With a sweep of the Royals this weekend, the Pittsburgh Pirates moved into a tie with Cincinnati for first place in the National League Central. If you read baseball blogs, you probably realize how surprising this is. Sure, last year the Pirates had a winning record as late as August 1 before finishing the season 72-90. But rather than getting into an overall “are they going to regress?” post, I’d like to be more light-hearted (or shallow, depending on your perspective), and look at three curious facets of this particular Pirates team so far.
Who needs offense? The Pittsburgh offense was not expected to be good this season, but, well. Let’s put it this way: one might wonder whether the Pirates are using the contrast between to Andrew McCutchen‘s 156 wRC+ and the rest of the team as a concrete demonstration that lineup protection is a myth. It is one thing for McCutchen to be the only above-average hitter on the team, or for only Garrett Jones and Neil Walker to have wRC+-es over 90. The Pirates’ team wRC+ is currently 70.
How bad is that? The hilariously impotent 2010 and 2011 Mariners were substantially better. For a broader perspective, take a look at all of the team-seasons since 1955 (the era for which the base linear weights for wOBA are most appropriate). Only one team has a worse wRC+: the 1963 Mets, at 69. That team finished 51-111. Only two other teams had a wRC+ of 70: the 1965 Mets (50-112) and the 1981 Blue Jays (37-69 in a strike-marred season). Sure, someone has got to regress somewhere, but still, wow.
Pitching stories: I don’t care how much “luck” a team has had with respect to their Pythagorean expectation and actual record, or how “clutch” they have been (more on that below), with the an offense that offensive to good baseball taste, something needs to be going well with the pitching. The Pirates’ pitchers are not dominating, and are in the middle of the pack overall. Yet there are at least three nice stories and performances so far this season among their starters.
Perhaps the least surprising performance of the three I am singling out is Erik Bedard‘s. After all, Bedard’s problem has never been talent, but health. Still, while some may have wondered what the point of signing Bedard was for a rebuilding team like the Pirates. Yes, it is good to have non-horrible players, even in a rebuilding year, but Bedard could just as easily haven gotten hurt and ruined his trade value. For now, he’s been a big part of why the Pirates remain in the mix, despite the high walk rate.
More encouraging for the Pirates beyond this season has been the performance of James McDonald (27), who came over after a wacky 2010 with the Dodgers in a trade. After a less-than-awesome 2011 with Pittsburgh, he has easily been their best starter so far this season, with a 2.39 ERA and 2.72 FIP. McDonald has posted impressive improvements in his strikeout and walk rates. One cannot simplu discount either his past performances nor good ol’ regression to the mean. However, the addition of a slider as one of his main pitches may also be an indication that the new level of performance is more sustainable than as merely binomial approach may lead one to believe. Now, if only Dr. Andrews stays away. Surely a guy with an awesome middle name like “Zell” is immune to injury? (hat tip to Mike Petriello)
Finally, we have A.J. Burnett: what can we say about this guy? Given up for as dead in New York, he has found a new lease on life in Pittsburgh. Sure, some of that is getting over his 2011 gopher-itis (part of that is probably switch parks), and some of that is probably facing pitchers. Still, after the last two seasons of “A.J. Burnett is done,” him pitching very effectively so far this season is a nice surprise, and certainly is a big part of why the Pirates are still in this thing (at least as far as the standings go).
CLUTCH~! The Pirates’ current record is 32-27. Their Pythagorean record is 27-32. Using Pythagorean record as the key to true talent is something that is overdone, but so is the “good managers make their teams outperform their Pythagorean record” non-explanation. So how is Pittsburgh pulling this off? Well, they have been very, very “clutch.” Of the National League offenses, only the Mets’ and Nationals’ have been more “clutch” so far this season. Pirates’ pitchers lead all National League teams in “clutchness” — the next closest team, the Giants is almost a win behind in this respect.
What this means, in short, is that the Pirates have been performing much better in high-leverage situations on both sides of the ball than they have on average. I will leave it to others to debate whether or not this is a skill of the players involved or something special Clint Hurdle is doing.
Will the offense remain futile (it has to be better than this, right?)? Will the pitching hold up its end? Will the team’s good performance in crucial situations “even out” over the rest of the season? There are good ways of dealing with these questions, but that is for another time. At the moment, the Pirates have 32 wins in the bank and are in first, and they have done it with some nice starting pitching unexpected places, despite an offense “on pace’ to be historically awful, and clutch performances all around. Whatever happens for the rest of the season, so far it has been fun.