Saturday, September 20, 2014

Flyover: Pittsburgh Pirates

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month. The last post was about the NL Central leader, St. Louis, so let's stay in the National League Central with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

How Are They Doing Lately? The Pirates are 18-8 over the past 30 days entering play today. That's the best record in the league. They're fourth in scoring at 4.7 runs per game and they're allowed by far the fewest runs per game, 2.7. The league's averaging 3.9 runs per game on offense and allowing 4.0 runs per game (the discrepancy due to interleague play). As a result, they seem to have a pretty secure hold on a postseason spot. They're 2.5 games behind the Cardinals in the division, a game behind the Giants for the first wild card, and 4.5 ahead of Milwaukee in the race for the second wild card. 

What's Going Right? The offense has been good, the pitching has been good. The Pirates are batting .281, third in the league, over the past 30 days, with a .336 on base percentage, also third, and the best slugging percentage in the league, .467. They've also been tough to fan, striking out on 18% of plate appearances, third lowest in the league, compared to a league average of 21%. The pitching's been pretty ridiculous: 2.29 ERA overall, 2.70 for starters and an absurd 1.38 for relievers. All those ERAs are first in the league.

What's Going Wrong? Not a lot. They've been pretty bad basestealers, with nine stolen bases (second fewest) against eight caught stealing (tied for fifth highest). There's been some luck involved in those pitching numbers. There are three statistics for which large deviations from league averages generally don't persist: batting average on balls in play (all batted balls excluding homers), percentage of baserunners stranded on base, and percentage of fly balls resulting in home runs. A team that performs exceptionally well in those metrics typically can't keep it up. Pirates pitchers have allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play, stranded the highest percentage of baserunners, and given up the second-fewest homers as a percentage of fly balls over the past 30 days. They're due for regression.

Then there's the matter of their schedule. Over the last 30 days, the only teams the Pirates have played with a winning record are the slumping Brewers (against whom they're 3-1 entering tonight's game) and the Cardinals (against whom they're 2-4). They're 13-3 against teams with losing records. There's nothing wrong with that--good teams generally beat bad team--but those games have pumped up their team stats.

Who's Hot? There hasn't been an easy out among the top five hitters in the Pirates lineup. The league has a .249/.312/.383 batting average/on base percentage/slugging percentage slash line over the past 30 days. Here's the top of the Pirates order:

  1. Josh Harrison, 3B .369/.387/.573
  2. Starling Marte, LF .365/.419/.488
  3. Andrew McCutchen, CF .327/.372/.558
  4. Neil Walker, 2B .290/.366/.520
  5. Russell Martin, C .321/.398/.580
Hard to ask for more than that.

The Pirates' two best starters over the past 30 days have been Edinson Volquez (2-0, 1.93 ERA) and Francisco Liriano (3-0, 0.82 ERA). Volquez has probably been a little lucky--his strikeout rate is well below average, his walk rate well above average--but Liriano appears to be peaking at the right time. The eighth and ninth inning pitchers, Tony Watson and Mark Melancon, have been pretty unhittable, allowing 18 hits (no homers) and two walks over 28 innnings, striking out 33 en route to a 0.32 ERA.

Who's Not? Right field has been an issue all year for the Bucs, and the current incumbent, Travis Snyder, has a slash line of only .196/.297/.286 over the past 30 days. First base has been another weak spot, with Ike Davis batting .229 with only three homers over the past month. A couple starters, Gerrit Cole and Vance Worley, have ERAs above 4.00, but barely, at 4.31 and 4.03, respectively.

What's the Outlook? Assuming the Pirates don't catch the Cardinals, they will almost certainly be a wild card team, with a one-game play-in against (as of today's games) the Giants. San Francisco's 2-4 against the Bucs this year but has been a slightly better hitting team against lefties than righties, potentially neutralizing Liriano (assuming he starts the play-in game). The Pirates have been hot, but it seems to me that they'll be challenged to keep it going deep into the postseason.

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