concessions, and all of the other benefits that come with packing the place out and having a highly rated playoff game to broadcast on television,.
Beyond just the current revenue boost, there’s also future attendance gains that go up significantly for a team that gets to play into October. The Rangers have added nearly 7,000 fans per game to their average attendance this year after a deep playoff run energized their fan base last year, putting them back into the top tier in revenue generating franchises. Even if we can’t expect the Pirates to get to the World Series, they’d still be able to expect a pretty decent jump in attendance next year if they were able to steal the NL Central title this year. For a team averaging just under 23,000 fans per game, a few extra thousand fans per game could make a significant difference in expected payroll going forward.
I’m not advocating that the Pirates should trade Jameson Taillon for Michael Cuddyer or anything, but they have enough spare parts and prospects with limited ceilings to make a couple of minor moves to upgrade the roster and give their fans a reason to come to the park in August and September. Even if we estimate that the Pirates only have a 5% chance of actually winning this division, the rewards for that one-in-twenty chance hitting are likely more valuable to the franchise than the payoff they’ll get from hanging onto a couple of grade-C prospects and punting a season where they’ve put themselves in position to make a run in the second half of the year.
The Pirates probably aren’t for real, but they’ve already banked 44 wins, and they probably only need another 46 or so over the remainder of the season to give themselves a strong chance of making the playoffs. Is it likely? Probably not, but it’s not impossible, and it could be a franchise-changing result if the Pirates were able to keep this up for the rest of the season. They shouldn’t let the opportunity slip by just because it’s not likely.
There’s an old cliche that reads “fortune favors the bold”. In that context, fortune is supposed to refer to luck rather than monetary value, but in baseball I’d argue that financial fortune really does follow teams that make bold moves and wind up playing playoff baseball. The Pirates have an opportunity to be bold, and they should take it.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.