At the end of the season last year, after watching the Pirates go 17-37 to finish the final two months of the season, there was little hope in the 2009 team. The Pirates traded their two best hitters of 2008 in Jason Bay and Xavier Nady. Free agency came and went in the coming months, with the only additions being on the bench, and some bullpen depth. It looked as if that 17-37 team was going to be the same team we would see in 2009, with most Pirates fans asking not whether we would finish with 100 losses, but how many losses over 100 the Pirates would finish with.
Fast forward to now, and I don’t think you can find many Pirates fans who could have anticipated that the Pirates would be 30-33 after their first 63 games. In fact, this is the exact point that the Pirates were at last year after their first 63 games: a 30-33 record, and that was with Jason Bay and Xavier Nady. Hard to believe we’re in the same place, even after trading those two, Damaso Marte, and the recent trade of Nate McLouth. Well, maybe the 2009 version of the Pirates isn’t the same as the 2008 30-33 version.
In fact, the 2009 version is better than the 2008 version.
That may seem far fetched. The 2008 version had Jason Bay, who is currently a candidate to win the AL MVP award for 2009. The 2009 version has been without one of it’s best hitters in Ryan Doumit, and has traded another valuable player in Nate McLouth. However, it’s not about one player, but the final results.
Last year the Pirates, at 30-33, had scored 304 runs. Only five teams in the majors had scored more runs than the 2008 Pirates to that point. However, they had allowed 329 runs, and only two other teams in the majors had allowed more runs. That left a run differential of -25 runs scored for the 2008 Pirates.
This year the offense is not as strong, but has managed 278 runs, which ranks in the middle of the pack, with 12 teams doing worse. Surprisingly it is the pitching staff that is carrying the team, a complete turnaround from last year. The 2009 Pirates have allowed 270 runs, with only six teams in the majors doing better. The Pirates currently have a run differential of +8 runs scored for the 2009 season.
Last year the offense was leading the team, while the pitching staff was one of the worst in the majors. This year the pitching staff is leading the team, and the offense has been capable enough to this point, outscoring opponents by a total of eight runs this year. In fact, the St. Louis Cardinals, currently half a game out of first place in the NL Central, have scored just one more run than the Pirates this year, and have allowed just one fewer run than the Pirates. Despite the similar results, the Cardinals are 34-30, while the Pirates are 30-33.
The Pirates should be better than 30-33 at this point. In fact, the Pythagorean W/L record for the 2009 Pirates is 32-31. This is mostly due to the positive run differential thus far.
The positive run differential is a key stat for a team’s success. It almost always guarantees a winning record. From 2004-2008, teams with a positive run differential have combined for a .549 winning percentage. In that same time period, teams with a negative run differential have combined for a .444 winning percentage.
Only eight teams (10%) have gone on to post a losing record with a positive run differential in that time span. In the same span, only seven teams (10%) had a winning record with a negative run differential.
Putting that in perspective, last year the Pirates, sitting at 30-33, had about a 10% chance of being one of the rare teams to post a winning record, while being out-scored by their opponents on the season. This year, the 30-33 Pirates have about a 10% chance of being one of the rare teams to post a losing record, while out-scoring their opponents thus far.
It’s not like those stats are a fluke. The only time the 2008 Pirates had a positive run differential was after Opening Day, when they were up by one run. They got back to zero after April 14th, but went on a downward spiral from there.
There is one cause for concern with the 2009 Pirates. They’ve been dancing back and forth between positive and negative run differential all season. Their best was +14 runs, after an April 26th game where they improved to 11-7. Their worst was -13, after a May 9th game where they dropped to 12-18. From that point, the Pirates have out-scored their opponents by 13 runs, including +5 since the McLouth trade.
The problem, as Brian at Raise the Jolly Roger talks about, is that the Pirates could trade off several of their players, similar to the way they traded Bay and Nady last year. Possibilities include Adam LaRoche, John Grabow, Freddy Sanchez, and Jack Wilson.
The strength this year is in the pitching staff, with the rotation leading the way. With the exception of Ian Snell, I don’t think anyone in the rotation is in serious worry of being traded. I also don’t think it would be a huge downgrade to trade Snell and replace him with Jeff Karstens or Tom Gorzelanny. So unlike last year, we won’t be trading away from the strength of our team.
That being said, can the offense, minus guys like Adam LaRoche and Freddy Sanchez, give the pitching staff enough run support? The Pirates were fine after the McLouth trade because Andrew McCutchen stepped in, hitting .327 so far. They don’t have a replacement for LaRoche or Sanchez, which would provide a huge drop in offense.
Then there’s the issue of Jack Wilson. He doesn’t provide a lot on offense, but with a rotation that relies heavily on ground ball outs, the loss of Wilson could be worse than the loss of hitters like Sanchez and LaRoche.
The updated MVP Tracker ranks Sanchez, Grabow, and LaRoche as three of the top five Pirates this year, with Paul Maholm and Zach Duke being the other two players.
There is the possibility that the Pirates won’t trade these players. I don’t consider them untouchable, but I don’t think the Pirates will just trade Wilson or Sanchez to any team just to get rid of their contracts (which seems to be the only reasoning behind the idea that Wilson and Sanchez are as good as gone).
We assume that since they traded Nate McLouth they’re giving up on the season. That may not be the case. I pointed out a few days after the trade that McLouth’s defensive value was falling, and his replacement, McCutchen, is hitting well since stepping in. Overall you could make an argument that the Pirates traded McLouth, and didn’t lose a step by bringing up McCutchen.
If this is to be believed, then you can’t point to the McLouth trade as an example that the Pirates are giving up on this year.
I’m not guaranteeing that Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, and Adam LaRoche will be here beyond the July 31st trade deadline. What I am saying is that those three have no replacements in the system, and to trade them would remove any chances of this team contending. We have yet to see the Pirates management make a move that would remove them from contending, and I’m not sold that they will do so if the team is four games out a month from now.
As for the status of the current team, I think they’re legit. The 2009 team may not have the offense of the 2008 model, but as a whole the 2009 team is better. I also think that the Pirates are legitimately in the race for at least the Wild Card spot. They’re not favorites, but they’re no fluke to this point.
The Pirates have upcoming games against the Twins (32-33), Rockies (31-32), Indians (29-36) and Royals (28-34). Only the Twins and Rockies have positive run differentials this season. The dow
nfall for the Pirates every year seems to be interleague play, although they are 3-3 this year after the series win against the Tigers. There’s a strong chance that two weeks from now the Pirates could be sitting at 38-37 or better, which would be the first time the Pirates have been over .500 in late June since the 1999 season.