What can you learn in two weeks?

Like many (most? all?) of you, I entered 2010 expecting the Pirates to be Not A Very Good Team. The reasons for that are extensively documented in this post but the short version is that a young team like the Pirates has a lot of questions about a lot of players and the Bucs could get positive returns on half of those guys and still lose 90 games in a season like 2010. I was OK with this reality two weeks ago and I still am today.

We’re two full weeks into the season now, which means that it’s time to stop looking back on pre-season stuff and evaluating what’s happening. The problem with this is that results are inevitably tied up in record and in this early part of the season record doesn’t always reflect results. After Sunday’s win, the Pirates are 7-5. Since 1992, the Pirates have been 7-5 in 1993, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2003, and 2004 without ever finishing the season with a winning record. The disconnect between record and performance feels especially wide this season. Perhaps that’s because the youth of the team seems to have some people genuinely excited, perhaps that’s because the disconnect is huge.

Coming into Sunday’s game, the Pirates were fourteenth in the NL in runs scored and sixteenth in runs allowed. The checklist of the most important things to watch during the season is, through two weeks, almost entirely unfulfilled. Charlie Morton has looked terrible, Lastings Milledge has drawn almost no walks and hit mostly singles, Garrett Jones has been invisible since his torrid two-game start, Andy LaRoche has struggled, and Ross Ohlendorf didn’t pitch well in his one start and then went to the disabled list. That’s not to say all these trends will be season-long trends because they probably won’t and no one should form any baseball opinion on what happens over any two week stretch. It’s oddly disconcerting to have the only positive thing about a team be some timely hitting and a nice record, but that’s essentially where the Pirates are after 12 games.

That sounds harsh and perhaps it is, a bit. I do think that the run differential is at least slightly misleading to this point in the season. John Russell has managed every game so far this year like the seventh game of the World Series (and to be fair, they all may be as important to him given his contract status) and he’s regularly emptied the bullpen and pulled out every stop he can find to hold on to these seven wins. There’s nothing wrong with that, but while Joel Hanrahan was on the disabled list it left the Pirates with an awfully short bullpen and lead to situations like Jack Taschner and Javier Lopez pitching in situations they shouldn’t have been in (that’s long relief, not the LOOGY role that they should both be in) and Hayden Penn getting into games while they were still close. Some of the ridiculous blowouts, like the 14-run inning debacle, could’ve been closer games but there just wasn’t anybody else in the bullpen those nights. Since one of Russell’s biggest problems in the past has been leaving pitchers in for too long, it’s hard to complain about him having a borderline itchy trigger with his starters this year (at least when he’s had enough relievers to have that option).

It’s also true that the pitching has been much worse than it theoretically should be. As Matt W points out in the comments below, the Pirates’ FIP (4.95) and xFIP (4.63) are both better than their team ERA (6.34) to this point in the season (not that their FIP and xFIP are anything to write home about, mind you, just that they’re not as bad as their horrific team ERA). In fact, the 1.39 run gap between their ERA and FIP is the biggest negative gap in the league by a pretty large margin (the Brewers are second worst at 1.17). This kind of thing is at least a little intuitive; Charlie Morton (who’s a subject for a longer post tomorrow) can’t keep giving up home runs every time more than one runner reaches base any more than the Pirates can keep winning 7 of 12 games while getting outscored by 22 runs.

So, back to the question in the title: What have we learned so far? Not a whole lot, I’m afraid. After 12 games the following things seem apparent to me:

  • The Pirates’ record should be worse than it is.
  • The pitching will likely level out in the next two weeks.
  • The offense is theoretically capable of better than we’ve seen so far, though I have no idea if this will bear itself out.

Honestly, I can’t remember a harder Pirate team to get a handle on after two weeks of the season. They have a winning record (which is good), but they haven’t really played well (which is bad). There’s plenty of reason to think that their play should improve a bit (which is good), but there’s no guarantee that the record will stay good even if they start playing better.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.