Pirate Ship Sinking: How a Bad Call and a Bad Pitching Staff Have Derailed Pittsburgh, and Why It’s Okay

In Uncategorized on August 5, 2011 at 10:52 am

Pirates fans the world over could be forgiven, on the night of July 26, for feeling a bit dizzy and shell-shocked. Many likely flashed back to 1992, and succumbed to a Vietnam veteran-style flashback. Here was an Atlanta Braves baserunner scrambling home with the winning run. Here were the Pirates, with every chance to get that guy at home plate. And here were the Braves, celebrating as the Pirates trudged to the visitors’ clubhouse, knowing almost beyond doubt that their run was over.

Those are the similarities. But the differences are more important:

  1. The Brave who scored in 1992 (Sid Bream) was actually safe. Not so in 2011.
  2. Those 1992 Pirates belonged in the NLCS. They were a legitimate contender. Not so in 2011.
Yes, Jerry Meals derailed the Pirates’ season. With one erroneous sweep of his arms, he tore down the literary fourth wall in the fairy tale of Pittsburgh’s resurgent campaign, and the disillusioned Bucs have never been the same. They may yet finish at .500, which would be a feat unto itself, but they rapidly fell out of the NL Central race and will not reenter it. A team like that, a team so young and unexpected, cannot afford the slightest crack in their collective confidence. In baseball, as in life, one must sometimes fake it to make it, and losing the confidence (read: arrogance) that allowed them to consistently beat better teams in the early part of the year wrested away the Bucs’ fighting spirit.
But fear not, Jolly Roger Rooters. There is no need to shed tears over the 2011 Pirates. They were never meant to be. Neal Huntington wisely minimized his expenditures in trying to improve this club, acquiring Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee without giving up anything the organization will ever miss much. Huntington has begun to lead the team out of the darkness into which Dave Littlefield plunged the PNC Plunderers, and to have tried too hard to force their way into a postseason in which they would have no chance would have been ruinous to all he has built.
How did the Pirates get here? Why were they even in first place on July 26? It’s a cocktail, really, of four factors:
  1. Andrew McCutchen, after a slow start, has emerged as exactly the true superstar the team envisioned when they drafted him. In his second full season, McCutchen has proven he has the defensive chops to rank among the league’s elite center fielders and has posted a remarkable 5.2 WAR for the season, according to FanGraphs. That makes him the ninth-most valuable position player in baseball.
  2. After being (improbably) the worst defensive team in baseball last season according to Defensive Efficiency, the Pirates have moved into the middle of the pack this year. The numbers still fall far short of overwhelming, but with meaningful improvements in both corner outfield spots and expected positive regression from McCutchen and shortstop Ronny Cedeno, the Pirates have become much more sure-handed and much efficient at reaching balls in play and turning them into outs.
  3. The Pirates pitching staff, largely on the strength of that improved defense, got some momentum and good fortune going. Without the stuff to dominate hitters (to wit, the team has the third-lowest strikeout rate in baseball), they all began getting outs via well-timed ground balls and solid defense. They also got extraordinarily lucky when it came to preventing runners who reached base from scoring. No staff in MLB has stranded a higher percentage of runners this season, and that usually reflects luck, not some esoteric clutch ability. It got especially out of hand in July, as Pittsburgh stranded 78.5 percent of runners while no other team stranded even 76 percent.
  4. The bullpen, headed by Joel Hanrahan, has outperformed any expectations. As a group, their 3.77 FIP (a middle-of-the-pack number among big-league relief units) belies a 3.03 ERA that ranks fifth among bullpens. They are some of the major culprits behind the team-wide baserunner luck, as no unit in baseball comes close to stranding as many as te 80.2 percent Pirates firemen have left aboard so far.
Those are all encouraging, in their own ways, and show a team in the process of maturation and coagulation. But no one ought to have been fooled by the shallow success of the early season, and very few actually were. The next step, then, is to move forward cautiously, and to use the information these points yield–that the bullpen might be vulnerable to even more regression, that the rotation must be infused with some guys who can miss bats, and that defensive upgrades are always worth the investment–to build upon this ephemeral success next year.

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