Last week, on Tuesday morning, my dad and I drove to the airport talking about the Pirates/Astros debacle we'd witnessed at PNC Park on Labor Day afternoon. My dad had a simple question for me: "Why do you think this has happened two years in a row? Why have they gotten most of the way through a good season and collapsed twice now?"
I hedged. I said that I didn't think what happened last year was applicable to this year, that last year was a house of cards that had been teetering for weeks and that this year's team was dealing more with a flat-out decline in performance. We discussed reasons for that decline; I said that I suspect that Andrew McCutchen may be playing hurt riight now (think of all of the times that he crashes into the wall and comes up rotating his shoulder or the weird play where Jose Tabata failed to chase down a flyball and McCutchen turned his ankle cutting it off in the gap; think about how this happens maybe once or twice a week and how you never hear about it again), and I wondered about James McDonald's health. I vented that Neil Walker was missing time with back issues because I noticed in March that some of his struggles last year came with long strings of consecutive games that ended with him missing time with back problems (Walker had just two off days between April 28th and August 15, when he hurt his pinky; my dad and I both speculated that maybe after playing so much, then taking three days off and coming back caused his back to act up — we are by no means experts in this field, just two guys in a car speculating).
My biggest concerns, I said, were that Andrew McCutchen might become a player that can't ever play a full season season without getting hurt and that his injuries might become more serious in the future, and that James McDonald is currently dealing with a serious elbow or shoulder problem that will shelve him for an extended period of time in 2013. I talked about all of the small things that we fans have focused on over the last month or so — bullpen construction and Clint Barmes playing too much and even Barajas playing regularly over McKenry (this … is it's own long post that needs written and probably won't be at this point until discussion of Barajas's option comes up this winter) along with the typical small-ball gripes and the like — and how I thought that the biggest problems just had to do with the team's best players not performing. I pointed out that the Pirates weren't really collapsing like last year; that they sunk like a person in concrete shoes last year and this year they're more like a person slowly running out of energy over the course of a long swim.
All of this was last week. Today, the Pirates are 9-20 since peaking at 63-47 on August 8th. They're 1-5 against the Brewers and 1-5 against the Padres in that span. They went 2-4 against the Astros and Cubs last week. The Cubs and Astros only have ten more wins combined than the Nationals do in 2012. If we just take those 18 games and give the Pirates five more wins (one against the Brewers, one against the Padres, two against the Cubs), the Pirates would be 1 1/2 up on the Cardinals in the wild card race. Think about that: if they were just able to go 8-10 against the four worst teams on their schedule, they'd be in a playoff spot by more than a game. Instead, they went 4-14 and they're 2 1/2 games down with 23 games left.
Through all of it, it's easy to say that being 2 1/2 down with 23 games left isn't that bad. That if the Pirates can just draw a line in the sand RIGHT THIS VERY SECOND TODAY, if they can build a wall around this slide, they could still finish strong. Of course, this was true on August 16 when they'd lost five of six to the Dodgers and Padres and it was true on August 28th when they'd lost six of seven and it was true on September 4th when they'd lost four in a row to Milwaukee and Houston. So why are we all sitting around, pretending like the result will be different on September 10th? The Pirate team we've seen since August 8th is a bad baseball team. They're so far removed from the Pirates of June and early July that it feels like a farce to even pretend like they're capable of the same things.
On most mornings, I wake up, go to work, and check the morning update on the Pirates' playoff odds at Baseball Prospectus. This is how they've evolved since the morning of September 9th, which is the last time that they were 16 games over .500.
That's the story of a team that played itself out of the playoffs, not a team that couldn't keep up with it's more talented opposition. It's frustrating because it's a wasted opportunity, no matter what your pre-season expectations were. When will the Pirates (or any team) get a 49-game stretch like the one they got from Andrew McCutchen between May 26 and July 23? This is definitely a career year for Garrett Jones, what if is for Pedro Alvarez, too? His strikeout rate still isn't falling that much, and so it really might be. Seriously, where does this pitching staff go from here? McDonald is a huge question mark and Burnett is old and I don't know how much Locke or McPherson or Wilson really offer to a Major League rotation beyond what we've gotten used to seeing in Pittsburgh pre-2012. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are great pitching prospects but that doesn't keep them from being pitching prospects. The Reds are going to be good for a while and the Cubs are only going to get better going forward, and the Cardinals seem to be on the downswing given their age and health, but have a stocked minor league system. Outside of the division, the Nationals are about to embark on a rein of terror that will engulf the National League for the forseeable future and the Dodgers apparently have no limit on how much money they can spend.
I don't mean to sound like a surly talking head accusing the Pirates of blowing their last, best chance at contending during the Andrew McCutchen era. I fully expect that the Pirates will be able to make a run at a playoff spot in 2013 or 2014 or 2015 or 2016 or maybe even all of those years; what I'm saying is that despite low pre-season expectations, the window opened this year and the Pirates didn't get through it. That wasn't true in 2011, but I do think it's true in 2012. The August version of the Pittsburgh Pirates was a legitimate contender. The September version of the Pittsburgh Pirates is not. Why did this happen? It's certainly because the Pirates' key performers (McCutchen, McDonald, and Burnett) slipped back towards average in the last month, but why else? Is it because Neal Huntington botched the bullpen construction after trading Brad Lincoln? Is it because Clint Hurdle occasionally manages baseball games like he's literally wearing a box on his head and not watching the things happening on the field? Is it because the Pirates have steadfastly refused to hold baserunners on first base all year and now teams are finally eating them alive for it? (Who's fault is that, anyway? Was that Hurdle's decision or Searage's decision or is it something that came from Dan Fox and Neal Huntington? There's a great question for another day.) I don't have a good answer; it's obviously a combination of a ton of things. The difficulty of the question doesn't mean that it doesn't have to be answered, though. The Pirates need to figure out what went wrong here and why it went wrong, because honestly they're not going to be 16 games over .500 on August 8th every year.
In any case, that's what's so legitimately difficult for me to process about the current baseball apocalypse that's happening in front of us every night. After watching the Same Old Pirates every single year from 1993-2011, we had 110 games this year that told us that this Pirate team was something much different. Now, it's September, and it's the Same Old Pirates again. It's more than disheartening; it's crushing.