How did the Pirates go from 98 wins in 2015 to 78 wins in 2016?
The 2016 Pirates finished tied for the franchise’s sixth-best winning percentage since 1992. For most teams, that wouldn’t be a bad season. The sixth-best Cardinals team since 1992, the 95-67 2000 team, won the division. The sixth-best Reds' record was 90-72. The sixth-best Brewers team, the 82-80 2014 edition, was at least above .500. We think of the Cubs as perennial losers until recently, but the sixth-best Cubs team since 1992, the 2003 club, won the division but ... well, you know. And that’s just Pittsburgh’s NL Central foes. The sixth-best Yankees team since 1992 (excluding strike-shortened 1994) won the World Series.
But this is the Pirates we’re talking about, the team that had 20 straight losing seasons, nine in last place. For the Pirates, the sixth-best record since 1992 was only 78-83, 25 games out of first, and the team’s worst record in five years. The only other National League teams for whom 2016 was their worst season since 2011 are the Padres and Cardinals. And neither of those teams suffered the slide the Pirates did in 2016, when the team won 20 fewer games than the year before, a total exceeded by only the clock-striking-midnight-on-Cinderella Twins, who dropped by 24.
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Shortly after the Pirates sold at the trade deadline, they got hot. Regrets?
Neal Huntington and company awoke on the morning of the trade deadline four games back of the second Wild Card spot, with three teams (the Marlins, Cardinals, and Mets, respectively) ahead of them, and three upcoming series against some of the worst teams in baseball (the Braves, Reds, and Padres, respectively). While the three teams ahead of them were buying aggressively (Miami), redundantly (New York), and standing pat (St. Louis), the Pirates opted to sell: They dealt star closer Mark Melancon and his impending free agency for multiple years of control over Felipe Rivero and a lottery ticket in Taylor Hearn, as well as Francisco Liriano and his (apparently) onerous contract, along with two prospects to Toronto for the crumbling remains of Drew Hutchison. Oh, and they also rid themselves of Jonathan Niese and received Antonio Bastardo in return.
When it comes to the standings on the first day of the second half, what you see is *mostly* what you get.
Last year, the Cardinals had the best record in baseball, 100-62. The Pirates were second best, 98-64. This year, at the All-Star break, the teams find themselves looking up—looking pretty far up, in fact; 7.0 games for St. Louis and 7.5 for Pittsburgh—at the Cubs. Worse, they’re currently fourth and fifth, respectively, in the race for the two National League Wild Card slots, 1.0 and 1.5 games, respectively, behind the Mets and Marlins for the last spot. It’s leading fans of the two teams to ask, Are the Cubs really this good? and Are we really this bad? Cubs fans, by contrast, are looking at a team that was a ridiculous 39-15 record after play on June 10 but 14-20—third worst in the National League, tied for seventh worst in the majors—ever since.
The Pirates' struggles this year might have more to do with the entire rest of the league than Pittsburgh's pitchers themselves.
Francisco Liriano has been a Pittsburgh Pirates success story. Signed as a free agent for $1 million after compiling a 5.34 ERA, 4.29 FIP, and 4.02 DRA in 156 2/3 innings split between the Twins and White Sox in 2012, he became a hero in Travis Sawchik’s book about the 2013 Pirates and their embrace of analytics, Big Data Baseball. In Liriano’s case, the approach was to junk his four-seam fastball, focus on his sinking two-seam fastball, and generate a lot of groundballs for shifted Pirates infielders to gobble up. The success of this strategy was evident through last year:
The Situation: The Pirates sit on the periphery of the playoff picture and 8.5 games out of the division but might be smelling fresh hope, as the Cubs stumble (a relative term, here). In recent days they’ve turned to Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and now to Bell to jump-start their rotation and lineup.
The Mets face the World Series champs again, but their starter gets knocked out by a line drive in the first. Meanwhile, Belt whiffs against a position player pitching, and an inside-the-parker that technically wasn't.
The Tuesday Takeaway
The very first plate appearance of Tuesday night’s World Series rematch didn’t bode well for the Mets. Whit Merrifield led off with a comebacker to the mound that struck Bartolo Colon’s thumb, and after just four pitches, New York’s starter was out for the night.
Zach Eflin and Jaimeson Taillon's stories began this month, and we all fill in the plots.
On Tuesday, June 14th, Phillies starter Zach Eflin made history. Well, history of a sort. Against the Toronto Blue Jays—an offense that, you may have heard, is pretty good—Eflin pitched 2 2/3 innings, giving up eight runs on nine hits, three of which were home runs. He did strike out three, but also walked two, leading to a pretty rough first night. Here are some sparknotes to help historically contextualize Eflin’s very first start as a major leaguer:
It's time for another installment of Would This Work?, the game show that we just made up today.
The more we learn about the inner workings of baseball, the more apparent and prominent the roles of players’ habits and humanity become. We are slowly finding that the game is about talent and strategy, but that talent is maximized by comfort, and strategy is optimized by the ability to account for the adjustments and anticipations and learning curves of all the parties involved.