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Are the Pirates Contenders?

The Pirates have done a lot more high-fiving this year.
The Pirates have done a lot more high-fiving this year.

The Pittsburgh Pirates haven't had a .500 season since 1992, nearly twenty long years ago.  Last season, the team lost 105 games.  But you know the saying "It's always darkest before the dawn"?  Well, the light might very well be cracking over the horizon for the Pirates. 

All of a sudden, Pittsburgh is 41-40--over .500 at the midpoint of their season for the first time since '92, though they had a nice July run in 1997 and even managed to take over first place for a spell.  2011 is certainly the best start the Pirates have had in over a decade, at least. They even managed to win two of three against the Red Sox!

The 2011 edition of the Pirates is a team with very few stars.  They have Andrew McCutchen, who in my opinion is easily one of the best outfielders in the game right now.  McCutchen has already racked up 4.1 fWAR.  He has a .280/.385/.466 slash line, has eleven homers, has 15 stolen bases, and plays phenomenal defense in center field.  However, after McCutchen, the Pirates have seven other players worth at least 1 fWAR, with none of those seven being above 1.4.  Compare the Pirate's top ten highest fWARs this season to the two teams currently closest to first, the Cardinals and the Brewers:

Pirates Brewers Cardinals
McCutchen, 4.1 fWAR Ryan Braun, 4.0 fWAR Matt Holliday, 3.2 fWAR
Charlie Morton, 1.4 Prince Fielder, 3.6 Lance Berkman, 2.5
Paul Maholm, 1.3 Rickie Weeks, 3.4 Jaime Garcia, 2.5
Jose Tabata, 1.2 Shaun Marcum, 1.9 Albert Pujols, 2.4
Ronny Cedeno, 1.1 Chris Narveson, 1.7 Chris Carpenter, 2.1
Garrett Jones, 1.1 Nyjer Morgan, 1.6 Colby Rasmus, 2.0
Joel Hanrahan, 1.1 Zack Greinke, 1.6 Allen Craig, 1.5
Neil Walker, 1.0 Carlos Gomez, 1.5 Kyle Lohse, 1.4
Kevin Correia, 0.9 Yovani Gallardo, 1.4 David Freese, 1.4
Chris Snyder, 0.7 Jonathan Lucroy, 1.4 Jon Jay, 1.3


The Pirates have the player with the highest fWAR in the NL Central.  Unfortunately, that's about where there depth ends.  It's not a good thing when a team's second highest fWAR is equivalent to that of other teams' ninth or tenth highest.  Right now, the Pirates have a team total of 9.1 fWAR.  The Brewers and Cardinals stand at 16.1 and 17.9, respectively. 

So how are the Pirates winning?  How are they currently just three games behind the division leader?  Easy:  Their pitching. 

Pittsburgh's starting pitching is interesting.  Outside of James McDonald, they all have very good ERAs.  They also all generally have worse FIPs. Chart time, again!

Jeff Karstens 2.65 4.70
Paul Maholm 3.17 3.79
Charlie Morton 3.63 3.56
Kevin Correia 3.79 4.15
James McDonald 4.52 4.69


At the current moment, the Pirates' starting rotation has the tenth best ERA in the major leagues.  They also have the sixth worst FIP.

Why the disparities?  Well, it doesn't help that outside of McDonald the highest K/9 of that group is 5.40 (Karstens).  It also doesn't help that Correia and Karstens are the only two who have a BB/9 below 3.25.  Karstens actually has the best K/BB ratio on the team, but also has the highest FIP because he gives up 1.57 HR/9.  Contrast that to Morton, who has the worst K/BB ratio but also has the best FIP because he has a scant 0.29 HR/9.  Were we to normalize HR rates and use xFIP, the roles would be reversed:  Morton would be last of the five and Karstens would be first.  In addition, Maholm (.254), Correia (.270) and Karstens (.238) have all seemingly gotten at least a little bit lucky with their opponents BABIP.

None of those five starters should be counted on to have continued success, with the possible exception of Maholm, who has had mixed success over his career, but has always seemed capable of having a good season like this.  I have a difficult time believing that Jeff Karstens--who has very similar peripherals to last season and has a career ERA of 4.55--would lower his ERA from 2010 to 2011 by over two full runs.  Even if only Karstens drops back to a more normal (for him) ERA, as his FIP and BABIP would suggest it should,  that could certainly be enough to derail any hopes of remaining in contention for the Pirates. 

For Pittsburgh to have any chance of beating out the Reds and overtaking the Brewers and Cardinals, they need a lot of things to go right.  They have to hope that their pitching holds up, which it shouldn't.  They also need their offense, outside of McCutchen, to start playing better.  And they need the Brewers and Cardinals to not improve.  However, Zack Greinke should stop giving up as many runs soon, Casey McGehee might hopefully return to form (or the Brewers might replace him with a better option), and the Brewers could potentially pick up a shortstop that can actually have a positive effect.  In addition, David Freese is back for the Cards, Chris Carpenter should be better than he has been, and Albert Pujols will be back from injury in a few weeks. 

The Pirates won't contend for the NL Central this season, despite how pleasantly surprising their success must be for a team that has seen many years of despair.  They could plausibly stay around .500 and break their losing streak.  For the beleaguered Pittsburgh team and fans, they should count that as a significant success, just as the Brewers did when they finally reached .500 again.  And, in 2-3 years, it's certainly possible that the Pirates will be one of the best teams in the Central, considering the prospects they have in their system that could join McCutchen as stars at the major league level.  Unfortunately for them, 2-3 years won't be in 2011.