Gajtka: It’s Not Too Early To Enhance Your Pirates Expectations

I took some heat on Twitter — what else is new — for my statement Tuesday that the Pirates couldn’t have picked a better time to put up an 8-2 stretch.

“But what if they’re in a pennant chase and they need a strong finish to win the division?”

Indeed, what if? Of course, if the Pirates are involved in any kind of race to the postseason, the final 10 games will turn out to be more important than the first 10 games.

But you can’t get there without winning here first.

If we all believe the Baseball Prospectus projections that put the Pirates as a 78-win ‘true talent’ team, then they ‘should’ compile between four and five wins in any given 10-game stretch. We all realize this is ridiculously simplistic and baseball doesn’t work that way, but humor this thought experiment for a few more seconds.

So, with the Pirates having already secured eight wins in their first 10 of 2018, they’re theoretically about three wins ahead of schedule. Thus, if they play out the rest of the season as a 78-win team would, they’re already at an 81-win level — even .500.

If we follow this concept to its natural conclusion, it will only take one more 10-game stretch like the first one to put the Pirates into the National League wild-card race. Two more should put them in contention for the NL Central.

Sounds simple, but of course there will be individual slumps and disappointing stretches for the team. At the same time, it’s not too early to rationally recalibrate our expectations for how the spring, summer and early fall will play out.

Take a moment to consider the alternative to what we’ve seen so far. If the Pirates were 2-8, then they’re two to three wins behind projections, which puts them in territory where they’d be better served thinking about 2019 draft position than trade acquisitions.

With the way events have played out to this point, the Pirates and their management at least have some more time to figure out what this team really is. Are they really ahead of schedule, or should they angle toward 2019 and ’20?

From Clint Hurdle’s perspective, the hot start also allows him to be more patient with inexperienced relievers or give Francisco Cervelli more time to relocate his spring swing. (It speaks to the offense’s production that he’s the only hitter I could find who is underperforming.)

It’s nice to have that wiggle room, but at the same time, there is urgency.

For one, the Pirates’ lineup won’t hit this well the whole season. They’re probably not even hitting that well right now, if you catch my drift.

To wit, entering Wednesday night’s game at Wrigley Field, the Pirates had the highest batting average on balls in play in Major League Baseball while producing the 18th-best average exit velocity. A .318 BABIP isn’t wildly unsustainable, and maybe their 15.7 percent strikeout rate — the best in the majors — is a sign that this offense will simply test defenders more than most this season.

The counterpoint to that would be the pitching staff, which doesn’t have a particularly impressive strikeout rate at 19.8 percent. That’s 24th in the majors and second-from-last in the NL, ahead of only the Reds. Peripheral metrics like FIP and SIERA indicate the Pirates’ staff ERA of 4.21 (19th in MLB, 12th in NL) has been well-earned, with the bullpen dragging down a decent rotation performance to date.

Those are broad examples. The point is that the Pirates didn’t make themselves into a division favorite with two weeks of good results.

But you knew that. There will be plenty of time for talk of regression to the mean, on this site and other forums. The anxiety over whether this team is any good will be replaced by anxiety over whether they can keep it together.

And then there’s worry about whether enough fans were alienated by the offseason purge of popular players that the Pirates’ 28th-place standing in average attendance will linger. Awful weather has limited crowd sizes across the eastern half of the country. The AL Central favorite Cleveland had an announced attendance under 10,000 on Monday, the same night the White Sox reportedly played in front of less than 1,000 actual people on the South Side of Chicago.

The majority of ticket sales happen well before weather becomes a factor, though, so there’s real concern about what even an exciting, winning Pirates team could draw to PNC Park over the course of the season. The damage to the gate may already be done, in other words.

However, the negotiations between the Pirates and (presumably) AT&T Sports Net over a new regional television contract won’t be affected by the number of butts in blue seats on the North Shore. It was the case earlier in the decade that Pirates fans will deliver a robust TV rating if their team is in it. If they do tune in again this year, that will mean at least a little more leverage for the team and ideally a higher annual payout from AT&T in the future.

As I wrote in last week’s column, the Pirates had a window to show something before the NHL playoffs get rolling.

There’s no arguing that they took advantage. There’s real value in that modest success, some tangible and intangible.