When you come to grad school to learn how to be a scientist, the first thing that they teach you is how to be a skeptic. Every program has a class where you read papers and discuss them. What conclusions did the researchers come to in this paper? How did they get there? Most importantly, is there enough evidence to support that conclusion? Did they do enough controls? The right controls? Does the data say what they’re telling us that it says?
I’m telling you this because this is also how I watch baseball. When I say that the Pirates need to get Kevin Correia out of the rotation, someone always immediately tells me that he’s got a 4.12 ERA and that he’s not pitching badly and that I hate Kevin Correia and that my bias against him makes it so that I’m unable to properly evaluate his performance. That’s not true at all; the reality is that I don’t believe his 4.12 ERA is sustainable. He only strikes out one batter every three innings and he’s still got a home run problem and his BABIP is .246. Some people look Correia’s ERA this year and conclude that he’s about an average pitcher. I think that’s a conclusion made on false assumptions.
I do the same thing with the whole team, of course. You tell me that being 36-32 is a sign that they’re going to contend this year, I’ll tell you that they’re being outscored by their opponents by ten runs. You tell me that their 3.44 ERA is a sign that the pitching is going to be different this year, I’ll tell you that their FIP is 3.91 and their pitchers have a combined BABIP of .279 and so this great pitching staff doesn’t necessarily strike me as something that’s sustainable throughout the whole season. “Pedro Alvarez has 13 home runs!” you say. “And he’s got 69 strikeouts in 226 at-bats,” I respond. This isn’t because I’m being contrarian or because I’m trying to rain on anyone’s parade; it’s because throughout my childhood I let myself be fooled by far too many bad baseball teams simply because I thought that it has to be time for the Pirates to catch a break. It never has to be time for any team that hasn’t earned it. The universe doesn’t owe us anything that we don’t take for ourselves. The Pirates won’t have a .500 record or win a division until they’re a good baseball team. No amount of “just enjoy the ride” will change that fact.
Here’s the thing, though: in June, the Pirates have been a good baseball team. They’re 11-7. They’ve scored 92 runs in 18 games, which is an average of 5.1 a night. That’s a run more than the NL average of 4.1 in 2012. That’s allowed them to win games, despite the pitching staff’s return to average (73 runs in 18 games is an average of 4.1 per night). The Pirates went 15-13 in May despite only scoring 89 runs all month. That sort of thing wasn’t ever going to be sustainable. What they’re doing in June? The way they’ve played in June? This is way more encouraging to me.
I’m not going to stop being skeptical. The team’s record in one-run games (17-11) makes me nervous. The fact that they might not be able to pile runs up all year they way they have this month makes me nervous. The tenuous pitching depth coupled with the age of AJ Burnett and the health of Erik Bedard, the way the bullpen is generally pitching over their heads, the thin line between awesome Pedro Alvarez and awful Pedro Alvarez, the way that Andrew McCutchen’s production has increased exponentially without a huge change in his peripherals, all of these things still stand out as bright red flags to me. As a scientist, I’d call June a promising preliminary result that needs more data.
Being a skeptic is no fun, though. Just like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. I want every single nine-run explosion this month to mean that it’s something that’s going to happen over and over. I want AJ Burnett and James McDonald in the Cy Young discussion in September. I want 35 home runs from Pedro Alvarez and I want the name Andrew McCutchen on the lips of every single baseball fan in America. I want 90 wins and a playoff spot. Remembering my default skeptical position, if I were to talk myself into the Pirates being a contender this year, how would I go about doing it? Let’s take a second here and just dream.
1. The Pirates’ schedule is favorable through the end of July
The Pirates have carved up bad and mediocre teams over the last month. Three wins against the Cubs, three against the Royals, two of three from the Twins, two of three from the Brewers, two of three from the Indians. Here’s who the Pirates play between now and the end of July: the Tigers (34-35), at the Phillies (33-38), at the Cardinals (35-35), the Astros (28-41), the Giants (38-32), at the Brewers (32-37), at the Rockies (26-42), the Marlins (33-36), the Cubs (24-45), at the Astros, and at the Cubs. That’s 17 games against three of the NL’s worst teams (Rockies, Cubs, and Astros), 15 more against currently mediocre teams (Tigers, Phillies, Cardinals, Marlins, Brewers), and three against a good team (Giants). If the Pirates win, say, 20 of their next 35 games (11 against the bad teams, 8 against the mediocre, one against the Giants), that makes them 56-47 on August 1st. That’s maybe an aggressive prediction, but it’s not implausible by any means. And any team that’s 56-47 is going to be in the thick of the playoff hunt with two months left. Even from there, the Pirates have six against the Padres and a bunch of games against the Cardinals and Brewers in August and a bunch of Cubs and Astros games in September. There’s not really another super-tough stretch at any point from here on out.
2. The pitching is much less likely to collapse this year
It’s one thing to think that the pitching isn’t quite as good as they’ve been to this point, but it’s another to think they’re going to collase entirely. Even if they regress back towards their FIP/xFIP/SIERA, that still makes them an average or slightly below average pitching staff, not a terrible, apocalyptically bad one.
3. June is an awfully small sample size to judge the offense by, but so were April and May
Repeat after me: the truth always lies in the middle. The truth always lies in the middle. The Pirates probably aren’t a five-runs-per-game team, but I sincerely doubt that they’ll revert back to a 530-runs-per-season pace, simply because teams that bad at the plate only come around once per generation or so and the offensive talent on the Pirates just isn’t that low.
4. Pedro Alvarez is making some progress with his strikeouts
Since Pedro Alvarez’s first hot streak began in earnest, in the July 25th double-header against the Rockies, he’s struck out 53 times in 188 plate appearances. That’s 28.2%, which means that over an extended period, including a bad slump, Alvarez has struck out in fewer than 30% of his plate appearances. I’d still rather see him around 25% and his slumps do worry me, but he’s definitely making some kind of progress at the plate this year.
5. It’s time for the front office to shift its focus
Regardless of whether the Pirates end up contending this year or not, it’s clear that the future for the Pirates is here. McCutchen is in Pittsburgh and locked down for the forseeable future. Alvarez is in Pittsburgh. Starling Marte is in Triple-A. Gerrit Cole is in Double-A and Jameson Taillon probably isn’t far behind him there. Before now, the focus of Neal Huntington and his team was purely talent acquisition. No matter how this season plays out, it’s time for a more directed approach to fill needs, even if that requires giving up some minor league talent. If the Pirates are in contention at the deadline this year, it could be a boost bigger than Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick is coming.
6. Stranger things have actually happened
If you read between the lines above, you can see that I think the Pirates’ true talent is somewhere in the ballpark of average or slightly below average in run prevention and probably below average –but not ridiculously so — in scoring runs. That makes them about what I thought they’d be before the year: a 75-win team. But if they have the true talent of a 75 win team, they’ve already won 36 of their first 68 games, which means if they play like a 75-win team from here on out, they win 78 games. Adjust for what could be a potentially easy schedule, toss in a little bit of luck, account for a little bit of improvement over the expected performance level for guys like McDonald and Alvarez, and, hey, we’re definitely in the “weirder things have happened” neck of the woods.
7. Andrew McCutchen
I’m not betting against him. Are you?
Look, I have as many questions about this team as anyone. I’m not buying plane tickets to Pittsburgh in October right now. I’m treading cautiously and I’m expecting them to come back to Earth. But I do want to believe in this team, and it’s easier to do that right now than it’s been in a long time.