A Reason the Pirates are Right Where They Are

The Pirates have done us the favor of getting better gradually. Four years ago, they were absolutely dreadful. The next year, they were fine through July. The next year, they were fine through August. Now they’ve been good through September. We’ve been able to see the Pirates coming, to some extent, and so this 2013 success hasn’t taken us by complete surprise. We were prepared for this, and we can make sense of this, and we’re not fighting whiplash as a consequence of watching the Pirates blow by. The Pirates are evidence that a good plan takes time, and that time can bear fruit.

But it’s still weird seeing the Pirates in the neighborhood of baseball’s best record. They’re still, technically, in contention for the National League Central entering the last weekend, and they’re in line to play at home in next week’s one-game NL wild-card playoff. And you notice something, in the standings: the Cardinals have a +172 run differential. The Reds are at +119. The Pirates are at +47. We know that run differential isn’t everything, and we’ve been over this so many times, but it’s still worth quickly examining one thing the Pirates have been doing in particular to allow them to amass all these wins. In one category, the Pirates have been blowing baseball away.

You’re familiar with the concept of leverage. You pretty much have to be, if you’re a reader of FanGraphs. An example of a high-leverage situation: bases loaded, ninth inning, tie game. An example of a low-leverage situation: bases loaded, ninth inning, down by 12. Leverage is sort of a proxy of heart rate, and high-leverage plate appearances are more important than low-leverage plate appearances. They contain more significance, more value, and this season, in the majors, batters have a collective .303 wOBA in high-leverage attempts. Let’s look at the breakdown:

High Leverage: .303 wOBA
Medium Leverage: .320
Low Leverage: .311

All right, sure. You figure, in high-leverage situations, better pitchers are sent to the mound, hence the reduced offense. It’s not like you can usually send up better hitters. Anyway, this is just to establish some context.

Let’s take a look at baseball’s best pitching staffs so far in situations of particular import. Instead of looking at peripherals, like usual, we’ll look at wOBA allowed, so maybe you can think of this as showing run-prevention units instead, including defense. Anyhow, a top ten:

Pirates 718 0.238
Athletics 647 0.269
Reds 654 0.277
Royals 604 0.277
Braves 576 0.278
Red Sox 579 0.290
White Sox 717 0.292
Rangers 605 0.293
Diamondbacks 817 0.295
Rockies 600 0.296

TBF = Total Batters Faced. You’ll notice the Pirates in first. Maybe you already guessed that, given the way this post was proceeding. But it isn’t just that the Pirates are in first. It’s by how much the Pirates are in first, and you’re looking at a gap of 31 points. Granted, this isn’t park-adjusted, and granted, this isn’t league-adjusted, but the difference between first and second is bigger than the difference between second and 11th. The Pirates are at 79% the league average. The Pirates have a fine pitching staff overall, but this season, in important situations, they’ve just completely shut opponents down.

In low- and medium-leverage situations, the Pirates have allowed a .298 wOBA. The gap of 60 points between that and high-leverage wOBA allowed is, naturally, baseball’s biggest, ahead of the Rockies at 41 points. For the curious among you, the Brewers are in last, at -31 points, but for the Brewers fans among you, you basically already knew that.

The numbers are silly, even when you dig deeper. So far, 13 different Pirates pitchers have faced at least 15 batters in high-leverage situations. Here are their results:

Mark Melancon 101 0.210
Jeff Locke 70 0.284
A.J. Burnett 60 0.290
Justin Wilson 59 0.210
Jason Grilli 54 0.203
Vin Mazzaro 53 0.245
Tony Watson 51 0.083
Bryan Morris 47 0.259
Francisco Liriano 46 0.236
Gerrit Cole 41 0.262
Charlie Morton 40 0.261
Jeanmar Gomez 25 0.193
Kris Johnson 18 0.220

Every single one of them has been above-average. Melancon has been the ace of the bullpen, but he hasn’t been the only stopper, as everyone else has also gone above and beyond. It doesn’t read like a list of baseball’s best arms, but they’ve pitched like it when they’ve had to.

FanGraphs only has this data going back to 2002, but since 2002, these Pirates lead the way. No other staff has allowed a lower wOBA in high-leverage situations during the window, meaning the Pirates have been doing something historic at least in a recent sense. With three games left, one wouldn’t expect the numbers to change very much between now and when they’re official. It’s been a timely year for the arms and the defense.

You can’t help but think about the sustainability, or unsustainability, as it were. Last year’s leader in this category was the Rays, at .247. This year they’re at .311. Last year’s runner-up was the Orioles, at .254. This year they’re at .329. But then, in third last year was the A’s, at .268. This year they’re at .269. Like all things, you figure this has been a blend of talent and luck, and we can’t really speak to the proportions. The Pirates shouldn’t count on this repeating in 2014.

But the Pirates don’t need to worry about 2014. It’s the end of September, and for once, the Pirates don’t need to worry about next year yet. What’s happened has happened, and you can maybe think of this as the Pirates’ version of the Cardinals’ absurd offensive success with runners in scoring position. It’s how the current setting was built, and now what matter are short series. The regular season is just about being in position to make a run in October, and the Pirates have set themselves up. They might not succeed in the same way over the next few days or weeks, but this’ll just be postseason chaos. The important thing is that they’re alive, and they got here in large part by preventing big hits.

The Reds, incidentally, have baseball’s best pitching-staff Clutch score. So you can wonder about sustainability with all the NL Central playoff teams. Or you can just happily accept the baseball and think about 2014 when there’s no more baseball anymore. It’s still 2013. There are three games left before madness. Forget sustainability. It’s September 27. It’s all been sustained.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

25 Responses to “A Reason the Pirates are Right Where They Are”

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  1. 2012 Baltimore Orioles Bullpen says:

    Who’s to say they can’t do it again next year?

    +14 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. Rule of Law says:

    Really looking forward to another 17 years or so of sub-.500 Pirates teams.

    -30 Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. Oh, Beepy says:

    Jeff, I’m gonna open this comment by saying that I normally find you a little insufferable but that last line has got me all choked up.


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    • Word says:

      Interesting. I like Jeff, but I found the last few sentences purple and contrived.

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      • scraps says:

        Jeff, I usually find you querulous and stroppy, but now I find you burble, heebie-jeebie, and a bit roister-doister.

        I know that you are keen to know.

        +14 Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. Dave from Pittsburgh says:

    The Pirates bullpen has been consistently good throughout Huntingtons tenure, but they definitely won’t be as stringent with run prevention next year probably.

    But you’re right, who cares? I’ll worry about that in April of 2014

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  5. Jaack says:

    Going off the first paragraph, we see an inevitable extrapolation of in which month the pirates will falter. In 2013, the collapse must come in October, obviously meaning that the Pirates will fall this postseason. However, in 2014 this collapse will not occur until November, securing a World Series title. By 2019, they’ll be winning the World Series annually, along with dominating the free agency period, the winter meetings, and spring training, but well collapse in April of the next season.

    My science also tells me that the Phillies will win the IL championship next year as a part of their fall from the 2008 WS victory.

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    • Richie says:

      One of these years the Series is going into November. I say next year, so don’t bet the Buccos till ’15.

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      • Jaack says:

        I recall something after the ’09, or ’10 series where Darth Selig said something about no more World Series going into November. There also is the possibility that the Bucs pull off a sweep of a 5 game victory avoiding those late games. While you could very well be right, its in the hands of the schedulers now.

        As good baseball scientists, we should re-evaluate the hypothesis after the season.

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  6. Gyre says:

    Apparently the author has failed to consider 1960. It only takes one more run to win, and it doesn’t matter how many more when you lose. There is no predictive value in current runs scored in future game, else Vegas would have folded shop long ago.

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    • PiratesHurdles says:

      Pretty sure that was the point Jeff was trying to make. As in, who cares if it most likely isn’t sustainable they are here now and the playoffs are a crap shoot.

      At the same time, you could argue that the Bucs poor RISP and situational hitting isn’t sustainable, so next year they give up more runs, but also score more. Doesn’t really matter as the next few weeks are what matters now.

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    • TWNDAI says:

      You’d be right if Vegas didn’t adjust odds (or runlines) accordingly.

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  7. Wobatus says:

    Why is he supposed to be considering the 1960 World Series? Except, Pirates. And win 4 close games lose 3 blowouts. Musta had some bad low leverage run prevention. And Elroy Face.

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    • baycommuter says:

      That plus Stengel totally screwed up his pitching staff out of superstition and didn’t have either Whitey Ford (unhittable) or Ralph Terry available for game 7. That’s probably why he was fired after the series.

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  8. Baltar says:

    It is great that Jeff has identified at least one reason why the Pirates and one reason why the Reds have had good seasons. Its not all talent, it’s also quirks like these that make for good and bad seasons.

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  9. Ryan says:

    The link to the Reds having the best Clutch Score shows the Pirates on top. What am I missing?

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  10. jsolid says:

    “you can maybe think of this as the Pirates’ version of the Cardinals’ absurd offensive success with runners in scoring position.”

    Then wouldn’t it be awesome for the Pirates and Cardinals to play each other in the playoffs. Irresistible force, meet immovable object.

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    • Retirenutting says:

      This + with Latos hurting the Reds just don’t have the pitching to make it past the Cards. Really hoping for Bucs/Cards NL Series.

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  11. matt w says:

    Holy s@#t Tony Watson

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