One of my favorite breakdowns of the Pirates’ first half came a few weeks ago at Pirate Prospects. He mostly reviews his pre-season predictions, but in doing so he makes the great point that even though Pirate fans have been conditioned to believe that the Bucs need a huge confluence of events and a parting of the seas and a lightning bolt from heaven to become a contending team, what it really takes is actually something much less than that.
What the Pirates did over the winter wasn’t remarkable. They cast off the chaff from their roster and made a few free agent signings that allowed them to open the 2011 season with 25 Major League players on their 25-man roster. This doesn’t sound like progress, but for a team that spent two years wishing on Andy LaRoche and Lastings Milledge and that was patching holes in the pitching staff with Brian Burres and Sean Gallagher, it really was. That sort of roster, as recent Pittsburgh Pirate history has told us, can probably win you 67 or 68 games, which is a lot better than 57.
Among that roster, though, you could see a chance for the Pirates to be even better than that in Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker and Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez and maybe even in James McDonald and (if you really squinted) Charlie Morton. Instead of praying that the Freddy Sanchezes and Jack Wilsons of the world would turn into something that piles of evidence suggested that they weren’t, this Pirate team had an unknown ceiling. That’s why I predicted 70-75 wins before the year, even if that seemed like a bit much at the time. With more depth and some good performances from young guys, why not?
Nintey games later, the Pirates stand three games over .500 and a game out of first place. People are acting like it’s a mystery how they’ve gotten to this point, but it’s not. The pitching has been solid and has gotten a big assist from the defense. The offense has been somewhat disappointing, but it’s mostly capable besides Andrew McCutchen, who’s becoming a full-fledged star. That won’t put the Pirates atop any runs scored lists (they’re 12th in the NL right now), but they’re on pace for 637 runs this year after only scoring 587 last year.
Really, it’s that easy. When you look at how the Pirates’ spent their off-season, what they basically did was create a base that would be mediocre at worst and could really become something with the right combination of luck and good performances from the young players. Right now you can probably say that luck has had a bigger component, but if the pitching falters in the second half there’s plenty of room for better performances from Tabata, Walker, and Alvarez, plus the return of players like Doumit to make up the difference.
That’s not to say that the Pirates will or won’t stay in contention in the second half. They definitely have the fourth best offense out of the four teams clustered at the top of the NL Central, but the pitching in Cincinnati and St. Louis isn’t exactly much to write home about at the moment. The defense in Milwaukee makes things interesting for their pitching staff, even if it’s pretty clearly the most talented in the division. The Pirates don’t need to outlast these teams for 162 games, though, they only have to be marginally better than them for 72.
Remember that regression to the mean doesn’t mean that if you flip a coin ten times and it lands heads ten straight times that the odds are now in favor of you flipping ten straight tails. It means that the odds are still 50/50 that on the eleventh flip you’ll get tails and that if you flip that coin 1,000 times, you’re just as likely to get a run of ten straight tails as you are ten straight heads. Even if you still think the Pirates are a 75-win team in terms of talent, that doesn’t mean that there’s going to be an equal and opposite reaction to the good first half that the pitching staff had. It means that you think that the Pirates are generally good enough to win 46% of their games. That would make them a 33-win team in the second half and an 80-win team on the season. But in the small sample of a 72-game second half, it wouldn’t be hard for a 33-win team to win 38 games and find themselves in the thick of a playoff race. It could happen just as easily as them becoming a 28-win team and falling off the face of the planet.
Whatever happens though, I think that the pre-season wall is still in effect, if in reverse. Every single game that the Pirates play as contenders at this point is one more than we thought they’d play early in the season and it’s worth enjoying without worrying about young player’s performances or what the Pirates will do at the trade deadline or what Paul Maholm’s future with the club is. Obviously we all want to see the Pirates make the playoffs, but if they don’t the season doesn’t have to be a failure. The best part of the first half of this season is that it’s been fun to watch Pirate games again. Just because that’s an unlikely result doesn’t mean that it’s a sure thing to end.