On Sunday July 8 the Pirates had nine games left to play before the All-Star break and Neal Huntington suggested that .500 baseball wasn't really going to help, implying he was unlikely to add players to a team eight games under .500. He was undoubtedly preparing an angry fanbase for a fire sale of the team's coming free agents and any marginal assets that could garner a return.
The Pirates won that Sunday at home against the Phillies and then took two-of-three from the visiting Nationals to raise their record to 43-49 with the Brewers coming to town for a five-game series. Even having won three of the last four at PNC Park, the Pirates were just a mediocre 24-24 in Pittsburgh. The Milwaukee series was likely a closing act for this group of Pirates. Five wins later, highlighted by a come-from-behind, extra inning, walk-off win on the final Sunday before the break, and the fire sale was at least on hold.
The Pirates returned from the break with their bats scorching, outscoring the Reds at GABandboxP 27-5 and sweeping the three game set. Which brings us to today.
With 62 games to go the Pirates find themselves only 4 games out of the 2nd wild card spot and just 4.5 out of the first. The problem as you can see from the above chart, courtesy of ESPN.com, is that there are eight teams within 5.5 games--fighting for these two spots. Great for MLB and excitement deep into September, not great when assessing your odds of actually making a one-game winner-take-all playoff. So where does that put us?
1.) Does Anyone Actually Care?
This has been a very difficult season for the Pirates off the field. There is a resentment and anger amongst the fanbase toward ownership, and in some cases the team, that I've rarely seen for any team in any sport. The current opinion of the Mets' ownership might come close. In fact here is a tweet from one of the Mets beat writers from earlier today that I think many would agree applies to the Pirates:
Attendance is down across baseball, but the Pirates have the 27th biggest drop in the 30 team league despite performing at the same level as last year. The Pirates management has said in the past when the fans come they will add to payroll. They haven't. And now they have suggested the lack of fan support may mean that they have to cut payroll. Regardless of performance on the field, there are long-time Pirates fans who no longer care about this team because of the actions of ownership. That's just reality.I didn’t write a column today but if I did it would say this. In pro sports, everything flows from ownership. The Mets are broken. They are owned by the Wilpons. Doesn’t matter how many people they send before the cameras to wear it for them. This dysfunction is on the Wilpons.— Marc Carig (@MarcCarig) July 23, 2018
2.) How Good Is This Team?
This has been an incredibly difficult question to answer. The Pirates opened the season 26-17 in their first 43. They went 14-31 over their next 45 and are 11-1 in their last 12. That doesn't lend itself to strong, overarching conclusions. As you would expect, like the team, the performance of most of the Pirates key players has been equally erratic. So while the team's around-.500 performance is generally what was predicted, how they have gotten there has made them very tough to convincingly evaluate. This is equally true of both the pitching and the offense.
The best example is the Pirates three starting outfielders. They are all having excellent offensive seasons, but have gotten to this point in completely different ways:
As of right now
Dickerson .315/.347/.509 .856 OPS, 131 OPS+ (31 percent above league average)
Polanco .237/.335/.494 .829 OPS, 123 OPS+
Marte .287/.333/.494 .827 OPS, 123 OPS+
Dickerson has been the most consistent, maintaining an OPS above .770 the entire season. Polanco started the season incredibly hot, then had a two month stretch with just over 200 PA where he had a .604 OPS. Since then he has an OPS over 1.100 in his last 100+ PA. Marte had an OPS of .869 before going on the DL. He came back and put up an OPS of .622 in his next 129 PA. Since then? Also an OPS over 1.100. The extremes make the performances of Polanco and Marte tougher to evaluate, with Polanco's lack of any longer-term success making it more difficult still. I don't think anyone can have a convincing sense of how good this team is or can be over the next 62 games.
One small thing has seemingly made a big difference. I tweeted this two weeks ago:
We spend way too much time discussing batting orders. But one simple principle is put your best hitters at the top of the lineup so they get the most at bats. Until July 9 Hurdle insisted on batting Josh Harrison and Josh Bell the team's two worst offensive players toward the top of the lineup. On July 9 he put Dickerson, Marte and Polanco in the top three spots in the order. Since that day and that tweet, the Pirates are 11-1.I’m almost 100% sure this is the first time this year #Pirates have had their 5 best hitters in the top 5 spots in the order.— David Todd (@DTonPirates) July 10, 2018
4.) Be Realistic
Regardless of what the Pirates do at the trade deadline, they are unlikely to make the playoffs:
44 of the Pirates last 62 games are against teams that are .500 or better. Look for Huntington to only add significant assets that will have an impact beyond 2018 if he does actually add.From The Numbers Are The Numbers Department:— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 23, 2018
The Pirates are 51-49, and their playoff chances are assessed at 13%.
The Nationals are 49-49, and their playoff chances stand at 58%.https://t.co/aW7oAjgFzc
An outlier situation.
5.) This Week Matters
The trade deadline is eight days away. The Pirates play three games in Cleveland starting tonight and four in Pittsburgh against the Mets starting Thursday. If the Pirates go 5-1 or 1-5 over the next six days, it is significant. 5-1 and they are definitely in the mix, but a 1-5 stretch probably realistically ends any chance they make the playoffs. They are likely to have seven teams ahead of them with just 56 games left and a difficult schedule. Party over.
6.) Don't Believe the Myth
There is a widely-believed narrative that the Pirates never add at the trade deadline. The Pirates have been active in both directions at the deadline, most significantly adding five players in 2015, their 98-win season.
In 2011 they added Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick. In 2012 they added Wandy Rodriguez, Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez and Chad Qualls. In 2015 they overhauled 20% of their roster adding Aramis Ramirez, Joe Blanton, Joakim Soria, J.A. Happ and Michael Morse. In 2016 they moved soon-to-be free agent closer Mark Melancon to Washington for Felipe
7.) Most Trade Deadline Deals Have Little Impact
That's just the reality. With only 55 games remaining, less than a third of the season, the acquired player isn't likely to contribute even 1.0 WAR. Last year's most impactful deal, Justin Verlander to the Astros, happened a month after the non-waiver deadline just in time for Verlander to be eligible for the postseason. Relievers are going to be even less impactful, likely to pitch only about 20 innings. But, teams that know they are going to make the postseason will pay a king's ransom for relievers because the percentage of innings relievers work vs. starters always increases in the postseason. Trade deadline deals tend to be big on headlines, short on substance.
8.) Don't Be Too Quick To Judge
The Pirates acquisition of J.A. Happ was one of the most productive deadline deals in MLB history, but was universally panned. After just his first start with the Pirates, I wondered if his days were short-lived. From that point on, Happ was unbelievable, the best pitcher in baseball. He made 10 starts, 59 IP, went 7-1 with a 1.37 ERA, while the team went 8-2. He struck out 63, walked 11 and gave up only 3 HR. Opponents compiled a .525 OPS against him. I understand that the big headline deals are more fun, but at the end of the day, production is what matters. Happ provided 2.6 WAR in his two months with the Pirates. That is extraordinary. Here were the 10 biggest deals last year.
9.) What Should the Pirates Do?
I'll be back tomorrow and Wednesday with some thoughts on what the Pirates should actually consider from both a buying and selling perspective.