The Pirates are in first place on June 12th. This is both great news and not news at all. It’s great news because the Pirates are playing awesome baseball right now, because their hitting is finally starting to provide some cover for their pitching, because they’ve torn through the NL Central and gotten two sweeps of bad baseball teams, because they’re the hottest team in baseball and it’s nice that the Pirates are at least in a place now where being the hottest team in baseball for two weeks gets them into first place.
On the other hand, it’s June 12th. The Pirates were in first place as late as July 25th last year, and that didn’t prevent them from a spectacular crash and burn as bad as anything that’s happened to this Flying Dutchman of a franchise since 1993. Being in first place on June 12th is meaningless because it’s only June 12th. The Pirates’ incredible run over the last two weeks has heartened me as much as anyone else, but all of the crowing and #FirstPlaceBucs stuff that’s been happening since Sunday has made me wince just a little bit. What happened last year is too fresh and the glaring weaknesses of this Pirate team are too obvious for being in first place on June 12th to mean much to me.
You can have this argument out from both sides. It’s easy to point out that the Pirates needed a 12-3 run just to get here, that their run differential is bad (-17), that they’re still only on pace for a historically bad 524 runs, that the pitching staff still relies on an injury prone Erik Bedard and a 35-year old AJ Burnett, that the bullpen is good but not quite this good, that the Pirates are a ridiculous 17-10 in one-run games and that that is terribly unlikely to continue, that the pitching staff is better this year than last year but the Pirates ERA-FIP is second lowest in the league, etc. I know that I’m being an extremely wet blanket here, but all of these things are objective facts about this Pirate team that seriously concern me about their ability to play at a high level going forward.
On the other hand, there are positive indicators, too. The Pirates have been averaging more than four runs a game in their 15-game hot streak. That 524 run projection is heavily influenced by how bad they were and it’s just flat-out unlikely they’ll be that bad over the course of 162 games. The run differential isn’t great, but while run differential is definitely helpful, it isn’t the best way of determining how good a team really was over 162 games, much less 59 games. The pitching is much better at striking people out, which means that even if they’re due for some regression, the wheels are unlikely to come exploding off like they did last year. And while we’re at it, the defense is actually quite good at turning balls in play into outs thus far this year, which is a pretty good sign for this team. Andrew McCutchen is singularly awesome, no matter what anyone says about the rest of the offense, and if he gets even a little bit of help, maybe they could be something respectable enough to help the excellent pitching staff to more wins than losses. It could definitely happen.
The point, of course, is that it’s only June 12th and we only have 59 games worth of information. We can say that this Pirate team is capable of being quite good when things are clicking properly, but we have no idea how long things are capable staying like this. There are a lot of indicators that say they aren’t, but there are a few that say that they might be, too. The only thing to do is to keep watching them play and to enjoy it as much as possible.