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The inverse stories of the Pirates and Braves

The Pirates and Braves are in very similar positions in the standings, but their routes to get there were quite different.

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Note: The Pirates and Braves are in the midst of a three-game series. Last night's game and stats are not included.

While perusing the FanGraphs playoff odds recently, I noticed several interesting facts. First, the AL West and AL Central races are excellent, each with two teams having at least a 47% shot of winning the division and even better chances to make the playoffs. You all should pay attention to them over the last month and a half of the season, and expect to see some fireworks.

But I’m not here to talk about the AL today—I’m here to dissect two of the teams still in contention in the NL, the Braves and Pirates. There are a number of striking similarities between the two teams’ position in the standings, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Note that as of Monday morning, both teams had identical records (64-60), were similar distances back (the Braves 6 games behind the Nationals, the Pirates 5.5 behind the Brewers), and had identical expected end-of-season records (93.9-78.1). FanGraphs puts Atlanta at a 20.8% (about one-fifth) chance to make the playoffs, while Pittsburgh is looking at a 24.6% (about one-quarter) chance. The two teams' odds are below; full data are available here.

Braves 64 60 .516 6.0 83.9 78.1 .523 2.8 % 34.9 % 37.7 % 20.8 % 9.2 % 4.3 % 1.7 %
Pirates 64 60 .516 5.5 83.9 78.1 .525 11.4 % 26.2 % 37.7 % 24.6 % 10.6 % 4.9 % 2.0 %

The difference in the two teams lies not in position, but in trajectory. The Pirates dropped to as many as 9.5 games out back on May 5 before clawing to within one game on July 29 and 1.5 as recently as last Wednesday. Their recent five-game losing streak has set them back somewhat, but on the whole they’re well within striking distance of both the Cardinals and Brewers in the Central. The Braves are ostensibly just as close to the playoffs—needing to overtake Washington in the East or, like Pittsburgh, to leapfrog San Francisco for the second wild card spot—but confidence in Atlanta has been declining steadily since its peak on July 5, when they had a 1.5-game lead over the Nationals at 49-38 and were a season-high eleven games over .500. They lost eight in a row and nine of ten from July 30 to August 9, including four (count ‘em, 4) extra-inning defeats. (Yeah, yeah, I know they swept Oakland this weekend, but I think that’s more reflective of the A’s recent struggles than it is a sign of improvement.)

At this point, both teams have taken roughly opposite paths to get to exactly the same place, and I see them diverging again in the near future. A lot of the Pirates' recent struggles have been due to the absence of reigning MVP and major-league wOBA and wRC+ leader Andrew McCutchen. Sidelined with a rib injury since August 4, and eligible (and expected) to come off the DL today, McCutchen has left a big hole in the Pirate offense during his absence. Replacing him with Travis Snider in left field (while moving Starling Marte to center) did not replace McCutchen's production, even factoring in Snider's August that had him well above career norms (.375 wOBA / 144 wRC+ as opposed to .312 / 93 lifetime). Getting McCutchen back will be a psychological boost as well.

Pittsburgh and Atlanta have decently similar schedules for the home stretch: both play their respective division leader twice, as well as some games against cellar-dwellers (hello, Phillies, Cubs, and Rangers). The keys will be the remainder of the ongoing three-game set between the two and the four-game rodeo that makes up both teams' penultimate series of the season. With playoff gaps as tight as they are, guaranteeing yourself a whole game in the standings with a win is an enticing prospect.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Steven Silverman is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and a student at Carnegie Mellon University. He also writes for Batting Leadoff. You can follow him on Twitter at @Silver_Stats.