Photo: Keith Allison
This is part two of a two part series. I will be discussing why I believe the Pirates have a shot at the playoffs in this article. In the previous article, I discussed why I believe they won’t make the playoffs. That can be found here.
Since writing my last article on why the Pirates won’t make the playoffs, they’ve lost two straight games to the Atlanta Braves. Their odds of reaching the playoffs have dropped 3.9%, and now rests at just 5.9%. And now, with McCutchen being close to hitting below the Mendoza line, the Pirates currently have a black hole batting 3rd and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
First, something that I have briefly discussed on my Twitter account (@CannonballCrner) is the Pirates schedule. I noticed that they had played an insanely tough schedule in April and during the first half of May. However, I didn’t do any analysis on just how tough the schedule has been. In what could only be described as very fortunate timing for this article, Eno Sarris over at Fangraphs did just that for me. He found that the Pirates have had the toughest schedule so far this season. The way he found this was by using Baseball Prospectus’ wonderful statistic called oppRPA+. If you wish to read more about oppRPA+, you can do so here. Or, if you wish to read more about how Eno Sarris calculated strength of schedule, you can do so here (highly recommended).
All you need to know about oppRPA+ is anything over 100 is more difficult, and anything under 100 is less difficult, and 100 is league average. The Pirates combined schedule had an oppRPA+ of 105.6, which means they have had the toughest schedule of any team, by more than a whole point.
If you instead wish to evaluate the schedule another way, we can look at Baseball Reference’s strength of schedule metric. Their strength of schedule metric is calculated by using the number of runs per game teams opponents are better (or worse) than the average team. According to this, it also shows the Pirates have played a rather difficult schedule so far.
There are a few things to takeaway from this. The Pirates have gone without some of their best players so far this season, have played the toughest schedule, and are still just 5 games under .500. Being 5 games behind is no accomplishment. However, with the way things have gone, it’s easy to think that they could have just as easily be 10 games back instead.
So yes, it’s obvious that their schedule has been quite tough thus far. But the Pirates are now 46 games into the season, almost a third of the way finished. So far, the Pirates are on pace to win 70 games. But what does that mean moving forward?
This is another great piece that I highly recommend reading. In it, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs shows just how much 50 games into the season means going forward. To sum it up, it means basically nothing. A teams win percentage 50 games into the season had very little correlation to a teams rest of season win percentage. However, the preseason projected win percentage showed a stronger correlation to a teams rest of season win percentage.
Coming into the year, the Pirates were projected to win 80 games and were given a 15.9% chance to make the playoffs. Is it still a small chance? Yes. But their chance of making the playoffs in the preseason was nearly three times higher than what they are currently projected at. That 15.9% should be more accurate than the 5.9% they are at now
However, it’s important to keep in mind that projections aren’t perfect (at all). The playoff probabilities are calculated using player projections. McCutchen is still projected to be the Pirates best player. Cole, Nova, and Taillon are projected to all have ERA’s in the high 3s. Projections are slow to adapt because players talent levels usually don’t drastically change all of a sudden. I think it’s clear to anybody that McCutchen is no longer the Pirates best hitter and Nova, Cole, and Taillon won’t have ERA’s in the high 3s.
The Pirates lineup is now completely healthy, and they are getting closer to a Marte and Taillon return. Chad Kuhl looks like he might put up a nice season, and Glasnow has been steadily improving. The problem hasn’t been their pitching, it has been their hitting. The Pirates are just 9-5 when allowing 2 runs or less. The bad news is that’s a win percentage of just .643, well below the league average of .847. The Pirates also lead the league in Tough Losses. Tough losses are simply losses in quality starts. They have 7 of those, 3 of which belong to Gerrit Cole. The good news, though, is they have only allowed 2 runs or less in 14 games, which is the 7th most in the league.
The Pirates offense is averaging 4.15 runs per game when Adam Frazier starts, and 3.50 runs when he’s not starting. The Pirates will certainly start scoring more runs and winning more close games now that Adam Frazier is back in the lineup. A healthy Adam Frazier and David Freese is critical to this teams success going forward.
What’s even more critical to this teams success, and has been for years, is Andrew McCutchen. He is hitting just .200 thus far.
The reference line indicates McCutchen’s career average, and you can see he’s been well below that in 2016 and 2017. However, the league average wOBA is .320 and he’s even fallen well below that this year. Sure, baseball is a team sport. No one player will make or break a season. But, with McCutchen in the three spot and once again playing poor defense, he’s hurt the Pirates chances quite a bit. With Hurdles loyalty towards players, it is unlikely that he will be benched or even moved down in the lineup anytime soon. If McCutchen can get his swing back, the Pirates will obviously have a much better chance at making the playoffs.
Right now in the NL Central, the Brewers are in first place. There is no way they will be able to sustain their success with the rotation that they have. The Cardinals and Cubs are both legitimate contenders. However, both have their issues. For example, the Cubs left fielder is batting a lot like McCutchen (under .200). Nearly all of the Cubs pitchers have regressed in one way or another. Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta have both lost multiple mph on their fastballs. They too came into the season with a wild card 5th starter, and have gotten poor results because of it.
The Cardinals are a fine team. But they are no powerhouse. Adam Wainwright has an ERA in the high 4s, and believe it or not, they have far less depth at pitching than the Pirates. If they suffer any injuries, it could be catastrophic for them.
The division and wild card is both within reach. A lot of things will need to go right for the Pirates, but it’s possible. If the Pirates are in it around the trade deadline, I expect them to make moves much like the Happ and Nova trades of the previous years. I’m not saying the Pirates will make the playoffs. A lot will have to go right in order for them to even finish above .500. But, there are some signs that say this team is far better than they’ve been.