I have this problem where I have the ability to be very analytical and objective about just anything until it starts to actually pertain to me, at which point I lose pretty much all ability to think about things with any objectivity at all. This applies to a lot of things and it certainly does to baseball, too. That means that while I have no problem being frank about a 110 loss team in 2010, I have a bit more trouble calibrating exactly how excited I should be about the Pirates’ playoff prospects in 2012. They’re real and they’re tangible right now, but how real are they?
A lot of times, you’ll find people like me digging deeper into a team’s performance than their record. This is because for actual evaluation purposes, sometimes the result of a game doesn’t tell the full story. It gives you the ultimate result in the win/loss column and that’s how the sport is judged, but whether a team wins or not on any given night is not necessarily something that’s predictive of future results. Just in the last month or so, the Pirates have followed four losses with four wins and three losses with eight wins in their next nine. This sort of thing matters more than record when the Pirates are a bad team and you’re trying to gauge how good they are and how good they can be going forwards, but it matters less now because the Pirates have 46 wins and are two games ahead of the Reds in first place.
Still, the ultimate question remains: how much of this is real? How much of it will carry into the second half? It’s important to ask, because frankly, the last 62 games of 2011 destroyed me and no matter how much fun this is right now and no matter how much I practice my zen of living in the moment, I’m not going all-in on a team that’s got a high collapsibility factor. I can enjoy every single second of every win, but I need to know something more.
So how have the Pirates played so far? Lots of people, myself included, tend to use Pythagorean record — that is, estimating wins and losses from runs scored and runs allowed — as a shorthand, but there are some inherent flaws in Pythag, especially over just half of a season. For the sake of our thought experiment, though, let’s start there. The Pirates 324 runs scored and 304 allowed gives them a Pythagorean record of 43-39, which is three games short of their actual record of 46-36. If we want to dig deeper, though, Baseball Prospectus has a stat called third-order win percentage. That projects a team’s runs scored and allowed totals from their underlying stats (Think of it this way: a team that scores four runs on four hits is much less likely to repeat that four-run performance than a team that scores four runs on 14 hits. The reverse holds true for pitching. That’s an awfully simplistic description, but that’s the basic concept.) and uses that to estimate record. They have the Pirates’ third order winning percentage at .489; that’s an approximate record of 40-42, six games short of their actual win total. A third way to estimate wins is to just go to Baseball-Reference, add up the team’s wins over replacement, and figure out how many wins that comes to. If we assume replacement level is 45 wins of the season (I’m not sure exactly where it is for 2012, but it’s usually around there), and the Pirates as a team have 15 WAR total, that would give them about 38 wins right now, eight fewer than their actual total.
So we know the Pirates are playing a little bit over their heads right now to be 46-36. That much is clear. Since we only have a half-season of data thus far, let’s throw WAR out as an estimator since WAR uses defensive metrics and 82 games isn’t quite enough to feel comfortable with for our purposes here. Let’s stick with third-order win percentage and slant it slightly towards the Pirates on the assumption that the late May/early June Pirates are closer to the Real Pirates than the April/May Pirates that couldn’t score runs to save their lives. We’ll say that, on the whole, it’s not unreasonable to expect the Pirates to go .500 from here on out based on how they’ve played through 82 games.
The good news is that when we talk about regressing to the mean, that doesn’t mean that we have to expect the Pirates to go 36-45 over their last 82 games if we think that they’re a True Talent .500 team; we would expect them to go 40-41 or 41-40. The Pirates went 15-13 in May even though they got outscored 110-89. That’s a pretty improbable result for the whole month, but the Pirates don’t give those wins back just because it’s improbable; they count just the same. They’re just not likely to repeat the performance in August if they get outscored by 20 runs again. So if we assume the Pirates are a True Talent .500 team based on their first 82 games and we give them the benefit of the doubt for that extra win since they beat the Astros last night, then it’s a not at all unreasonable expectation for the Pirates to win 86 games based on their play this year. This is pretty much exactly what Baseball Prospectus pegs them at in their playoff odds today, using a lower win percentage than our guess of .500, but adjusting for schedule.
This is different than last year. When the Pirates were 53-47 and tied for first place on July 25th last year, their third order win percentage was .427, which was the third-lowest in the National League. There was no real uptick in their play from May to June to July and it was obvious that the pitching staff was treading on thin ice. The same red flags don’t quite exist with this team.
So if we say that our best guess, without making too many assumptions, is that the Pirates will win 86 games in 2012, is that enough for a playoff spot? You’d have to go back to 2007 to find a year where 86 wins would take the NL Central and 2006 to find a year where it’d take the second wild card. I don’t think 86 wins claims a playoff spot this year; the Reds are a very good team and the Cardinals are better than they’re currently getting credit for and the East is deep and the Dodgers are getting Kemp back and I could keep going on and on. That being said, if you think a team wins 86 games without making too many assumptions, that team could pretty easily win 92 or 93 games with some good luck (they could also end up with 80 wins with some bad luck, but let’s not go there) and that should enough for a playoff spot.
This is a very long way of explaining what we already know. Based on what we’ve seen through 82 games, there is a very real chance that the Pittsburgh Pirates could make the playoffs this year. This could change pretty quickly with one bad week (NO ONE saw the 2011 collapse coming quite as hard as it did, not even the most skeptical of us), and I don’t think we should completely rule out the possibility of that happening quite yet, but we also have plenty of reason to believe that the 2012 Pirates are much more for real than the 2011 Pirates ever could’ve hoped to be. They’re certainly not the favorites at this point and there’s some room for things to go wrong, but I feel pretty comfortable in saying that it’s been a long, long time since they’ve been in the position they’re in right now. A long time.