The Pittsburgh Pirates have begun the 2015 season sluggishly. They are in something of a hole, but they are not buried.
After two consecutive playoff appearances, the Pirates entered the season with a well-regarded team and an excellent chance at another year of postseason play. According to FanGraphs’ playoff odds, the Pirates had a 52.1 percent shot at a making the playoffs for a third consecutive year prior to the season beginning. They also had a 26.3 percent chance of winning the division. Now, 31 games into the season, the Pirates are a game below .500 but sit seven games behind the Cardinals and a half game behind the 15-15 Cubs. Their playoff and division odds have dipped to 40.7 and 13.1, respectively. The Pirates will have to slog their way to the playoffs, but the path is familiar.
The Pirates’ pitching has been quite consistent in its short "playoff era." In 2013, the staff’s 3.37 ERA was good for third in the National League, as was the group’s 90 ERA-. In 2014, Pirates pitchers finished tied for fifth in the NL in ERA. Measured by the park adjusted ERA-, the staff had a mark of 98, which was just a tick above average. The way they turned out effective pitching was the same, too. The blueprint was to induce a lot of ground balls (best in the NL with a rate above 50 percent in 2013 and 2014), deploy a bunch of infield shifts, and reap satisfaction from the winning formula. According to Baseball-Reference, the Pirates finished fourth in the NL in ground ball BABIP (.224) in 2013 and third (.226) in 2014. The NL averages were .235 and .244 for those years.
So far this season, the Pirates’ staff inhabits a customary top-five ranking in ERA—they are third with a 3.12 mark. The team’s 84 ERA- is similarly good for third in the NL. The staff as a whole is once again inducing ground balls at a rate over 50 percent, and they are doing an excellent job at converting those balls into outs. The team’s .222 ground ball BABIP, fourth in the NL, resembles what it was the previous two seasons. A.J. Burnett’s 1.66 ERA obviously won’t hold for long, nor will his 90.3 percent strand rate, but it sure looks his performance is positively tied to the environment in Pittsburgh. Other than a likely unsustainable 59.4 percent ground ball rate, there’s little else about Gerrit Cole’s 2015 profile that suggests he won’t keep up his excellent start to the season. While Francisco Liriano’s 2.79 ERA is propped up by a .186 BABIP, he still looks like a reliable starting pitcher.
The remainder of the rotation isn’t as strong, but the bullpen can make up for it. Vance Worley and Jeff Locke are the rotation’s weak links, but even they have combined for numbers that are, if not respectable, acceptable for the back of the rotation: 4.67 ERA, 125 ERA-, and a 48.2 groundball percent rate. Worley, in particular, is a good bet to turn in a stinker every third or fourth start. But even then, the Pirates bullpen, with an ERA- of 79 to date, can bail the team out. This past Saturday, for example, Worley gave up five runs in five innings to the St. Louis, but the bullpen shut down the Cardinals for four innings, eventually keying a 7-5 victory.
So: the pitching staff has performed about as well in 2015 as the 2013 and 2014 iterations did. All is well there.
The hitting has been an issue, and it will see improvement. The Pirates’ bats during their playoff seasons were not quite as consistent, as a whole, as the pitching. In 2013, the Pirates had the fifth best offense in the National League, as measured by wRC+. Andrew McCutchen’s MVP season, a strong Rookie year from Starling Marte, a good run at the plate from Neil Walker from second base, and a bunch of Pedro Alvarez dingers powered the offense. The bats were even better in 2014. The squad’s 108 wRC+ trailed only the Dodgers in the NL and was seven points better than the third place Giants. McCutchen was even better in 2014, as so were Walker and Marte. Surprise seasons at the plate from Josh Harrison and Russell martin complemented those efforts.
Things have not gone so well so far this season. The Pirates rank 13th in the NL with an unsightly 79 wRC+. They only sit in front of the Brewers and the Phillies—two teams that have combined for as many wins as the Cardinals. Marte is hitting just as well as he had in the past two years. The only notable discrepancy between Marte this year and in the past two years is a current increase of power. His 43.8 percent home run to fly ball ration hints that his power surge isn’t totally sustainable, but all signs point to Marte remaining a steady contributor. McCutchen’s wRC+ so far this season is just 87, and he’s posting a slash line of .223/.310/.348. Those results have been poor and have contributed to the lackluster play overall, but worrying about Andrew McCutchen’s ability to turn it around is like worrying about something not worth worrying about—like the perfect metaphor in an article about the Pirates.
Other offensive issues have a less clear path toward improvement. Josh Harrison, who put up a surprise five win season in 2014, has been sluggish out of the gate in 2015. He’s hitting .173/.209/.281 with a wRC+ of 33. His .191 BABIP suggests that luck has not been on his side. Harrison’s batted ball profile and plate discipline don’t suggest that he’s disimproved from last season. The only reddish flag is that he’s swinging a bit more, making a touch more contact on balls outside of the strike zone, and is thus making weaker contact—that flag more pink than red. Harrison should improve, but he’s not likely to come close to matching the five win season he posted in 2014.
Questions remain for the rest of the offense. Left-side infielder Jung-ho Kang is offering mixed signals. On one hand, the results of his .333/.377/.521 and 147 wRC+ line are nicely complemented by good plate discipline and an eight percent walk rate. On the other hand, his 55.3 percent ground ball rate leaves a bit to be desired. Post-prospect Gregory Polanco has shown signs of life both last year and this year, but his .377 slugging average and .114 ISO suggest that he has yet to tap into the power potential at the major league level observers thought he would exhibit. In 2014 Pedro Alvarez turned into a firmly average major league hitter, which is what he’s been so far in 2015. But he also became unplayable at third base. Alvarez’s move to first base has dampened his value. He will never hit for a high average; the Pirates have to hope that Alvarez rediscovers the 30 plus home run power he had in 2013, or else first base might end up as an offensive hole. Also, the Pirates are currently rostering and giving playing time to Corey Hart playing time at first base in this, the year two thousand and fifteen.
The Pirates find themselves tied for third in the division as we approach mid-May; they’ve seen their playoff odds dip; and there are some legitimate concerns that the rotation will see some performance declines, though not significantly so, while the offense will witness some improvements, though not significantly so (outside of McCutchen). It is questionable whether or not Pittsburgh can turn it around and make the postseason for a third consecutive year.
Notably, the Pirates were in an even worse position last season. Through 31 games in 2014, the Pirates were seven games below .500 at 12-19. They were 8.5 games out of first place. While, much to my chagrin, FanGraphs no longer provides day-by-day 2014 playoff odds, it is safe to say that the Pirates playoff chances through 31 games in 2014 were not great. In the team’s remaining 131 games, however, the Pirates went 76-55 and outscored their opponents by 66 runs. Eighty-eight wins were enough to earn a playoff spot on the final day of the season.
This year is different from last year. First, when the Pirates were eight games out of first place in 2014, they were sitting behind the first-place Brewers—a team that got off to a very fast 21-11 start. They overachieved early in the season, but by banking so many early wins, they set themselves up to at least break into the playoffs. An epic late season collapse prevented that from happening, as the team’s playoff odds fell from almost 90 percent on August 25 to about 17 percent on September 25. The Cardinals bested both teams and won the division.
This year, however, the Pirates have to contend with a hot start from the Cardinals, who are a much better bet to maintain their high level of play throughout the season and take the division. The Cardinals are 22-9. Since the beginning of the season, they have improved their playoff odds from 74.3 to 89.2 percent. Their division odds stand at 74.6 percent. The Pirates path to the playoffs will likely have to come by way of the Wild Card again. The wild card for the Wild Card spot might be the Cubs. The Pirates have 12 remaining games against Chicago. If the Pirates expose the Cubs as a less formidable obstacle than their hype suggests, they might be able to get enough wins to outpace other Wild Card contenders like the Padres and the Mets. But if the Cubs’ youth turns out to be a source of consistently competitive play, obtaining a Wild Card spot might prove to be more difficult.
The Pirates are seven games out of first place and have seen their playoff odds dip since the start of the season. But they found themselves in a similarly difficult position last year. While the team faces different challenges this season, the Pirates themselves have remained consistent. If the Pirates secure another playoff spot in 2015, it will be a mundane affair. It's an enviable position.