Per research done by Jay Jaffe in a recent piece for FanGraphs, the Pirates are in good company with their surprisingly successful start.
As it turns out, 14 of the past 15 Major League Baseball teams to win nine of their first 12 games — a level the Pirates reached with their series win in Chicago last week — have qualified for the postseason. A full 12 of those teams have won their divisions.
Historically speaking, it hasn’t been as much of a sure thing as it has been recently. In the wild-card era that began in 1995, starting 9-3 or better has meant a postseason berth 31 out of 49 times (63 percent). Of course, the past six seasons have featured four wild-card teams instead of two, so it’s generally easier to make the playoffs now than it used to be.
What’s the point of all this? Well, this “retooling” process that Neal Huntington spoke of during the winter has shifted into a higher gear than expected at this early stage of 2018. As Alan Saunders wrote Sunday, Huntington has already gone searching for options to reinforce the one part of the team that’s lagged behind: The bullpen.
Would the general manager have been this aggressive if the Pirates were 7-8 instead of 11-4? Impossible to tell for sure, but there’s no doubt there seems to be more at stake in April than the majority of fans and analysts thought there would be at any point this season.
In his weekly Sunday conversation with Pirates broadcaster Greg Brown on 93.7 The Fan, Huntington mostly stuck to his slow-and-steady script … but with a little more directness than usual.
“Our job is to put this club in a position to win, day in and day out,” Huntington said. “I don’t know if we react any differently. We want to remain patient and disciplined, yet at the same time we don’t want to be tolerant of things that need to be corrected.”
Yeah, that functions as urgent talk from Huntington, who typically can’t be knocked out of his “always trying to make the team better” rhythm, no matter the question.
“There’s still a lot of season left, but the club is showing resilience,” Huntington continued. “It’s showing creativity, hunger and passion for the game. They’re fighting for each other. … Those are all very good signs.”
The mention of “creativity” was in reference to Corey Dickerson’s game-winning bunt RBI in Saturday’s 1-0 win at Miami. Certainly the Pirates have climbed their way to an early lead in the National League Central in a few different ways, from a 13-10 win on a sloppy, blustery opening day in Detroit to Sunday’s more straightforward 7-3 victory.
It’s made for an entertaining couple of weeks, no doubt, but the numbers that matter the most are in the won-lost columns. Those are also the numbers that have gobsmacked the most observers, simply because this past offseason had the feel of a team playing for 2019 and beyond.
Huntington has never agreed with that outside evaluation, starting with the immediate aftermath of the Andrew McCutchen trade. You might remember the GM stating back in January that the Pirates front office didn’t think moving McCutchen and Gerrit Cole affected their championship chances at all.
Huntington reminded radio listeners of that stance Sunday, even as he admitted he might have come off too defiant at a time when fans’ emotions were extremely raw.
“As we talked this offseason, we shunned the word ‘rebuild’ because that implied we didn’t intend to win anytime in the near future and that we were looking five years down the road,” Huntington said. “That wasn’t the intent. … For whatever reason, that message didn’t resonate as we were hoping and we did a poor job of delivering that. We still believe that this is a young, hungry, talented team that can still be one of those teams (that surprise). The players in the locker room in February and March were articulating that.”
Speaking of the clubhouse mood, there’s been much made by the players during media interviews about the loose and fun atmosphere before and after games. Whether it be cutting the clubhouse rug or otherwise, outward joy has been more evident in and around the team.
Skeptics would say that the Pirates are having more fun because they’re winning. Romantics might counter that good feelings have bred good results. Realists realize the truth could be somewhere between those two poles.
Regardless, all the warm words and images have many asking if McCutchen and Cole were somehow detriments to team camaraderie. John Perrotto of The Perrotto Report recently quoted a Pirate as saying the atmosphere around McCutchen and Cole last year was akin to a bad marriage, since they knew they’d be gone sooner rather than later.
Huntington didn’t shrug off the topic when Brown brought it up, but he didn’t address it head-on, either.
“Nothing but respect for Gerrit and Andrew and how huge of roles they played in ’13, ’14 and ’15,” Huntington said. “I’ve learned a long time ago that you could bring back the same 25 players and have different chemistry. Good chemistry creates wins, but wins also create good chemistry. It’s scientifically proven.
“We need to bring in people who are hungry and talented. Gerrit and Andrew helped us win, and it’s good to see them do well, but we want to look forward. We’re focused on who is here and how we can continue to help them grow.”
So how will Huntington, who’s been by most measures conservative with his in-season trades, try to boost a team increasingly looking worthy of such a lift?
For now, it sounds like he wants to see more, even if the first 10 percent of the season has been about as encouraging as it could be. The Pirates have a terrific head start in their quest to be one of those teams that surprise the baseball-consuming public, a fact not lost on Huntington.
“We still have a lot of baseball to play, but we believe we can be one of those teams,” he said. “We’re certainly appreciative of the wins in the bank.”