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Why winning the NL Central is so crucial for the Pirates

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

While I was writing my post on how the Pirates should set their rotation for the playoffs, I realized that someone better than I at assessing probability might be able to add dimension to the discussion. Lo and behold, Michael McNeil, who is a Pirates fan and a professional poker player, ended up contacting me on Twitter, and I asked him for his take. Here it is. So, to be clear, McNeil wrote what follows. - Charlie

With the Pirates clinching a playoff berth last night in Atlanta, we can reassess their odds of winning the World Series.

While these numbers may look discouraging, oddsmakers create lines based on public perception of how money will be wagered. While the Pirates will be disrespected in the public’s opinion because of their recent history,  Las Vegas oddsmakers are incredibly accurate at predicting a team’s chances.

First and foremost, Pirates fans should be rooting for the Bucs to find a way, any way, to steal the NL Central from the Cardinals. Currently, the Pirates trail the Cardinals by 1.5 games in the division and lead the Giants by one game in the Wild Card race (with the Bucs holding the tiebreaker). If these standings hold, the Pirates would host the Giants in a one game playoff at PNC Park next Wednesday.

If the Pirates catch the Cardinals, there will be a one-game playoff in St. Louis next Monday. If the Pirates were to catch the Cards, this would be the most likely result.

If the Pirates were to make the division series and play either Washington or Los Angeles, they would most likely be around a 3:2 underdog in either series. This would be very similar if they were to advance to the NLCS and have to face the other division winner. The Cardinals would also be significant underdogs -- this is not the 2013 team that had a +187 run differential and made the World Series. This Cardinals team has a +19 differential, slightly better than the Mets (+7).

As a professional gambler for the last decade, I can assume the Pirates will be approximately a 3:2 underdog in all three (NLDS, NLCS, WS) playoff series. The odds of them winning all three would pay you 14:1 on your money, giving them approximately a 7% chance. This can be determined by calculating parlay odds.

A parlay is a bet with multiple wagers in which you have to win every leg of the bet to collect. If we think of winning the World Series as a parlay bet, you can see why there is an incredible amount of value in avoiding a Wild Card game. If we add the one-game Wild Card playoff to our parlay bet, the Pirates' odds would jump to 30:1. This is based on Madison Bumgarner facing Francisco Liriano in Pittsburgh, a game that will be close to a 50-50 game.

I don’t think the Pirates should be concerned much with setting up the rotation down the stretch, and more worried about throwing the kitchen sink at trying to compete for the division. The Pirates are slight underdogs tonight and will be around a coin flip for each remaining regular season game. The Cardinals, like the Pirates, are significantly better at home than on the road (both are 51-30 at home and below .500 on the road). They are in a 50/50 game tonight facing Jake Arrieta in Chicago, and while they will be favored every game against the NL’s worst team in Arizona, they will only be a massive favorite in Sunday’s game with Adam Wainwright throwing. It will probably take four wins in five games for the Pirates to have a chance of tying the Cards, but anything can happen. And while the Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw, the Pirates should want to face them in the NLDS. Los Angeles has a weaker lineup and mediocre mid-rotation starters in Dan Haren and Roberto Hernandez.