MLB Handicapping: Can Pirates Make the Postseason?
by Trevor Whenham - 5/24/2013
If the playoffs were to start today, the Pittsburgh Pirates would be a wild-card team. It’s not even close, either — they have a full three game lead over Colorado and Arizona. Now, it’s only May, so it is far too early to get excited — especially because Pittsburgh started strong last year before remembering who they are.
This year is different, though. On May 23 of last year Pittsburgh had already fallen to earth. They were 20-24, and had allowed 34 more runs than they had scored. Exactly a year later they are 29-18, have a +23 run differential, and are one of just four teams in the National League with a winning road record.
It would be a great story to see a proud and once-successful franchise finally return to the playoffs again. But is it too soon to believe, or is this team finally about to turn the corner? More significantly, can they be trusted by bettors? Let’s take a look:
This team is playing very well right now. They have won 11 of their last 13, and one of those two losses came in extra innings. That’s impressive at any time of the year — hot streaks like that are crucial for teams with serious playoff aspirations. There is a big asterisk to consider here. Over this hot stretch they have played the Mets, Brewers, Astros and Cubs. That is four really lousy teams. In fact, other than the Marlins, those are the four worst teams in baseball right now. The Pirates get credit for taking advantage of an opportunity, but there is no denying that the schedule makers have delivered a big gift.
They are about to start another series against Milwaukee, but then things get tough. They play a unique four-game series against the Tigers — the first two in Detroit, then two in Pittsburgh — then they host Cincinnati and travel to Atlanta. That’s a brutal 10-game stretch. If they are still standing and looking good after that point, then they are worth talking about. Until then, though, we just don’t know enough.
There are currently 16 teams in baseball with records above .500. Of them, only Washington has scored fewer runs than Pittsburgh, and the Nationals have the worst record of the 16 squads. The numbers just aren’t very good.
They sit 22nd in runs scored and 23rd in batting average with a pathetic .242 as a team. They are in or near the bottom third in on base and slugging percentages as well.
This is a team that just doesn’t scare anyone at the plate, and if you take Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen out of the picture, things are especially bleak. Things have worked because of the competition and the pitching. It’s hard to believe that the offense as it stands can keep up the end of the bargain long term.
The starting pitching has been very solid. However, like so much with this team, it is too early to judge whether it is sustainable. I don’t find it too hard to believe that Wandy Rodriguez can maintain his form (5-2, 3.40 ERA). I find it harder to have lasting faith in youngster Jeff Locke or veteran A.J. Burnett. Francisco Liriano has looked like his old self in three starts since coming off the DL, but he hasn’t faced anyone of note. We won’t know what to expect from him until he faces better competition (where have I heard that before?). Beyond that are guys like Sanchez, Gomez, and McDonald — wild cards with limited upside.
This rotation has overachieved, and it’s no easier to have long-term faith in them than the offense.
The NL Central is very tough this year — much harder than expected. The Cardinals have the best record in baseball. The Reds are tied with the Pirates. The three teams are a combined 23-7 in their last 10 games. Pittsburgh is 6-2 against these teams so far this year, but with a combined 30 games left against the two squads, and with both of those teams built to last, Pittsburgh’s division certainly doesn’t do them any favors.
The wild-card hunt
Finally some good news. There just aren’t that many good teams out there in the NL beyond the elites right now. Philadelphia and Washington should both be much better than the basically .500 squads they have been, but they both have issues that make a second-half charge far from certain. Colorado and Arizona are the nearest pursuants right now, but both are overachieving majorly. It’s not too late for the Dodgers yet, but the clock is certainly ticking.
Pittsburgh doesn’t likely have to be great the rest of the way to make it into the playoffs thanks to the availability of two wild-card spots now Pretty good is probably good enough.
Over the nine seasons prior to this one, betting on Pittsburgh has never been profitable. In fact, if you had bet against them consistently you could probably have a nice second home by a lake somewhere by now.
Things have certainly changed this year. In fact, they are the most profitable team in baseball right now. They have been profitable however you bet them, too — at home, on the road, on the runline, or on the “over”. So far, so good, though this current winning streak certainly isn’t helping to maintain the value in the lines. The saving grace is, though, that the Pirates have been so bad for so long that it will take a whole lot for people to establish lasting faith in them regardless of how long they sustain this start.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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