The Dog Days: Predicting the Pirates in July and August

On July 19th, 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates stood at a formidable 51-44, with a one-half game lead in the National League Central division. It was the latest into the season that the Pirates had been in first place since July 17th, 1997, so naturally there was some excitement to be had. In spite of the buzz, Pirates’ manager, Clint Hurdle remained grounded. “They don’t break a trophy in half and give it to you on July 19th,” he told some enthusiastic reporters in an interview. What happened next was disheartening. The Pirates would go on to win 21 of their remaining 67 games, leaving them with a 72-90 record. On July 19th, 2012, there was a similar song and dance. This time, the Pirates sat one-half game back of the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals, with a record of 51-40. Yet again, talking heads began to talk, and yet again, Hurdle encouraged them to settle down. Then came a collapse of legendary proportions. In 2012, the Pirates saw their high water mark rise to 16 games over .500 (63-47 on August 8th, 2012), only to win 16 of their remaining 52 games.

As I write this, it is, once again, July 19th. The Pirates have found a new high water mark (21 games over .500 on July 3rd, and 19 at the time of this writing), and are looking to improve tonight on the road against the Cincinnati Reds. Coming off of an exciting All Star Break, where we saw five Pirates represent the National League—the most since 1972—Clint Hurdle is still preaching patience. He continues to emphasize his team’s commitment to finishing the season, while dissuading reporters from getting overly excited about the team’s success.

Frankly, I admire Hurdle’s hesitance to get too cocky (add it to the list of similarities between the Pirates’ skipper and Han Solo). Recently, it seems that baseball writers tend to get somewhat reckless with their predictions of certain outcomes, especially with regard to the Pirates’ recent history. While I acknowledge that a lot of writers practically make their living on prognostication, it can be kind of a bother at times. Writers will sometimes tab the Pirates for a winning season at the beginning of the year, and then backtrack as the year progresses. It’s not fun.

I see myself as more of a fan and less of a professional journalist, (yesterday, Lindsay bought me ice cream, but I don’t think that counts as a paycheck) so I’m not really in the business of making predictions. I’m rooting (as fans are known to do) for a winning season, but I’m not interested in talking playoffs yet, as others seem to be. There’s a lot of baseball left to play, and I’ve been burned before.

Having said that, the Bucs are playing some pretty good baseball. Their record sits at a balmy 56-37, just one win shy of their entire 2012 total (and it’s not even August yet!). They have the best team earned run average in the league, (3.07) and share the lead for lowest WHIP (Walks + Hits per Innings Pitched) at 1.18. Anyone who’s willing to talk about it will admit that pitching is crucial if a team expects to win consistently. However, their hitting could use some help. They’re 25th in the league in batting average, 22nd in on base percentage, and 21st in slugging percentage. A closer look at their numbers reveals that they’re not scoring runs at a substantial enough clip in order to sustain a 56-37 record, and in fact, based solely on run differential alone (Runs Scored vs. Runs Allowed), the Pirates are projected to have only won 52 games (not a hugely significant drop-off, but still worth noting), suggesting that some luck was involved in their successful first half.*

None of this is to say anything with any certainty about the Pirates’ production in the second half of the season. They had a decently impressive first half, putting up some exciting numbers, and playing some exciting baseball in the Steel City. I speak for a lot of people when I say that it’s nice to have something fun to do during the summer months, and chasing .500 with the Pirates definitely counts as fun. I’m practically hopping out of my seat waiting for the first pitch tonight; I can’t wait to see what the Pirates will do with the second half, and I’m really hoping, as always, that it ends with (at least) an 82-win season.

* — Anyone struggling with the numbers aspect of baseball is going to have to trust me here. There’ll be another post dedicated completely to discussing some of baseball’s more baffling statistics. Hooray for numbers!

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