Photo: RJ Schmidt
This is part one of a two part series. I will be discussing why I do not believe the Pirates have a shot at the playoffs in this article, and in the next, I will discuss why I believe they do.
The Pirates weren’t expected to be legitimate contenders before the season began. Based solely on their odds to win the world series, they started the offseason at 30/1 odds, or 3.2%. Of course the world series is almost always a long shot, but when you have two teams in your own division ranked ahead of you, it’s not a good sign for the future.
But, before the season even started, the Pirates lost Jung Ho-Kang due to visa issues. The odds of them winning the world series dropped to 60/1, or 1.6%. A long shot before, an even longer shot after. And now, they are without Starling Marte until July 18th, and 4 games under .500.
There aren’t any updated Vegas odds for me to look at currently, but Fangraphs runs their own odds. The graph below shows the odds of the Pirates simply making the playoffs.
This is bad. There are now 8 teams in the NL with higher odds of making the playoffs than the Pirates.
If you wish to read about how Fangraphs calculates these odds, you can read about it here.
The odds clearly are not in the Pirates favor. But why?
The first reason is obvious. The selfishness of Starling Marte and Jung-Ho Kang have set this team back further than they can handle. There aren’t many teams, if any, that can lose their two best position players for at least half of a season and come out unscathed. Frazier and Freese have performed admirably filling their shoes. But, when they got hurt, the backups to the backups predictably couldn’t perform up to par.
Neal Huntington has gotten a lot of heat for not having proper depth coming into the season. Personally, I’d disagree. Coming into the season, Adam Frazier, David Freese, and John Jaso headed this teams perfectly capable bench. However, Adam Frazier and David Freese quickly became starters due to Kang and Marte’s absence. And then John Jaso, Alen Hanson, Gift Ngoepe, and Jose Osuna became your top bench players. Once Frazier and Freese became injured, it was clear this team was going to struggle. As fun as it is to blame Huntington in this scenario, doing so is wrong.
What I believe Huntington can be blamed for is the Pirates #5 rotation spot. I like Tyler Glasnow long term, and I think he will be a good major league starter. Some believed that Glasnow needed to be challenged, and the only way to do that is by giving him time in the majors. However, he clearly isn’t ready for the major leagues. Glasnow had an astronomical walk rate in AAA. If he was told to focus on his walk rate in AAA, that would surely be enough to challenge him. Now, the Pirates are stuck with a developing pitcher instead of what could have been someone solid, like Charlie Morton.
The Pirates can only control their team, though. They have faced some adversity, but what about the rest of the division?
The Cubs are undoubtedly one of the most talented teams in the league. Coming off a 100+ win season plus a world series, they are now just 2 games above .500. That could mean one of two things. They are now simply an average team. Or, they are a team that has vastly underperformed thus far, but is also still 3 games ahead of the Pirates. The Cubs certainly have their warts this season, but they also have the talent, the money, and the owner willing to spend the money to get more talent to work things out.
The Cardinals are also, yet again, one of the more talented teams in the league. I don’t believe they are as talented as the Cubs, but they are certainly at least as talented as the Pirates.
But in my opinion, the Cubs and Cardinals are not the Pirates main problems. The Reds and Brewers are.
The Reds are very likely a below average team, and the worst team in the NL Central. However, the Brewers are now projected to win just as many games as the Pirates (78). They have far exceeded expectations. Coming into the season the Brewers were expected to win just 70 games.
If you instead wish to use Fangraphs Season to Date Stats mode, which uses this season stats instead of projections, then the Brewers are expected to win 90 games and the Reds are expected to win 77 games. The Pirates, just 72.
The Season to Date Stats mode could mean that either the projections have been too slow to adjust to the teams talent, or the Brewers and Reds have overperformed thus far into the season, and the Pirates have underachieved.
With that said, it doesn’t much matter if anyone in the NL Central has over or underachived. The reality of the situation is this: the Pirates are in last place. They have managed to win 6 of their last 8 games and have only gotten one game closer to the division lead.
It is very unlikely at this point that the Pirates will in the NL Central. It is much more likely that they get a wild card spot, albeit that too is slim to none. The NL East has one legitimate contender, the Washington Nationals. Although the Mets could still make a run, the Nationals are the only team expected to finish above .500 in that division. However, the NL West has three teams expected to finish above .500, the Rockies, Dodgers, and Diamondbacks. But even though the Giants are expected to finish below .500, you can never count them out. Only one of those will win the division, the other two will be in a season long fight for one of two wild card spots.
The NL Central is a tough division. There is no ‘automatic win’ team like the Padres or Marlins. All five teams will battle it out all season, which will make it more difficult to beat out teams with easier divisions, like the Rockies and Diamondbacks.
So, it boils down to this: The Pirates need to compete against the Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers, Rockies, Dodgers, Giants and Diamondbacks for one of the two wild card spots. Can they do it? Absolutely. But like many have said, this team has little room for any more error. Jameson Taillon missing time has left us with Trevor Williams. The David Freese and Adam Frazier injuries had left us with a less than ideal starting lineup. Thankfully, they are now back and healthy and the team is winning again. However, if this team suffers any more injuries they will struggle mightily once again, and ultimately have a top 10 draft pick in the 2018 MLB rookie draft.