After three straight playoff berths, the Pirates are on the verge of not only missing the postseason, but being ousted from the playoff picture entirely.
It is, perhaps, still relevant to note that the Bucs' chances of making the playoffs aren't zero, and that previously left-for-dead teams have come back in a big way. I think back to McCovey Chronicles jokingly debating whether the Giants should even try to win the 2014 NL Wild Card Game, for example. Helpless-looking teams can come back as long as the math is there, and in the Pirates' case, the math still is there, if only barely.
Still, if the Pirates did end up in the playoffs this season, or have success there, it'd be weird. They're now 5.5 games out of the Wild Card race. They're below .500 and have a negative run differential. They're probably not going to make the playoffs, and they don't deserve to, because they aren't very good. Here, as best I can tell, is why.
1. Andrew McCutchen's poor season. Fans' tendencies to blame their teams' most talented players when their teams struggle is often tremendously unfair, but in this case, it's impossible to avoid. Last year, McCutchen produced 5.8 wins above replacement. This year, his WAR total is comparable to those of Josh Harrison and Adam Frazier. A full list of the reasons McCutchen has struggled might fill another article, but it would be a long and not very exciting one. His drops in pretty much every statistical area except home run power suggest a fairly steep decline across the board. Or is it just one bad season? I guess we'll see.
2. The Neil Walker trade. Pirates fans never liked this deal much, and they've probably still underestimated its impact. Walker has 3.8 fWAR this season. Jon Niese had -0.4 for the Pirates. Harrison, Walker's replacement, is at 1.1. There are any number of ways to look at this, such as the fact that Walker's WAR is so high because of a career-best showing in defensive metrics that might overstate his actual ability, or that, if the Pirates had kept Walker, they probably would not have signed David Freese, who has been excellent. But Walker's departure has had a big impact, and this was entirely a self-inflicted wound on the Pirates' part.
3. Francisco Liriano's struggles. Say what you want about the Bucs' rotation -- and I will, later -- but it would have looked a lot better had Liriano's issues with walks not gotten the best of him this season. In retrospect, the Pirates' success with Liriano in three straight previous seasons looks like a minor miracle. He's always seemed to be constantly on the verge of falling off a cliff, and this year he toppled over it. He still ranks third in the NL in walks, with 69, despite now spending over a month in the AL.
4. The team's refusal to take itself seriously. We've already covered Neal Huntington's decision to trade Walker for Niese, but that, at least, might have worked out much better than it did. The same cannot be said for the team's decision to acquire Ryan Vogelsong to patch its rotation. Vogelsong himself hasn't been the problem -- he's done the best with what he has, although that isn't much. But it was obvious heading into the season that the Pirates needed rotation help, and they presumably could have re-signed J.A. Happ or signed someone else on a pitching-rich free agent market. Happ has been terrific in Toronto (A.K.A. Pittsburgh North), while the Pirates have given one start after another to pitchers like Vogelsong, Niese and Jeff Locke. Had the Pirates committed to spending a bit more heavily, their problems with the back end of their rotation could mostly have been avoided. That the season might play out this way could have been envisioned all the way back in October, too. It's as if the Pirates simply decided not to be good.
5. A long list of modest disappointments. We've probably already named everyone whose performance created a really big mess this year -- McCutchen, Niese, Liriano. But the 2016 Pirates have also featured a number of smaller failures.
5a. John Jaso. After a .316/.389/.456 April, Jaso seemed refreshing -- a low-power but walk-heavy hitter who'd taken surprisingly well to first base. His wretched performances in June and July were a major drag, though, and the Pirates' refusal to replace him with Josh Bell made little sense. Jaso has quietly gotten his season back on track since the beginning of August, but there's still too little power potential here for him to be a serious candidate to start in 2017, or to have much value on the trade market.
5b. Josh Harrison. After his brilliant 2014 season, Harrison has quickly become a "he is who he is" player, which is a shame, since the Pirates traded a much better second baseman to clear a spot for him, and since they owe him $18.5 million through 2018. Harrison isn't bad, exactly, but his 13 homers in 2014 are more than twice as many as he's had in any season before or since, and he's never walked in more than 4.2 percent of his plate appearances in any big-league season.
5c. Jeff Locke. Pirates fans' opinions of Locke have varied widely over the years, but for the most part, he used to be an okay back-of-the-rotation guy, which is to praise him by saying he was okay and to dismiss him for the same reason. This year, though, he's been considerably worse than even that short benchmark, with his strikeout rate dipping to an unpalatable 5.0 per nine innings. The Pirates nonetheless gave him 19 starts, during which they received a 5.86 ERA.
5d. The catchers. Last season, Pirates backstops, led by Francisco Cervelli, ranked second in the majors with 4.5 fWAR. This season, they're 27th, at 0.2. Cervelli himself has mostly been fine when healthy -- it's hard to find too much fault in a catcher who can produce a .377 OBP while saving runs with good pitch framing. But the power he showed last year didn't materialize, even before his hand injury, and the Pirates got little out of Chris Stewart, Eric Fryer and especially Erik Kratz. Thanks in part to Cervelli's DL stint, that trio has combined for 232 plate appearances this season.
5e. Gerrit Cole. Overall, Cole has been the Pirates' best starting pitcher this season, but he's still been significantly worse than expected, heading in the wrong direction in K/9, BB/9 and ERA while missing time due to a triceps problem and now, ominously, an elbow inflammation. Incredibly, since May 26, the Pirates have won just two games Cole has started.
5f. The bullpen. Pirates relievers have at times been electric this year, and the performances of Felipe Rivero, Juan Nicasio, A.J. Schugel and the now-departed Mark Melancon have been highlights. But the Bucs' bullpen ranks 27th in the majors with an fWAR of a mere 0.6. The mess Tony Watson made last night is the bullpen problem currently in the spotlight, but Watson hasn't been particularly good all season, and as several readers correctly pointed out to me on Twitter last night, if the Melancon deal hadn't been made, Watson simply would have gotten the opportunity to blow last night's game in the eighth rather than in the ninth. Jared Hughes' performance this season, frequently in high-leverage situations, has quietly been a disaster, and the Bucs haven't gotten much out of other bullpen pieces, like Arquimedes Caminero, Rob Scahill and Vogelsong.