Just how far away are the Pittsburgh Pirates from contending?
They certainly do not pass the eye test. This year’s tumult was the culmination of a former manager, general manager, and president’s career with the Buccos. Along with a multitude of injuries to supposed star players, the Pirates performed poorly and perhaps even worse than expected.
But if we recall, at the All-Star break the Pirates were just 2.5 games out of first place in the NL central with a record of 44-45 and a -36-run differential. Everyone in the central division was struggling, but the Buccos were doing enough to hang around.
We all know how the story goes from there, but this narrative of “hang around in the first half/collapse in the second half” is no stranger to this organization. In my lifetime alone, the Pirates have seen the wheels come off after the July break several times, going out of their way to destroy the hope that April, May, and June seemed to cultivate. But how do the 2019 Pirates stack up against their teams of the past, and what does it have to say about their future over the next several years?
I dug into FanGraphs for an answer and observed team statistical data in 2019, 2015 (as a barometer for a successful Bucco team), 2012, and the 1997 “Freak Show” Pirates. The years I selected aside from 2015 were seasons where the Bucs collapsed completely in the second half or, in the case of the Freak Show, hung around much longer than predicted. The information I found was rather surprising.
The 2015 Pirates were the most successful team of this century thus far for the organization in terms of statistics. Their offense put up 24.0 WAR while the pitching amassed 19.5 WAR for a grand total of 43.5 WAR. The squad got to 98 wins on the backs of an allowed BABIP of .302 while putting up a BABIP of .314. Their respective splits as an offense were .260/.323./.396.
Now, let’s measure the other squads against this baseline. The 1997 Pirates offense put up a putrid 6.5 WAR on offense but 14.3 WAR in terms of pitching. A .308 BABIP on offense and a .306 BABIP allowed led to 79 wins and a .262/.329/.404 split on the year. The team finished second, five games back of the division-winning Houston Astros.
The 2012 Pirates are a special case because the team made the playoffs the following year after adding several offseason pieces (namely, Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano). Offensively, they accounted for 10.2 WAR, a BABIP of .291, and a split of .243/.304/.395. Not terribly unlike 1997, their pitching carried them with a WAR of 13.7 and an allowed BABIP of .286, the lowest of any of these years mentioned.
So far, the case is being made that 20-25 WAR is just not enough to make the playoffs in the MLB, especially when the distribution of those wins is so lopsided. If 2015 is the model then for a true contender (and while that heightened success may not be able to be replicated with any kind of consistency, it is the goal to shoot for), how far off were the 2019 Pirates from their numbers?
For starters, this past season’s pitching was obviously a huge issue. Their 8.8 WAR and allowed BABIP of .315 are the worst of any of these years, and in conjunction with their 69 wins, this team is easily labeled as horrendously bad and perhaps the worst of all these teams. But the offensive statistics tell a different story, perhaps a moderately hopeful one.
While their WAR rested at just 10.8 on offense, their BABIP of .309 is the best of any of these second half collapse/barely-hanging-on Pirate teams. Their split of .265/.321/.420 puts them on par with the 2015 team in all three of those statistical categories. Had the balls-in-play average gone up with a little luck, their offense was passable as a contending team (in terms of Pirates’ standards).
All in all however, a total team WAR of 19.6 is never going to get it done. More than ever, this second half collapse featured what the others did not: a total meltdown in terms of pitching. The pitching needs to double their WAR in order to put the Pirates in a position to win. It is not an overnight fix. While the offense may be missing one, perhaps two pieces to get them to a passable WAR total, trading for one pitcher will not get the job done to put this team closer to winning. It will take progress from current pitchers as well as additions to get back to winning baseball.
The offense gives fans reason for hope. The pitching gives fans reason for gloom. Stats don’t lie, but then again, perhaps we’re due for another Freak Show year in the near future as the organization retools/rebuilds/revamps for the seasons to come.