Through Saturday's games, the Pirates were a disappointing 53-57, good for only fourth in the National League Central, 5.5 games behind the finally-getting-their-act-together Cubs. They trailed the Diamondbacks by 10.0 games for the second Wild Card, with NL Central rivals Milwaukee and St. Louis ahead of them and Miami and Atlanta only 1.0 and 1.5 games behind, respectively. The team looks headed for another season with a losing record.

And that’s reflected by its record against weak teams. The Pirates are 26-33 against teams with losing records. Only the cellar-dwelling Giants, Phillies, White Sox, and A’s have a worse record against losing teams. And that makes sense; if you can’t beat up on the weaklings, you’re not going to play in the postseason.

But hang on. Pittsburgh is seven games below .500 against losing teams. But they’re only four games below .500 overall. That means … they have a winning record against teams .500 or better?

Yes, they do. So far this year, there are seven teams that have won more than they’ve lost against teams with winning records:

































That’s six clubs that are playoff-bound as of now … and the Pirates. How’s that?

I looked at every season in the 30-team era, beginning in 1998. That gave me 600 team seasons, including the not-yet-complete 2017 season. Using the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I calculated each team’s winning percentage against teams with records below .500 (henceforth defined as losing teams) and winning percentage against teams with records of .500 or better (winning teams). Then I compared them.

The Pirates have a better record against winning teams than losing teams. That’s uncommon, if not particularly rare. So far this season, the Royals (22-18 against winning teams, 34-34 against losing teams), Yankees (28-20, 30-31), A’s (25-29, 24-33), Blue Jays (28-30, 24-28), and Nationals (17-11, 47-33) are on track to do better against winners than losers. If they do, there will have been 48 teams to have this reverse split since 1998, or eight percent of all teams.

But the Pirates aren’t just on track to have a better record against winning teams than against losing teams. They’re on track to have a winning record against winning teams and a losing record against losing teams. And they’re not the only ones, as the Yankees are on pace to do the same, albeit with a better ball club. And that, it turns out, is particularly rare. Only three teams have done so in the 30-team era prior to 2017.

2010 Rockies (83-79 overall, third in the NL West; 40-32 against winning teams, 43-47 against losing teams):

The Rockies were third in runs scored while allowing only the eighth-most runs in the 16-team National League in 2010, so given its home field, this can be viewed as a team more successful on the mound (112 ERA+, second in the league) than at the plate (.266 TAv, 11th in the league). Its best pitcher was Ubaldo Jimenez (19-8, 2.88 ERA, 3.12 FIP, 2.98 DRA, 5.9 WARP). That’s probably shocking to contemporary Orioles fans, but Jimenez was an outstanding pitcher for Colorado from 2008 to 2010 (16.0 WARP over the three years).

There were nine teams in the National League that year with a losing record: the 57-105 Pirates, 65-97 Diamondbacks, 69-93 Nationals, 75-87 Cubs, 76-86 Astros, 77-85 Brewers, 79-83 Mets, 80-82 Dodgers, and 80-82 Marlins. The Rockies managed a winning record against only Washington (5-3), Chicago (3-2), and Milwaukee (5-4), and they played Arizona (9-9) and New York (3-3) to a draw. They were only 7-11 against divisional rival Los Angeles, despite outscoring them 90-77. Colorado finished three games behind the Cardinals, seven behind the Padres, and eight behind the Braves in the Wild Card race (there was only one Wild Card in 2010), so they probably can’t plausibly claim that their struggles against weak teams cost them a postseason berth. But what a shame to have wasted Jimenez’s last great season.

2010 Cardinals (86-76 overall, second in the NL Central; 37-23 against winning teams, 49-53 against losing teams):

In contrast to the 2010 Rockies, the 2010 Cardinals can plausibly claim that their failure to beat losing teams denied them the opportunity to play into October. They were five games worse than the Wild Card-winning Braves, but Atlanta was one of the many winning teams that St. Louis beat that year, going 6-2. But St. Louis was 18-27 against divisional rivals Chicago, Houston, and Milwaukee, all of which were losing teams. Bump that up to just above .500—say, 24-23—and the Cardinals, not the Braves, would’ve played the Giants in the Division Series.

The team was led by Albert Pujols, who had a 10.4 WARP season, batting .312/.414/.496 and failing to win the MVP because, presumably, the voters were tired of giving it to him every year (he’d won in 2008 and 2009). The Cardinals were sixth in the league in runs per game (4.54) and allowed the fifth-fewest runs (3.96), finishing with five fewer wins than their Pythagorean projection.

2016 Rangers (95-67 overall, first in AL West; 60-31 against winning teams, 35-36 against losing teams):

We were all so focused on this team’s absurd 36-11 record in one-run games that we didn’t even notice that they crushed winning teams while falling short of .500 against losing teams. They notably demolished the Astros, 15-4, in their seasonal series with their interstate rivals, and went 12-7 against the other winning team in their division, Seattle. But they barely beat the two losing AL West teams, Los Angeles and Oakland, going 10-9 against each, and were only 6-13 against the sub-.500 White Sox, Twins, and Rays.

Texas was better at scoring (4.72 runs per game, fourth in the league) than run prevention (4.67 runs per game, 13th), but once the hitter-friendly effects of Globe Life Park are factored in, the team was actually better at pitching (102 ERA+) than hitting (97 OPS+).


Might the Yankees and Pirates join these three teams as the only clubs in the 30-team era to have a winning record against winning teams and a losing record against losing teams? Sure, but the Pirates would be different. The 2010 Rockies, 2010 Cardinals, and 2016 Rangers were all winning teams. One played in the postseason and the other two came reasonably close. The Pirates are going to have to go 28-24 the rest of the season just to finish at .500. The Yankees, by contrast, look likely to play into October, either as AL East champions or a Wild Card.

If the Yankees continue to have a winning record against winning teams and a losing record against losing teams, they wouldn’t be dissimilar from the other three teams in the 30-team era to accomplish the feat. The Pirates’ pursuit, as a team with a losing record, is unique. Whether that makes their reverse split more or less surprising, I don’t know.

Thank you for reading

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"If they do, there will have been 48 teams to have this reverse split since 1998, or percent % of all teams."

I think something is missing in this sentence.
Oops. Should be 8 percent. Will fix momentarily. Thanks for catching that.