Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pirates making winning look routine

These are surreal times for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fan base, what with media entities from ESPN and spinoff Grantland.com to FoxSports.com and even “Live with Regis and Kelly” weighing in on the Bucs’ completely unexpected contention for the National League Central title.

I, like most longtime Pirates’ followers, have been staggering around in this bright light of publicity, squinting and blinking to make sure all of it is real.

It’s jarring enough that my once woebegone team holds first place in the division on July 19; seeing that iconic capital ‘P’ displayed prominently is so many more places than usual takes the current state of affairs to a new level of disbelief.

Even amidst all the ancillary noise, the most interesting part of the Pirates’ surge into league-wide relevance has been my perception of this year’s team compared to last season’s 105-loss outfit. Honestly, it doesn’t feel as different as I thought it would when the Buccos finally made a run.

Perhaps this will change if general manager Neal Huntington brings in a recognizable face prior to the July 31 trade deadline, but the 2011 Pirates have been almost remarkable in the unremarkable way they’ve gone about the business of winning.

The pitching staff, with the notable exception of bullpen ace Joel Hanrahan, doesn’t strike anybody out. The entire offense, despite a recent uptick in run scoring, suffers from a chronic lack of power pending Pedro Alvarez’ return to the majors.

This team, on pace for about a 30-game improvement over last year, features so many of the same names and faces from 2010 – pitchers like Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens and position players Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Jose Tabata.

McCutchen’s exciting rise to stardom notwithstanding, the Pirates offense isn’t producing significantly better than last year’s bunch, although the Bucs are certainly more competent at the plate this time around.

But the real story (and it is well-chronicled) has been how a pitching staff that was dead last of MLB’s 30 teams in ERA last summer has jumped all the way to eighth so far, despite not dramatically improving in any peripheral category besides simple run prevention.

If the Pirates do manage to jump from 57 wins to a division title – or even a simple winning season – it will likely be on the strength of much-improved defensive efficiency.

Defense has long been a nebulous part of baseball, as it is difficult to separate the effect of pitching on run prevention from what position players are able to contribute with their gloves. Thankfully, the hard work of sabermetricians over the years has yielded metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating and Baseball Prospectus’ Defensive Efficiency, in which Pittsburgh ranks 10th after a dismal showing in 2010.

The 1991 Atlanta Braves and 2008 Tampa Bay Rays provided two of the biggest single-season turnarounds in baseball history, and their quick improvements were primarily based upon defensive renaissances, so there is promising precedent in what the Bucs are doing.

Without a huge increase in strikeouts and home runs over 2010, the Pirates have built their 50-44 record in a decidedly non-flashy way. But last year’s San Francisco Giants taught us that an above-average offense isn’t necessary to compete for a World Series.

Speaking of those champion Giants, they lead the NL West with a 56-41 record and a plus-17 run differential, a better measure of how well a team is truly playing. A stunning 26-12 record in one-run games has helped San Francisco outperform its run differential numbers.

The Pirates’ plus-14 differential is essentially identical to the Giants’ mark, but their won-lost record is pretty much where it should be, according to that measure at least. (Based on more advanced stats, the Bucs have perhaps been even more fortunate than San Fran.)

No matter their ultimate legitimacy, though, the Pirates have won 50 games before July 20 for the first time since 1992 without fireballing starters, slugging regulars or excessive late-game heroics. A combination of pitch-to-contact effectiveness and defensive efficiency has boosted the Black and Gold to contender status.

It all looks so routine, and that’s the most interesting part of it all.

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Matt Gajtka is a featured writer and Penguins beat reporter for Sports Haze Pittsburgh. He also hosts the Polish Prodigy Podcast on Blog Talk Radio.

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