During an interview today, I was asked whether it was surprising that the Pirates won 94 games given that their offense was so underwhelming. This wasn't a surprising question. The idea that the Pirates' offense was bad, or at least mediocre, is widely-held. At one point, I think I may have even internalized the idea that the Pirates' offense was weak this year. But it's not accurate. The Pirates' position players -- and not just Andrew McCutchen -- were important parts of their success.
The idea that the Pirates have a bad offense probably comes primarily from looking at their raw statistics, which aren't that impressive-looking. Let's use OPS. Here's everyone with at least 200 plate appearances.
Andrew McCutchen .911
Pedro Alvarez .770
Starling Marte .784
Neil Walker .757
Russell Martin .703
Garrett Jones .708
Jordy Mercer .772
Jose Tabata .771
Clint Barmes .558
Gaby Sanchez .762
Travis Snider .614
'So,' I think the line of thinking goes, 'there's Andrew McCutchen, who was great, and then a whole mess of players in the .700s, and then Barmes and Snider, who stunk. And they batted .245 as a team!'
Now if the Pirates played in, say, Houston in 1999, this would be a terrible offense. But they didn't. First, the average National League team in 1999 scored right around five runs a game; this year's average team scored a full run a game less. The run-scoring environment now is fundamentally different than it was 10 or 15 years ago, and I'm not sure most fans have properly adjusted to it. 10 years ago, hitters put up amazing-looking numbers; now, it's the pitchers who do.
Also, PNC Park suppresses run-scoring. For whatever reason (The weather? Random variance? I'm honestly not sure), PNC has shifted from being a neutral-ish park for the first several years of its existence to a clear pitcher's park today:
PNC's Park Factor (1 is average):
In any case, PNC has been very tough on hitters the past few years, which means that a .700 OPS there isn't the same as a .700 OPS in Miller Park, or Wrigley Field, or Great American Ball Park.
All this explains why, when we look at OPS+, which adjusts for PNC Park and for league offensive context, the Pirates' offense actually looks rather good:
G. Sanchez 117
In fact, the Pirates had a team OPS+ of 101, which means their hitters were actually a hair above average.
And even that leaves out their contributions on defense. The Pirates ranked fifth in the majors in defensive efficiency. They had a strong defense partly because of their excellent use of defensive shifts, but also because Barmes, Martin and Marte are top-notch defensive players, and because McCutchen and Alvarez turned in improved defensive seasons.
In other words, a cursory glance at the statistics gives the Pirates' pitching too much credit for the Bucs' season, and gives their position players too little. The Pirates had a good pitching staff, but they also had an underrated offense, and a defense that helped their pitchers put up great numbers.