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!

Emotional Baseball Report: Area 51.5 – Andrew McCutchen

This is the first post of what will hopefully be many in the Emotional Baseball Report Series.  I have been bugging Jason to start a blog for years, ok well I tell everyone that they should start a blog.  I have also felt like IheartPGH has been lacking in sports posts.  How can y ou have a blog about Pittsburgh with out sports?   Read the first post and be sure to follow @emobaseballrepo on Twitter as well

There is room for argument that March 4th, 2012 was the best day to be a Pittsburgh Pirates fan since October 13th, 1992. That amazing night the Pirates beat the Atlanta Braves 13-4 to tie the series at 3 games all for the right to go to the World Series. The Pirates, lead that night by a 2nd inning home run by Barry Bonds had all the momentum until the next night in the bottom of the 9th inning. From October 14th, 1992 until the present day the Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball Club have been a losing franchise. I stand on my Emotional soap box and say regardless of record in this coming season, the Pirates of the last 19 years are no more.

The very impressive 6 year, $51.5 Million contract the Pirates extended their young superstar Andrew McCutchen changes everything for the franchise going forward. Rob Biertempfel reports on twitter  the $ amount for the 7th year option at $14.75 Million, which would seem an obvious buy given McCutchen’s pedigree and advancement in his short time in the majors.

So, we should celebrate here in Pittsburgh today and for the next 7 years. The Pirates have one of the most affable young superstars in baseball and they have him at a team friendly deal that Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly should be applauded for finalizing in such a quiet and quick manor.

McCutchen passes every test modern baseball has for a young player, SABRmetrically, personality, and for us season ticket holders, the all important eye ball test. His fielding UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) improved dramatically last year. While a helpful tool, UZR is widely debated due to year to year fluctuation. (Ex. Michael Bourn 2010 +20.6, 2011 -6.2). I think most of us in Pittsburgh know McCutchen’s only fielding limit is his arm. He is strong, but he will fly a cut off man from time to time and be off target. McCutchen’s OBP was a stellar .364 due to a great walk rate and despite an unlucky .291 BABIP (Batting Average of Ball in Play). A comparable outfielder in home runs, plate appearances, and WAR (Wins above Replacement) last year was Alex Gordon. He had a .358 BABIP. There are always abnormalities in these stats, but I bet this .291 figure will be McCutchen’s lowest for the foreseeable future. While I don’t think anyone can hope he is as lucky as Gordon or Matt Kemp (.380 BABIP) last year, I think we can routinely expect him to be around .320. This coupled with his an acceptable strikeout rate, I believe his stat lines in the next few years of service should be in the .280/.380/.480 with 25 home runs and 30 steals. And while last year McCutchen was a top 20 WAR player in all of baseball according to Fangraphs.com this advance stat line would secure that and probably consistently place him in the top 15 in all of baseball. And, while all of these stats are very important to baseball nerds like myself the most important thing that Andrew bring to the PNC ball park is what you can see when he is flying around the base paths after a hit to the left-center field gap, hair flowing after his helmet pops off, sliding easily into 3rd for what Greg Brown may call a trip-trip-triple. He stands up, smiles, wipes himself off, and you can tell he is having fun out there. That is something that had been alien to many a Pirates fan over the last 19 years. Well, no longer, for we have Area 51.5 for the next 6 years and beyond.