The Pirates have lost two in a row to the Cubs. They've lost four of six. They're no longer alone in first place in the NL Central. They're 19 games above .500 and they're still tied for first place, yes, but that little voice in your head is whispering. "Remember last year," it's saying. You don't want to listen to it, but you can't just forget it. Jeff Passan is telling you that the collapse is coming. You finally understand what "waiting for the other shoe to drop," really means.
So let's take a deep breath, and consider some reasons that this Pirate team really could win 90+ games and a wild card spot. It's true that the Pirates are playing over their heads, and it's silly to dispute that; I don't think that even the most partisan Pirate fan is expecting 100 wins or the best record in baseball this year. But it's worth considering exactly where their heads are right now, because it's in a better place than a lot of people think. One good measure of "true" winning percentage is Baseball Prospectus's Third Order Winning Percentage. What Third Order % does is use underlying stats to estimate "true" runs scored and allowed (we've been over this before, but 10-hit shutouts aren't performances that are likely to be repeated as shutouts in the grand scheme of the universe), then adjusts it for the quality of opponents. The Pirates' 53 wins are just about four more than their projected third order wins (48.7) and that's the biggest positive gap in the league, but their Third Order % is still .560, which is the fourth best in the National League.
The other way we can do this is to quantify the player's performances by counting their total WAR, adding that number to a replacement level of wins, and seeing what number that gives us. At Baseball-Reference, the Pirates' offense and defense has been worth 15.1 wins above replacement and their pitching has been worth nine wins. If we assume a replacement level winning percentage to be about 28% (usually replacement level comes in around 45 wins at the end of the season), that gives us about 48 wins. Again, not as good as the Pirates' record, but still awfully good.
If the Pirates are really a "true talent" .500 team and they win half of their games from here on out, that's 90 wins. That should get them one of the two wild cards. Baseball Prospectus's playoff odds see the Pirates as being a little better than that (based on PECOTA projections and schedule), clocking them in at 91 wins. They currently give them almost a 90% chance of making the playoffs. Fangraphs (using ZiPS) sees the exact same thing.
Let's wipe all of that clear, though, and get our fears on the table. The pitching staff can't keep on cruising as the NL's best, right? The defense is great, but the hit-rate is ridiculously low (the gap between the Pirates at 7.5 H/9 and the Reds at 7.9 H/9 is the same as the gap between the Reds and and due to come up some. The strikeouts are nice, but the walks are a persistent problem. AJ Burnett is old, Francisco Liriano has made a career out of inconsistency, Gerrit Cole is unproven, and Jeff Locke is over his head and in deeper water than anyone else. Injuries have reduced rotation depth — a pre-season strength — to basically just Jeanmar Gomez and Brandon Cumpton. If the wheels come off again, there aren't many spare tires. This is all true, particularly if Wandy Rodriguez (or James McDonald, I guess) can't get right before season's end.
We can flip this on its ear, though. The Pirates' offense isn't great, but it's probably not quite as bad as you think. They're 11th in the National League in OBP and they're 10th in SLG, but they're awfully close to the league average in both categories. In terms of OBP, they're at .310 and the average is .314. In SLG, they're .392 and the average is .395.
They're lagging below the league average right now for three reasons; Clint Barmes, Travis Snider, and their pitchers. Barmes has been replaced by Jordy Mercer and is no longer an issue. Snider can't hit the way he's been hitting regularly and remain in the lineup every day. The pitchers are terrible (.098/.130/.098 for an OPS+ of -34) and while that's it's own discussion for the future, there's not really any way around it this year. Still, the Pirates are just a touch below league average in both on-base and slugging, but they're well-below the average in runs score (3.92 compared to 4.10). The reason for that is their on-base splits. The Pirates have a .696 OPS with the bases empty and a .710 OPS with runners on base, but they're an absolutely terrible .657 with runners in scoring position. You can look at the league splits to see why that's unusual. In general, teams hit better with runners on base than with bases empty, but there's usually not a huge difference between how they hit with runners on base in general and how they hit with runners in scoring position (2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, etc.). That means this: if the Pirates have been lucky on the mound and in the field (and I think we can agree that they have been, though the discussion about defensive shifts may or may not mask the extent of the luck), they've also been a bit unlucky at the plate.
The Pirates are probably not a .609 team, but they've already won 53 of their first 87 games. Those wins don't go away. Remember that despite what has happened over the last two seasons, the law of averages doesn't say that a .500 team will go 28-47 after starting 53-34; it says that they'll go 38-37 or 37-38 over that 75-game stretch. Keep that voice at bay for a couple of days longer.