They're not going away. The Pittsburgh Pirates, who slipped into and out of a tie for first place last week -- the latest in the season they'd been in first place in more than a decade -- are just a half-game behind the Brewers in the NL Central as we approach the 100-game mark. Even after yesterday's 3-1 loss to the Reds, the Bucs have a four-game edge on Cincinnati and a 1 1/2-game lead on the Cardinals. After being outscored for three months, they have outscored their opponents 69-48 in July, which has pushed their run differential into the black as well. This is significant: Not only have the Pirates not outscored their opponents since 1992, they haven't been within 100 runs of them since 2005.
There are two angles to the 2011 Pirates, and it's important to consider both. The first is the narrative. This is a great story, the tale of a team lost in the woods for nearly two decades, projected to be one of the five worst teams in baseball, seemingly on a perpetual rebuild in a declining city...that team is in a dogfight for the division title as we approach the trade deadline. Crowds are coming out to PNC Park, a jewel of a stadium that has never been home to a team worthy of its charms. National writers are checking out Pittsburgh as more than a place to get a big ol' sammich. Andrew McCutchen is a downballot MVP candidate with as complete a game as you'll find in MLB. Joel Hanrahan, who couldn't find the plate with Google Maps two years ago, has walked just eight men in 43 2/3 innings on his way to a 1.24 ERA and an All-Star berth. The Pirates have taken the baton from Jose Bautista to become the best story in baseball in 2011.
The flip side is analytical. How have the Pirates managed to get to 51-45, and how can we expect them to play the rest of the way? That's not quite as feel-good a tale. For one, McCutchen is almost the entire offense, the one regular with at least 10 homers and one of two with a .340 OBP. Overall, the Pirates are 13th in the NL with 373 runs, and 12th in Equivalent Average -- a measure of team offensive performance that includes hitting and basestealing and adjusts for park factors -- at .254. Injuries to starting catchers Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit have hurt and Jose Tabata's left quad strain cost the team another average bat, but even with everyone healthy the Pirates are a below-average offensive team. They don't hit for average (.245, 12th), draw walks (304, ninth), hit for power (62 HR, 14th; .362 SLG, 13th) or steal bases well (69, seventh, but also second in times caught with 32). The failure of Pedro Alvarez to be a middle-of-the-order bat has been a huge disappointment. Alvarez was batting .208/.283/.304 when a right quad problem forced him to the DL, perhaps in advance of a demotion. He's currently on a rehab assignment at Triple-A. There's a reason Pittsburgh is rumored to be chasing the Mets' Carlos Beltran: He would immediately become the team's second-best player.
The Pirates are where they are because their run prevention has been very good Just three NL teams have allowed fewer than the 360 runs coughed up by the Pirates, and they're fifth in the league in ERA at 3.36. They've had good health, using just seven starters and getting 93 of 96 starts from their current rotation. Their one injury in the rotation, to Ross Ohlendorf, created a role for Jeff Karstens, who is second in the NL in ERA at 2.28. The mystery is how they're getting it done. The Pirates are last in the NL in pitcher strikeouts, with 586. To give you an idea of how unusual their performance is, here's the RA and rank within the NL of the teams to pull up the rear in pitcher strikeouts in this century:
Finishing last in the league in strikeouts has given you a better chance of finishing last in runs allowed than finishing in the top half of the league. What the Pirates are doing isn't unprecedented, but it is rare.
If you're not striking out many men, you have to be making plays on contact, and that's the biggest surprise in Pittsburgh. Last year, with most of the same personnel, the Pirates were last in the NL in Defensive Efficiency, which is a measure of how well a team turns balls in play into outs. This year, they're fourth. It's not unusual for a team to make a big leap in defensive performance from one year to the next, and some of the most memorable surprise teams in recent years, such as the 2008 Rays and 1991 Braves, owe their success to revamped defensive alignments. The Pirates, though, didn't make a lot of personnel changes. They brought in Lyle Overbay to play first base, which moved Garrett Jones to rightfield. Jones has been an improvement over the motley crew that patrolled right a year ago, while Overbay has not had a good year. At almost every other spot, the Pirates are simply getting better performance from guys who either had the job a year ago (McCutchen, Ronny Cedeno) or were called up at midseason (Tabata, Neil Walker). Keep in mind that at the start of the year, I pegged Walker and Cedeno as the game's worst defensive middle infield; by Total Zone, both have been above-average defensively.
The Pirates' pitching, with Karstens and Hanrahan, with Paul Maholm and his 3.06 ERA, with Kevin Correia making the All-Star team, has gotten all the attention. The pitching, though, isn't the story. The story is the way bad defensive players have become good ones over a winter. The Pirates' starting pitchers aren't all that good, basically league-average or a little worse when you just look at what they have done -- their strikeout, walk and batted-ball rates. They've been backed by a defense that, against all expectations, has been very good.
Is that kind of performance sustainable? It's hard to say. Alvarez's return will actually cost the team a few runs, although Cedeno coming back at the same time should be an improvement on what Chase D'Arnaud has done. Cedeno's improvement is just shocking; through last season he'd been a below-average defender in six seasons in MLB. This year, he's one of the better glove men in the game. His partner, Walker, was poor in 104 games at second last season. This year, he's improved to average. Walker is getting attention for his bat, but it's his defense that has been his biggest contribution to the Pirates this year. Throw in improvement at all three outfield spots, and the Pirates' defense is most of the reason they're battling for first place today. Based on what we know about the personnel, and the usual arc of defensive performance as players age -- players peak defensively very young and slowly decline from there -- it doesn't seem that they can continue to play at this level. We just don't have the level of confidence in defensive metrics, though, to say for sure that they will regress.
A month ago, the idea that the Pirates would be buyers at the trade deadline was ludicrous. A week ago in this space,
The Pirates can't sell at the trade deadline. That alone makes this a watershed season in the Neal Huntington Era, and should buy him a few more years as general manager with which to build beyond a single fluke campaign to a team that can contend every single year. No player picked up at the deadline with be a bigger buy than the extra years the 2011 Pirates have gotten for Huntington with their success.