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:
- The Brave who scored in 1992 (Sid Bream) was actually safe. Not so in 2011.
- Those 1992 Pirates belonged in the NLCS. They were a legitimate contender. Not so in 2011.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.