It’s July 20th, and as Tom Haudricourt is all too happy to complain about, the Pirates are atop the NL Central standings. Jeff Sullivan wrote a long piece at SBNation looking at why the Pirates are such a hot topic, and here’s how he wraps it up:
Alvarez has done nothing and been hurt. Tabata’s been fine, but he hasn’t been better and he’s hurt, too. McDonald has an 85 ERA+, which is easily the worst among the starters. Overbay has an 88 OPS+, down from last season’s 105. And Meek has missed most of the year with shoulder problems. Plus, as previously mentioned, both the team’s catchers are injured.
Read that paragraph, and only that paragraph, and you’d assume that the 2011 Pirates are caught in a nightmare.
Instead, they’re 50-44, and looking down at the competition.
Right now, there is no better story in baseball.
He may well be right. It’s hard not to like to see the Pirates have some success after 18 horrible years.
The weird thing, to me, is how a lot of analysts are just talking about how cool it is that the Pirates are in contention and not actually talking about if, you know, they’re good enough to stay in contention. And I’m not just talking about national MLB writers for big media outlets, this runs all the way to trustworthy bloggers as well. I, however, look at the Pirates and see much more 2006 Brewers than 2008 Rays. That is, they’re a team who looks like they’re going to have some success and be a playoff threat in the coming few years, rather than a team that came out of nowhere to take a division and contend for a World Series.
Looking at total-team numbers seem to back up the idea that the Pirates have overachieved so far. Fun fact: the Cardinals and Brewers are the top 2 teams in wOBA in the whole National League right now, in that order. The Reds are 5th, and the Pirates are 4th from the bottom with a .301 wOBA. On the other side of the game, as a team the Brewers are 5th in FIP, the Cardinals are 12th and the Pirates are 13th. It doesn’t take a professional scout to notice that the Pirates have put up a 3.94 FIP overall so far, with a 3.38 ERA, and the Brewers have a 3.68 FIP and a 4.09 ERA. Some of this difference is certainly attributable to defense, considering the Pirates look to be a bit above average so far while the Brewers are most likely a bit below average. But that’s not a gap that is likely to be maintained throughout the rest of the year.
So in summary, if you’re looking for overall conclusions going forward, the Brewers and Cardinals can both score lots of runs, just the Brewers can pitch, and the Pirates can’t really do either that well. That sets up things nicely for the Brewers going forward, and I’d think they’d have to be considered the favorites.
That’s not to discredit what the Pirates have done. Being in first with a bit more than 2 months to play is a heck of an accomplishment, but I don’t see this pitching staff, with the likes of Jeff Karstens (2.3 ERA, 4.5 FIP) finishing the year as strongly as they’ve been going. I think the Pirates are going to end up at or around .500 and give their fans some hope for next year, and that Neal Huntington is building that team the correct way. But the Brewers have built a very strong team this year, and though injuries and trades can change things quickly, I don’t see many scenarios in which the Pirates finish ahead of the Brewers in the Central.