Can fans of Major League Baseball taste the improbable? Do we dare to hope again after the San Diego Padres broke our hearts on the last day of the season in 2010? It doesn't matter if you are not a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates. You don't have to be a home town fan to be a fan of a story like this. The Pirates haven't had this much fun since Barry Bonds wore their uniform and that was a long, long time ago. It almost seems obligatory to look for reasons why the Pirates can't continue this success. Heck, Baseball Prospectus still predicts the Pirates will finish the season 30-41 and finish way out in the standings. But why can't we dream a little?
To continue to win, the Pirates need to continue to defy long odds. None of their starting pitchers except James McDonald strikes out more than five and a half batters per nine innings. Jeff Karstens and Paul Maholm both have BABIPS under .250. As a team, only the Minnesota Twins strike out less batters than the Pirates do. And yet they have the eighth best ERA in baseball. They limit walks pretty well, but only five other teams have a worse strikeout to walk ratio.
On offense, they are twentieth in the majors (out of 30 teams) in runs scored. Only five teams have hit less homers. No team in the majors gets hit by pitches less, perhaps because their offense doesn't instill fear in people. Only six teams have a lower team OPS than the Pirates. Only seven teams have a lower OBP than the Pirates.
On defense, only six teams have a worse fielding percentage than the Pittsburgh Pirates. They do much better in defensive efficiency where their athleticism allows them to score twelfth in the majors in that category. Their team is second only behind the Tampa Bay Rays in fielding runs above average. The bottom line is that they make errors but they really do a great job of going and getting the catch or the grounder.
One of the things this writer likes to look at is the Pythagorean win-loss record. Based on runs scored against runs allowed, the statistic tells you what your actual record should look like. Based on those figures, the Pirates have only won one more game than their Pythagorean record. That's comforting. But it's based on the team's continued ability to get people out on a regular basis and besides the offense (which can be aided by a smart trade), the starting rotation for the Pirates continue to be scorned by most analysts because they don't strike people out.
Could this be a test case for the old pitching to contact debate? All of the starters except for McDonald have a higher ground ball than fly ball ratio. Three of the starters have double-digit double plays induced. Their pitchers invite you to mash the ball into the ground in the hopes that one of their fielders will make the play. Both middle infielders, Ronny Cedeno and Neil Walker already have more than 250 assists this season. Lyle Overbay has the seventh most put outs of any first baseman in baseball.
Everything about the Pirates' run looks similar to the Padres run a year ago. The Padres ran with good but surprising starting pitching, a great bullpen and opportunistic scoring. It's also a formula the Giants ran with all the way to the title. The big difference between the Giants and the Pirates though is that their rotation is a power rotation unlike the Pirates staff. This staff looks more like the Padres of last year if you give James McDonald the Matt Latos power role.
Sites like Baseball Prospectus don't have faith the the Pirates can finish strong. If you follow some of the big time guys on Twitter like Keith Law, they scoff at the success of Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton, Keven Correia and Paul Maholm. Perhaps they are right. But wouldn't it be cool if they weren't? Can the improbable trump the statistically expected? Wouldn't that be fun?
After the Pirates finish this series with Houston, they have thirteen straight games against the Reds, Cardinals, Braves and Phillies. That's a heck of a schedule and perhaps we'll know more about things after that. For the Pirates to hold on, they will need to play that schedule at nearly .500. There is talk about them trading for some hitting. That might be easier said than done since a lot of their young talent is already playing on the field in the majors.
The odds, the analysts and the skeptics are certainly against the Pittsburgh Pirates. But is it uncool to root for them anyway?