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Pirates return to earth following weekend sweep

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Is this the team we all expected?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Over the first month of the season, the Pittsburgh Pirates played interesting baseball. After starting the season 1-6, the club steadily climbed to a 12-13 record in April, going 11-7 over that time. We all watched with intrigue, but knew in the back of our collective minds that eventually the season would be rerouted to the bottom of the league. Is that where the Pirates are headed now?

Riding a streak of hot bullpen pitching, the Pirates momentarily climbed into a tie for the second Wild Card spot. From my vantage point, this would be a good season to be a competitive team: There’s no clear frontrunner for any of the divisions, and there seems to be a lot of parity early on.

Unfortunately for the Bucs, their destiny in 2021 is that of pure mediocrity — or worse. Looking at some of the club’s peripherals, it’s easy to see that any modicum of success Pittsburgh was seeing early on wasn’t going to last. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Now in early May, the Pirates hold a run differential of -26, which is second worst in baseball, with the Tigers coming in at a massive -62 run differential.

As it currently stands, the Pirates are third worst in wRC+ (86), with Colorado and Detroit lagging behind them; sixth worst in wOBA (.295); and sixth worst in win probability added (-1.48). As for pitching, the starters carry a fourth worst ERA (5.29) and FIP (4.81) in all of baseball; finally, the starting pitching staff’s WPA is fourth worst in baseball (-1.62).

As noted up top, the relief corps has been the only real bright spot for the Pirates in terms of actual production. The bullpen’s 3.65 ERA is 10th in baseball; their 3.66 FIP is fifth in baseball; and their 1.60 WPA is fourth best in baseball. All of that is also after a slight regression over the last several games.

Certainly, we can all be excited about the bullpen’s output, but it’s unlikely that even they’ll be able to keep up this level of production.

Finally, the Pirates are 5-10 against teams in the National League Central, meaning they’re 7-5 against all other competition. If you don’t win games within the division, then you won’t win many games throughout the course of the season.

The month of May won’t be particularly kind to the Pirates, with stints on the West Coast against the talented San Diego Padres, as well as the NL West-leading San Francisco Giants. With games in Chicago (Cubs), St. Louis, and Atlanta, the Pirates will have rough-sledding ahead, either due to the talent of the opposition or because the opponent is a divisional rival, which has had an odd impact on the Pirates’ abilities in recent years.

What all this means is that the Pirates we expected to see are likely on their way. While it looks like they won’t lose 100 games like many projected, this club is going to be in the bottom sixth of the league. Here’s to enjoying the good times while they last, and the fun times down the road.