First Pitch: The Pirates Aren’t Perfect, But They Are Legit Contenders

At this point in the season, a lot has been established in baseball. That ranges from the players, to the teams, and even to the fans. For example, for a surprisingly large group of Pirates fans, we’ve established that the Pirates can’t lose 3-4 games in a row without hearing the word “collapse”. I’d extend that beyond four losses in a row, but the Pirates haven’t lost more than four games in a row all season.

As for the players, we know that Andrew McCutchen is a leading candidate for the NL MVP award. Pedro Alvarez has put up some of the best power numbers in the National League. Russell Martin has been a huge boost on the defensive side of the ball, and has also provided some offensive value. Starling Marte is turning into an impact player in his first full season in the majors. Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett are pitching like aces. Mark Melancon is one of the best relievers in the league this year.

When it comes to the team we know that the Pirates are largely winning via pitching and defense. Their pitching has been outstanding, and the only thing better has been the depth. The use of defensive shifts has helped to fuel that strong pitching. The offense has ranked in the bottom half of the league, but it has still been enough to carry the Pirates to one of the best records in the majors, all with a +48 run differential. Then there’s the hard to quantify aspect where the team doesn’t give up, and gets help from everyone on the roster, rather than just one player. David Manel looked at this earlier in the week, and took a crack at trying to quantify it.

Basically, this is a playoff team. It’s full of strong performers who are some of the best at their positions this season. This team is legitimate, and there should be no fear of a collapse.

Here’s another thing about this team and the players: they’re not perfect.

There are flaws. For some, you might have to dig deep to find them, searching through some obscure stats, and looking at small sample sizes. For others, the flaws might be more apparent. As for the team, the obvious flaw is the offense, and you could break that down and point to stats that reflect chance, rather than skill, such as RISP numbers. For a great read on why you shouldn’t build analysis based on RISP, check out this article by Matt Snyder.

When I think about what Pirates fans have gone through the last few seasons, I understand why people would freak out at any sign of trouble. As the team was built up, you constantly saw people talking about how everything had to go right for the Pirates to just get a chance. The Pirates would never contend until every single prospect was in the majors, and they would only contend for 1-2 seasons after all of those prospects were established. They couldn’t withstand an injury. If a prospect struggled, that pushed back the window to compete a year or two.

It’s almost like fans imagined the team was the equivalent of Helm’s Deep. Even if you’ve got this strong defensive system that prevents you from losing, fans feel that the smallest weakness will be exploited and will bring the entire thing down.

That’s just not how it works. You can look at the Pirates and conclude that they have weaknesses, and that they aren’t perfect. But neither is any other team. Take the Cardinals, for example. They rank 30th in the league in UZR/150, and their bullpen is ranked in the bottom third of the league. The Dodgers are ranked 28th on the bases, while the Braves are ranked 27th. But these are all good teams. They’re just not perfect teams with no flaws.

Andrew McCutchen is a favorite in the NL MVP race. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Andrew McCutchen is a favorite in the NL MVP race. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

As for individual players, I had a debate this morning about how Andrew McCutchen wasn’t “clutch” because he didn’t get a key hit in the last two games with runners in scoring position and two outs. McCutchen has been poor in that area, but we’re also talking about 40 at-bats. And to show how much that stat matters, McCutchen went from below average to above average with one single today, raising his OPS by 32 points. Really, if you have to dig to a stat that encompasses 40 at-bats, you’re reaching, and probably over-reacting to the events of 1 out of 162 games.

The Pirates have flaws. Their individual players have flaws. But if you look at the whole picture, the Pirates are legit contenders, and the players with flaws are some of the best at their positions. It doesn’t take all around perfection to just have a shot at contending. The idea that the Pirates are in trouble because their hitters as a whole aren’t clutch, or the offense is below average is about as ridiculous as saying the Cardinals are in trouble because they have horrible defense.

What it all comes down to is over-reacting to a few losses. The Pirates lost three in a row on the road to the Rockies with a big series against the Cardinals coming up. That automatically means they will lose to the Cardinals, except that they had the same situation where they lost two of three against the Marlins then beat the Cardinals four out of five times. Also, they’ve beaten the Cardinals seven out of ten times this year, and currently have a three game lead over them. Not to mention the Cardinals have gone 5-13 recently, going from 2.5 games up to 3 games down in the NL Central.

This is a team that isn’t perfect, but you don’t need perfection to be a legit contender. And this is a legit contender.

Links and Notes

**Episode 5 of Pirates Roundtable Live will be Monday night at 8 PM EST. Join us as we discuss the Pirates with Pat Lackey of WHYGAVS, Cory from Three Rivers Burgh Blog, and other guests. You can submit your questions via Twitter or Google+.

**Check out the newest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 16: What Would the Pirates’ Playoff Rotation Look Like?

**The site will be switching servers early in the morning. The old server went down a little over a week ago, in a pretty widespread issue that affected a ton of sites. That led to me switching hosting companies, with hopes that this issue won’t happen again. You probably won’t notice the switch, although there might be a brief period where some are on the old server while others are on the new server. I have disabled the comment section until the database is moved over, to prevent comments being added to the database while the files are being moved. When I say “files”, I mean the massive 54.6 GB of space that this site takes up, not counting all of the sub-domains. You can submit any comments via Twitter or Facebook, and I’ll read all of them. I’ll open the comments back up when the files are done transferring, which will hopefully be no later than 10 AM. Basically, when you start seeing new posts on the site in the morning, the comments will be back.

**Prospect Notebook: Consistency is the Key For Alen Hanson.

**Prospect Watch: Dodson and the Marauders Flirt With No Hitter, Win on Triple Play.

**Justin Howard Homers Again in Altoona Curve Loss.

**West Virginia Loses Series Finale Despite Fine Outing By Kyle Haynes.

**Minor League Schedule: Robby Rowland Goes on Slow Day in Minors.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Pirates Winning With Strong Starting Pitching.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • connolly21

    8,9,10august losses we could of gotten RIOS ……. LETTSS hope for the best ahead