Giles: How Did the Pirates End Up Destined For Another Wild Card Game?

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:

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.

  • While I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the column, IMO, how the Pirates got themselves into the WC mix instead of the divisional title is pretty simple: Cutch hit .190 in April. The team hit .230 with a .640 OPS… followed by getting swept by StL in three consecutive extra inning 1-run losses. From Opening Day through May 6, the Bucs were averaging fewer than 3.5 runs per game. And were 3 under .500.

    That doesn’t seem all that random to me. The slow start was even worse in 2014. Hopefully they do something in 2016 to come out of the gates ready to play.

  • The Cards ERA beats their xFIP by nearly a run. The Pirates xFIP beats the Cards xFIP by about .20 runs. I like our chances in a five game series. I just hope we manage to avoid the one-game dominant performance by an Arietta.

    In other words, the Cards have had the Baseball Gods on their side — again! — this year. They can be conquered.

    • The Pirates have obviously shown over the last three years that they can go punch for punch with the Cardinals, so I would expect a five game series to be very evenly matched, differences in ERA and/or xFIP notwithstanding.

  • That homerun by Kang was a bomb! Whelp, barring a huge collapse by a dominant bullpen, the Buccos are going to pull one out in Cincy.

  • Mercer just showed why he needs to be in the lineup. He turns hits into outs on ground balls. That’s important.

  • Welcome Ed! I’m interested to see how some of your information will be received here. I for one am looking forward to it.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    September 8, 2015 7:49 pm

    Given the fact that the Pirates are closer to the bottom than to the top of most team defense categories, I think that has been a major factor in the team losing a few games that it should have won.

    Other factors, in no particular order:
    – extremely slow and painful start by Polanco
    – the disaster that has been first base
    – Morton and Locke have been Morton and Locke

  • I am somewhat reassured by the fact that we have played St. Louis pretty even over the last 3 years or so – if we can get past the Cubbies, of course.

    • We might not even have a home game, first of all…second, it will be against Arrieta who we can’t hit…and third, who the hell knows what diluted asinine lineup will be trotted out there when we do get on the field. At this point of the year, with where we are and what is happening right now with this team…you’d be crazy not to be worried about another 1-and-done being a REAL possibility.

      • Jared, please for your sake: take a deep breath.

        The Pirates are going to the playoffs. They’re almost certainly going to play the Cubs, and the Cubs are, barring injury, almost certainly going to throw Arrieta.

        None of these personnel moves is going to have an impact on the Pirates’ chances of winning the division or hosting the WC. At most they impact a fraction of one half of the equation – the Cubs and Cardinals still have to lose games they’re not playing against each other or the Pirates. Which they haven’t been doing since, I don’t know, EVER?

        The location of the WC game may be in question, but history tells us the location of the game doesn’t much matter. The home team has a 7-6 record in 1-game playoff scenarios since ’78, and 2-2 since the current 2-WC system was implemented.

        1 and done is and always would be a real possibility no matter what the team does in September. The organizational strategy to address that possibility is to make sure the key players are rested and the bench players offer maximum flexibility in the very likely event the play in game is a nail biter.

        And if you think Hurdle is going to trot out a sub-optimal lineup in the WC, with the season on the line, I think you may have taken the gloom and doom a bit further than is warranted.

      • You turned out to be correct, Jared. But – how did you know I was Crazy?

  • Ramirez at 1B tonight?! Seriously?

    • I wonder what Morse did to get in the doghouse. He has actually played well for us so far, but instead, we get another experiment. Gotta love it! 🙂

      • I mean those who wanted to blow me up over the criticism of Hurdle…please defend this gem. Even if it works out it was an incredibly risky move and utterly non-sense to pull at this point of the year and with who we have on our roster. We have THREE (ok, 2.5, since Pedro is one of them) 1B on the roster…and we are facing a right where a lefty could play just fine. Why are we, with only a 2 game lead, sending out a 37 year old who has NEVER played the position before. Mind-boggling!

        • Simple explanation. Hurdle wants Ramirez and Kang bats in lineup, and Mercer at SS.
          We may not agree with it, but there is a method behind it.

      • Morse… What about Alvarez.

        I think they are starting a right handed pitcher.

      • That was a nice DP he hit into last night with runners at first and third effectively ending the threat and inning. One or 2 more runs there would have been huge the way the Reds were coming on and also the way Melancon has been giving up runs lately.

    • Jared-I hear you on Ramirez. Especially after the Seanrod experiment yesterday. Hope Hurdle isn’t getting too cutesy with these moves to get offense in the lineup. Understand his motive but with the problems the defense has showed…will be holding my breath on the first throw in the dirt to first tonight.

      • And why Mark? Why? What is the purpose of this?

        Oh, and apparently we are going to be a 6 man rotation for a couple weeks, maybe the rest of the year as Hurdle just divulged his rotation even further down the road with Locke still in it.

        • The are significant data which suggest starting pitchers do much better on an extra day’s rest. If going to a six-man rotation makes Chuck and Locke better while keeping Burnett, Cole, Liriano, and Happ fresh and sharp, it will be worth it.

          It doesn’t work for every team, and you have to have six guys you can win with, but if Locke on an extra day of rest can be that guy, it could work to our benefit.

    • They’ve been working him out there. It makes sense, keep the defense of Mercer on the field while also getting Kang and Ramirez in the lineup. He’s got the hands still, just not a ton of range, and he hasn’t shown “the yips” the way Pedro has, so he should actually translate fine.

      • If last night was any indication, their “plan” for him in the field is to essentially stand there and hope the ball is hit to him.

        How many less mistakes would Alvarez have if they’d done the same with him?

    • Didn’t they do the same thing with Alvarez last season?

      • 6 timed in MLB history…a guy his age and experience moving position…wonder how many were in a pennant race?

    • If we were still back in the 70s or 80s when the manager pretty much made all the decisions with a little input from old-school coaches, then yeah, have at Hurdle.

      It’s 2015. This is the Big Data Pirates. They don’t do things that are completely uninformed. More likely they have a buttload of data to support this move, or at least to suggest it wouldn’t be a disaster given the tradeoff between ARam’s offense and any potential defensive woes. Who’s to say Fox and Fitzy didn’t run 1000 sim games and determined tonight and Iglesias was the time to do this?

  • I hate the dam play in game. The team has a great year and then one game decides which team advances and which goes home. Even if your team advances they are at a disadvantage because the team they will be playing will be starting their number one pitcher and your stuck with your number 2 pitcher. Crazy why to get to the World Serious. (yes, I know I missed spelled it).

    • Beats not having any chance at all.

      Been a few 100 win teams who never got the one game shot.

      It is what it is. 🙂

      • If there’s going to be a 5 team playoff…regardless of this season…I’m more inclined to a be a fan of the bottom two teams, record-wise, playing the one-off game.

        Honestly, it sucks that, of the the top three teams in the league, one is guaranteed to be eliminated before the NLDS begins and another is out before the NLCS.

    • Let’s remember in 2014 the wild card teams were San Francisco and Kansas City – which NO ONE played in Vegas last March, I’m sure!

  • Ed,
    We are all pleased that the success of the Pirates and this site has raised interest to the point where major league coverage is being increased. Welcome aboard! I hope you take this on with the mindset of a fair and balanced analytical journalist. Subscribers deserve impartial coverage of the good and bad aspects of the major league club.

    • “I hope you take this on with the mindset of a fair and balanced analytical journalist. Subscribers deserve impartial coverage of the good and bad aspects of the major league club.”

      After your comments on the lineup this weekend, I took note. There have been complaints about the lineup before every single game. That includes their big win over St. Louis on Sunday, their loss last night, and their game tonight (currently up 5-0). It also happened before Friday’s win. Granted, it’s not all the same people each night. But it happens every game.

      This goes back to what I said over the weekend: lineups are a matter of personal preference. There are complaints before every game, and no one continues to complain after a win. That’s why I don’t break down individual game lineups in game stories after losses.

      • I believe that lineups are more than a matter of personal preference. Lineups absolutely affect wins and losses. I stand by my criticism of the game two Cardinals JV lineup and the Rodriquez SS lineup…… well as my call for a more balanced approach from writers on this site. The GM and broadcast team are much more critical of this team than PP staff. In fact, one of the things that is impressive about NH is his willingness to admit mistakes. As a long time season ticket holder of all three major sports in Pittsburgh and a fan I believe that support for a team does not have to be unqualified. In this age of round the clock coverage and unlimited video critical and balanced analysis is much more prevalent and accurate.

        • You seem to be implying balanced for the sake of being balanced. Throw some negative in just so we aren’t too happy with the state of a very good franchise.

          You can have unqualified support and still realize this site is largely more fair than most PGH sports coverage.

          • Luke, I agree with your comments. This site is extremely valuable to me as a fan because of the accuracy of the analysis and the posts of the members. And yes, I do believe all organizations are open to criticism. …

          • This. 1000% times this. Since when is skepticism that turns out to be dead wrong more times than not actually a valuable trait in *any* sort of analysis?

            Any jackass can be disagreeable for the sake of being disagreeable, but why in the hell would anyone actually value that detraction unless it actually, you know, turns out to be correct?

            Still blows my mind that there are folks who not only revel playing this role, but go as far as slamming Tim for often siding with the Pirates. Guess what folks, he’s been right! Regardless of motivation, he’s been on the right side of history far more times than not, and also far more than the “fair and balanced” folks who veil their motivation about as well as the cable news organization of the same motto.

            This is the country we live in.

            • Right on schedule arrives the arrogant name calling NMR, preaching his political doctrine and awkwardly attempting to draw parallels to cable news.
              Slamming Tim? Far from it, Fanboy. Your breathless defense of all things Pirates and now Tim and the constant misrepresentation of other subscribers ‘ positions is predictable and boring. You have managed to become the James Carville of this site, without the intellect or clients.

            • It reminds me of a clip from the HBO show The Newsroom, where when discussing coverage the point is made that you dont pretend items are in dispute to give fairness to those who dont believe it when its reality. Balance becomes useless if its outside the reality of the situation.

              • Is the point of this post that the the 2015 Pirates are having the the perfect season? Have you considered outlining your thoughts before you post this type of incoherent rambling?

                • Absolutely no one was insulting until you decided to get all over myself and another poster for issuing our opinion. So before calling others arrogant, incoherent, and without intellect, maybe realize all that was done was issuing an opinion that you didnt like.

                  I think this team is going to win 95-ish games. Thats great, and the team has shown its run well. Fair to criticize, but your original post gave the impression that you hope we point out negatives. Problem is, not all things you think are negative actually deserve equal time to other topics. When a team is in this position, you are gonna get a ton of positive because there is a ton of positive to report on.

                  Which was the point of my above reference. Just because you dislike something or disagree with something the team does doesnt make it highly newsworthy or in line to get equal time to a ton of other stuff. Balance of good and bad is useless if its not intelligent.

        • The funny thing about Rodriguez is that I heavily criticized that move when it was made. I said that the Pirates didn’t need to give up a prospect like Buddy Borden to get a DFAd player like Rodriguez. And when that happened, the response wasn’t that I was being fair by criticizing a move. It was that I was over-valuing prospects.

          I’m in a unique position where I get to hear every opinion. When lineups come out, I hear from people who like them and hate them, sometimes for the same reasons. When moves are made, some like them and some hate them. And no matter what side I come down on, there are going to be people who think I’m wrong because they believe something else. That happens no matter if I’m critical or not.

          You mention the round the clock coverage. I think this age leads to the possibility of being critical about every little thing. And that’s something I avoid. I focus on the big picture, and don’t blow up small issues on a daily basis to try and appear objective. The big picture is that most of what the Pirates have done has been successful, and there is very little reason to be critical.

          I could start criticizing every single move, but I’d be ignoring the fact that every team in baseball makes moves like the Pirates with Rodriguez or their “JV lineup”. The Pirates have one of the best records in baseball because their moves work out more than others. They’re not undefeated because their moves don’t work all the time.

          We’re in an era where criticism has become synonymous with “balanced”. It’s the idea that you can’t be balanced unless you criticize. My goal is not to be balanced. My goal is to call things like I see them. Anyone being objective would see that there are far more positive things to focus on about the Pirates, and most of the negative things are very minor issues. Therefore, an objective person isn’t going to appear balanced when talking about the Pirates.

          • Absolutely there is much more in the way of positives than negatives when evaluating the Pirates in recent years. Any objective fan appreciates that. And some objective fans can choose to point out that we also lead the league in errors, and muse about the reasons. I would bet that Huntington’s management meetings include a healthy amount of review and analysis of what the organization is doing right and wrong.

            • The defense has definitely been a problem this year. I think that’s due to more of a focus on offense at the infield positions.

              The Pirates have been stressing defense a lot more lately, and that has led to a lot of lineup complaints (like Mercer starting over Kang or Ramirez).

              You’re touching on why I didn’t have a problem with their lineup over the weekend with Morton on the mound. It was about the defense.

            • Not to mention that they are the worst at containing the run game. Bad defense and bad containment of the run game are not a good combination for a team to get very far in the playoffs.

  • What’s interesting about the numbers in the graphic is the benefit the Dodgers get from getting to play the Mets instead of the Pirates/Cubs in the NLDS.

    • The projections also like the Dodgers more than just about any team in the NL, which probably doesn’t hurt them.

      I mean, they are wildly talented, after all.

      • The Bucs proved how to take down the Dodgers. Get into their horrid bull pen. three billion dollar payroll and you would think they would buy dome decent relievers

        • Oh yeah, absolutely, that’s definitely how you beat them. But against Kershaw and Greinke, getting into the bullpen isn’t exactly a trivial matter. Wood and Anderson are both solid, too.

  • This take is so temperate I was half-expecting the season to change while I read it.

  • Welcome again, Ed.

    Leading the NL in errors doesn’t help. While I understand the arguments about chances, GB%, et cetera; think about all the extra pitches and over time, innings, those extra outs contributed to. Should be no wonder as to why the pitching has regressed in the 2nd half. Some of that was unsustainable in any event.

    The Cardinals team ERA will finish as one of the all time greats of the last 50 some odd years. Doesn’t answer Why is the Cardinals? but explains at least some of their mind blowing success.

    • They’ve definitely had some serious trials and tribulations around the infield. They’re basically average in park-adjusted defensive efficiency, which you wouldn’t expect with all the shifting. They were better defensively last year, and much better in 2013.

  • Good information.
    Is anyone like me fearing a 2012 collapse?

    (or am I just in shock from Sunday/)

    • You mean for the Cardinals? They have, after all, been blown out 3 of the last 4 games.

      Seriously, I’m guessing their fans are concerned about the NLDS–they’ve proven the better team over 162 games but either the Pirates or the Cubs may be the favorite going into the NLDS.

    • That’d require (assuming you mean missing the playoffs) us losing 10.5 games in like 25 games. We’d have to have our worst month(ish) of the season by far and have WSH dominate the rest of the season.

      Seems like to get there, we’d have to play worse than we did in May. Not something i see as likely.

    • No I been fearing it for awhile. Yesterday Hurdle went brain dead. I always had this perception that he comes across as the smartest guy in the room and that grates on me. He spouts all these cute catch phrases and seems to talk down to the reporters in his dressers. He blew it yesterday and talked about balance.

    • Think of how hard it seems for us to catch the cards…then remember we have twice that lead on Washington, without any head to head games (I think) that could swing things further. Deep breaths

    • Collapse? Why does this word get my dander up?

      Please stop using it when talking about the Pirates.

    • Not me! I’m happy and satisfied!