For my first official effort as a Pirates Prospects analyst, I think it would be helpful to introduce myself and to explain what I’ll be adding to the team coverage of the organization at the major league level. I will also offer some thoughts on where I believe the Pirates find themselves as we near the end of the regular season and (in all likelihood) a third consecutive playoff appearance.
Many subscribers may know me as @InClementeWthr, which I’ve been authoring since the latter half of the 2010 season. Before that, I occupied a small, unexplored corner of the Pirates blogging community with a site of the same name that I launched in the summer of 2008, and eventually shuttered once I realized that communicating real-time “analysis” in 140 characters was a lot easier than generating blog entries for no one in particular to read.
It was not long after Neal Huntington was hired that I read both Baseball Between the Numbers and Moneyball, and I became fascinated by the amount of information that teams were already using, which lay beyond the stats you would hear about during a traditional TV or radio broadcast. Since the new Pirates regime was allegedly building an organization that valued the kind of analysis I was beginning to learn more about, I decided to start paying more attention to what was happening on Federal Street.
The organizational changes that began in 2007 eventually produced consecutive winning seasons for the first time in a generation, and an influx of talented prospects into the minor league system. Interest in daily team-specific coverage and easily accessible tools for baseball analysis have grown significantly in that same time, and the Internet has provided the means for outlets like Pirates Prospects to meet those interests and flourish.
I will try to position myself at that intersection of the desire for interesting coverage and the utilization of the best tools we have to understand the daily business of baseball. As Tim mentioned in his post last week, I will be providing some featured analysis of the major league team to supplement the great MLB work that he, Sean, and Pete are already doing on a regular basis. I am fortunate that this will include a few visits to PNC Park before the season ends to do some live coverage of my own during the Brewers and Reds series.
As an analyst, I hope to ask and hopefully answer unexplored or under-explored questions about the team. I will always do my best to show my work, and support any position I take with statistics or remarks from team personnel, ideally with both. To put it more simply: I am an analyst and not a columnist. As fun as it might be to deliver piping hot takes—and I have done plenty of that over the years on Twitter—I plan to have my analysis be more temperate.
So, with that introduction out of the way, let’s tackle the most challenging question of the 2015 season:
Why is the Cardinals?
— Ed Giles (@InClementeWthr) May 2, 2015
Doing a survey of the projected standings and playoff odds put together by Baseball Prospectus, Clay Davenport, and FanGraphs will give you a pretty consistent picture: at current record and a 5.5 game deficit, the Pirates are likely bound for their third consecutive NL Wild Card game, this time against the Chicago Cubs, barring an historic collapse by the Cardinals. Whether that game will be played at PNC Park or Wrigley Field remains to be determined, given the seven games remaining against the Cubs.
What always sticks out to me in these playoff projections is the premium for winning your division, something which has been a recurring part of the management team’s public comments. Not only do the Pirates’ and the Cubs’ chances of making the NLDS decrease significantly with being forced to play in the Wild Card “coin flip” game, but their chances of winning the World Series differ significantly from not just the Cardinals, but all of the likely division winners.
So how did the 2015 Pirates end up in this position? Their 23-34 record (at the end of Monday’s game) against the NL Central seems a key number, particularly their 10-19 performance against the Brewers and Reds. While it makes for an easy culprit to account for another second place finish, I’m reminded of a phrase used frequently by one of my favorite baseball analysts, Joe Sheehan: variance swamps everything.
What that means in the context of this article is that the sequencing of wins and losses is more random than we can usually admit to ourselves. In samples of 14 (vs. CIN) or 15 (vs. MIL) games, good teams have bad records, and though it is certainly frustrating to lose to lesser teams in your division, the Pirates have managed to find more wins than expected elsewhere, posting a combined .734 winning percentage (58-21) against non-NL Central teams.
Prior to the start of the season, the Pirates were typically projected to win between 79 and 87 games, finishing a comfortable second to the Cardinals and likely ending up with another Wild Card berth. The Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs all managed to beat their win projections, but the Cardinals remain the best of the group, and are looking a safe bet to be the first team to reach 100 wins since the 2011 Phillies.
Though the sequencing of wins and losses made it seem that the Pirates had a chance—most recently at the All-Star break—to put their collective foot down and possibly win the NL Central, Cardinals pitchers in particular (3.07 runs allowed per game) have made the preseason projections look good despite losing Adam Wainwright. Managing their various position player injuries with replacements like Randal Grichuk (.284/.333/.561) has been an impressive and maddening feat as well.
The reality of the 2015 season, at least at this point, is that the most likely scenario from the preseason projections came to pass. The Cardinals will likely win the NL Central, though the sequencing of their wins and losses and the sequencing of the Pirates’ wins and losses have at times made it seem that the proposition was more in doubt. That said, there are still four weeks of games to play, and a 5.5 game deficit isn’t insurmountable, especially if you include the possibility of a tiebreaker game.
Obviously, much can change for individual players and entire teams between now and October 4th, and I will do my best to pull on some of the more interesting September threads through solid analysis as a fitting supplement to the game coverage. My thanks again to Tim, the rest of the team, and of course our subscribers for the warm welcome. I look forward to experiencing the end of the season with all of you as we continue the home stretch, starting with live coverage of the Brewers series this weekend in Pittsburgh.