I Hate to Rain on the Pirates’ Parade, But. . .

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As a long-suffering fan himself, Scott Behson empathizes with fans who root for the Pirates. Still, he feels the need to tell them the truth.

I’m a die-hard Knicks and Jets fan, so I know a little something about long-suffering fanbases. In baseball, it would be hard to find a fanbase that has had a tougher past 20 years than that of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Pirates last made the playoffs in 1992, and haven’t had a winning season in a MLB-record twenty seasons. Is this the curse of Bar-ino? No winning seasons since they let best-player-in-baseball-even-before-steriods Barry Bonds leave in free agency. And, of course, who can forget the play that started the downward spiral—the Sid Bream slide on the Francisco Cabrera(!) single that ended the 1992 NLCS in heartbreak for Pittsburgh.

But for the third straight year, the Pirates are poised to (ahem) Buc this trend, have a winning season and maybe even make the playoffs. There is no doubt this year’s version of the Pirates is better than years past. But I’m still betting against them. Here’s why.

Good and Lucky

Unless you are miles ahead of your competition, to win you have to be BOTH really good and get fortunate breaks along the way.

For example, fellow GMP Sportswriter and good buddy Neil Cohen may not want to hear this, but even the great 2012 San Francisco Giants don’t win the World Series last year if they didn’t also get lucky*.

Well, so far, the Pirates have been winning. A lot. They stood at 56-37 at the All-Star break, with the second-best record in all of baseball (just one game behind the one team that doesn’t seem to need luck on its side—the St. Louis Cardinals).

But, we’ve seen this movie before. The Pirates had winning records at the All-Star break the past two years, before collapsing in the second half and falling below .500 each time. In 2011, they ended the season with a 19-43 collapse for the ages. In 2012, they reached a high-water mark of 60-44 before ending the season with a 19-39 whimper. As Rob Neyer wrote, “This is probably just one of those things, where for two straight years the Pirates played over their heads for a few months, and then the odds not only caught up with them, but gobsmacked the bejeezus out of them.”

Over Their Heads

I submit to you that the 2013 Pirates are also playing well over their talent level. To wit:

Bullpen:

The Bucs’ bullpen, with the 2nd best ERA in baseball (2.78), has been their biggest strength. Alas, this success is built on retreads Jason Grilli and Marc Melancon who, while they have pitched lights out this season are, well, still Jason Grilli (1.99 ERA this year as compared to his career ERA of 4.14) and Marc Melancon (0.81 ERA this year compared to his 6.20 ERA last season). The pen seems ripe for some serious regression to the mean (the statistical principle that extreme performance will, over time, more closely reflect true ability level).

Further, as Zachary Levine of Baseball Prospectus notes, the Pirates have relied more on their bullpen than any other team in baseball: “Thanks to their starting pitching. . . the Pirates have had to go a brutal 329 2/3 innings in 93 games (11 outs per game). Only the Blue Jays, who have endured miserable injuries and spot starts left and right, have required more relief.” Time will tell if the bullpen will burn out. But I have a pretty good feeling it will.

Starting Pitching:

Although they have left a lot of work to the bullpen, the Pirates starting pitching has also been excellent. It is hard to quibble with a pitching staff that has led the National League in team ERA (3.08) and opponents’ batting average (.225). Fantastic performance. However, there are many reasons to believe it will not hold up.

Right now, the Pirates starting rotation consists of the injured Wandy Rodriguez, the wildly inconsistent AJ Burnett (5.15 ERA as recently as 2011) and Francisco Liriano (5.34 ERA last season), and young guns Gerrit Cole (7 career starts) and Jeff Locke (28 career starts, now injured). They have all pitched very well so far (and newly acquired catcher Russell Martin does have a way of improving pitcher performance), but I’m not so sure I’d gamble on this group going forward. The young guns are great, but will inevitably experience growing pains. The less I say about Liriano and Burnett, the better.

Offense:

The Pirates offense is perfectly cromulent—about middle of the pack. Obviously, any lineup with Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte, Neil Walker and Russell Martin will put runs on the board, but their impact is blunted by the poor performances from lineup filler such as Gaby Sanchez, Travis Snider and Jose Tabata. The Pirates’ good, not great, offensive performance seems perfectly sustainable to me. I just don’t expect a major improvement from the offense to compensate for the pitching staff’s inevitable decline.

Looking Forward

Baseball Prospectus has the Pirates ranked 8th in baseball based on their ratio of runs scored to runs allowed—which is a better indicator in predicting future performance than actual wins. They also give the Pirates a 92% chance at a playoff spot, when their current record, future schedule, and their competition’s expected performance is taken into account. Further, the Pirates have a 9-game lead over the disappointing Washington Nationals for the final playoff spot. So, there is cause for optimism.

Maybe I’m being overly harsh. The Pirates would have to replicate their horrific season-ending performances from the past two years to miss the playoffs. But, with hidden landmines of unsustainable pitching and an over-taxed bullpen, the nightmare scenario really could happen again.

Sorry, Pittsburgh fans. You deserve better than to rely on Burnett, Liriano and Melancon maintaining their uncharacteristically good performances. You deserve better than a white-knuckle, hold-on-for-dear-life finish. But I think you’re going to get one. Regression to the mean is a bitch.

As one long-suffering fan to another, I hope I’m wrong.

* The 2012 SF Giants’ starting pitching was remarkably healthy last year. Pagan and Scutaro had career seasons at far later ages than most breakout years, designated punching bag Barry Zito had an amazing October, Tim Lincecum traded in a crappy year as a starter to become an old-school multi-inning relief ace in the post-season, and Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington couldn’t manage a bullpen if his life depended on it—just to name a few. Sorry, Neil.

Photo: AP/Gene J. Puskar

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About Scott Behson

Scott Behson is a Professor of Management at Fairleigh Dickinson University, a busy involved dad, and an overall grateful guy. He runs the www.FathersWorkandFamily.com blog dedicated to helping fathers better balance work and family and encouraging more supportive workplaces, and also writes for Harvard Business Review, The Huffington Post, and, most recently, Time. He lives in Nyack, NY with his wife, Amy, and son, Nick. Contact him @ScottBehson on twitter.

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  1. [...] The Good Men Project took a look at the Pirates.  Does this resonate?  Is it missing something?  Let me know, and maybe I’ll see you at the double header later today! [...]

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