(Opening image credit cdn.fansided)
With their impressive win and subsequent sweep of “King” Felix Hernandez and the Seattle Mariners, the Pittsburgh Pirates moved to 48-30 in their surprising 2013 season. That evening, their NL Central rival St. Louis Cardinals lost for the 6th time in 10 games, dropping the Red Birds into a 48-30 tie with the Pirates, after being over 3 games up in the standings less than one week ago.
A look at the MLB standings as they appear this Thursday morning is interesting for a couple of reasons:
1. The Pirates and Cardinals now share the best record in baseball, and are in the same division- which doesn’t happen all that often.
2. Of at least some concern to Pirates’ fans should be the run differentials between the two teams. St. Louis is currently a MLB-leading +113. To put that in perspective, the next closest team to the Cardinals is the Boston Red Sox, with a +78 differential! The Pirates have only a +36 advantage, which ranks them 6th in baseball.
3. Simply put, the Buccos are playing very well, but are significantly above where their run differential indicates they should be. In fact, prior to yesterday’s games, these NL Central opponents’ expected Won-Loss records were:
St. Louis Cardinals 51-26
Pittsburgh Pirates 43-34
So, the Cardinals are about 3 games below where they actually are, while the Pirates are an impressive 5 games above where their run differential would place them.
4. This is not entirely surprising. Despite the injuries to SP A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez, the Pirates continue to have one of the best rotations in baseball, with much credit owed to pitching coach Ray Searage for maintaining the effectiveness of this currently piecemeal group. Pittsburgh also boasts an impressive bullpen, and arguably the best closer in baseball this year in Jason Grilli. So the team is currently winning an above average % of close, low-scoring games, which statistically may not be the case for the entire season.
5. Interestingly, ESPN’s playoff probability tracker clearly factors this run differential into account. Despite now identical records, the Cardinals have a 96.9% chance of making the playoffs, while the Pirates only come in at 80%.
6. Regardless, Pittsburgh has been so impressive to date that for fans, coaches, and players, clearly the focus is shifting from breaking the streak of 20 straight sub-.500 finishes, to actually making the playoffs as well. At this point, missing the playoffs with somewhere around an 83-79 finish would be viewed with disappointment, even though breaking the streak of losing seasons means a great deal to the organization on the whole.
7. Clearly, this run differential shows that the Pirates have at least one prominent need, and perhaps one not-to-obvious void. Despite the recent power surge on their West Coast swing, adding an impact hitter over the next month is a need of paramount importance, which I’ve discussed here and here. One of the amazing things about the sport of baseball is that, over the course of an epic 162-game season, rarely can a team maintain a hot streak or continue to defy statistical inevitability. If the Pirates’ offense cannot increase their run differential, the team will eventually come back to Earth to some degree.
However, a more hidden need may be the bolstering of the already overworked bullpen, which David Schoenfeld- a senior writer for ESPN- acutely points out here. Despite the Pirates’ rotation being the best in baseball in 2013, Manager Clint Hurdle continues to have an early hook, relying on the bullpen to pitch an average of 3.55 innings/game, 2nd in all of baseball.
So as the July 31st trade deadline approaches, hopefully GM Neal Huntington focuses on more than just adding a quality bat. In the meantime, let’s hope the Pirates continue to defy statistical conclusions with their exceptional start. Thanks for reading!