Over their last 30 games, the Pirates are 22–8. No other team in baseball is better than 19–11 over their last 30. The Pirates overall are 53–35, with a nearly equivalent Pythagorean record. They completed two straight comeback, extra-inning, walk-off wins over their archrivals heading into the All-Star break. In Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, they have two true superstars. McCutchen might be a top-10 position player in MLB, and Cole is one of the 20 or 25 best starters in baseball. Armed with Cole, two veteran starters (Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett) who owe their career renaissances to pitching coach Roy Searage, a bullpen stocked by a thorough and savvy front office, and a meticulous, aggressive defensive game plan co-crafted by that front office and the field staff under Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh is allowing fewer runs per game than anyone, save the Cardinals. It’s fun when the biggest story in baseball is the dominance of a small-market juggernaut, and that appears to be the case right now. The Pirates have one of baseball’s most popular players, its most beautiful ballpark, and a delightful backstory.
Over the Pirates’ last 48 games, they’ve been just as good as all those facts above indicate, at 35–13, but that stretch deserves closer examination. Of those 48 contests, 29 came against the league’s have-nots:
Three against the Marlins (3–0)
Seven against the Padres (5–2)
Six against the Braves (4–2)
Three against the Phillies (3–0)
Four against the White Sox (4–0)
Three against the Reds (1–2)
Three against the Brewers (1–2)
They won 21 of those 29. In fact, for the season, the Pirates are 34–17 against teams with sub-.500 records, the second-best mark in baseball. They’re 19–18 against teams with winning or even marks. That’s often a deceptive schedule split, and I’m not saying the Pirates only beat bad teams, but there’s something provocative about the sheer volume of soft opponents they’ve seen, especially over this very good stretch.
Something else lurks in this hot streak, demanding to be discussed. On the weekend of June 12th through 14th, the Bucs swept the horrendous Phillies in three home games. All three, though, were one-run wins, two of them in extra innings. Starting with those games, the Pirates have won 13 contests by a single run in their last 29 games, losing only two by the same margin. That’s a lot of good karma packed into barely a month of play.
Before this torrid run began, Pittsburgh was 18–22, nine games back of the unbelievably hot Cardinals, and people were wringing their hands. They ought not to have, though; the team had outscored their opponents by nine runs over those 40 games, 19 of which were against the Cardinals, Cubs, and Tigers. They were, at that time, a very good team that had encountered some bad luck and some tough competition. Two months later, they’re a very good team coming off a stretch of very good luck and very weak competition.
The Pirates will face the lowly (though pesky) Brewers three times coming out of the All-Star break. They had better enjoy that matchup because, thereafter, they go to Kansas City for three, play the Nationals four times at home, and then head right back out to Minneapolis to face the surprisingly strong Twins. Another respite (the Reds at the trade deadline) will allow them to rest up for 12 games in 14 days beginning August 3rd against the Cubs, Dodgers, Cardinals, and Mets. Skipping ahead, they’ll have their last off day of the season on September 14th, then it’s: three at home with the Cubs, three in LA, four in Colorado, three at Wrigley Field, then home for six against the Cardinals and Reds.
My message today is not that the Pirates are overrated or fluky or fake. It’s merely this: Variance swamps everything over six-week, or even two-month, samples. That the Pirates have gone 13–2 in one-run and extra-inning games over the last month is a textbook example. To strike a different (but equally important) note, it’s important to be sensitive to long or especially drastic schedule stretches in the new playoff format. The competitive landscape is uneven right now, especially in the National League, and between that and the imbalance of the schedule itself (it’s a logistics headache, but something has to be done about this format wherein teams play their divisional rivals 19 times each season), clubs can look insanely good or bad for unusually long stretches, without actually being so.
The Pirates are a playoff-caliber team and a contender for the NL Central title. It’s just that they’re not this 35–13 monster everyone is raving about, any more than the Cardinals were a true-talent 51–24 steamroller, or any more than last year’s Royals were a real 24–6 team from late July to late August, or any more than the 2013 Dodgers were really a 42–8 team at one stretch. We’ve become very good at following baseball and engaging with it every day, but we need to do better at staying grounded, and at understanding that even two-month runs of extreme performance should leave our fundamental estimate of a team’s talent relatively unchanged.
As the end of the season draws nearer, it will be less important to maintain that analytical discipline, because wild swings in performance (whether based on luck, schedule, or fluky performance) will have less and less time to even out. For now, though, the Pirates remain very much in position to see their huge forward leaps mitigated by regression, a toughening slate of opponents, and the drying up of the deep well of good luck from which they’ve recently drawn.
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