And There Was Lots of Doubt About It

I think [the Pirates] are  doing a lot of good things. I think they’re going to be good. I think they’re going to hang in this division race. A lot of people don’t. I think they will. They’ve got good pitching. They’ve got young legs. Last year they went through a nice experience. I thought (manager) Clint Hurdle had a great line. He said, ‘We’re not the homecoming game anymore.’

Jim Leyland

The last time the Pirates were in a playoff game was 1992. Jim Leyland was the manager. Andy Van Slyke was the center fielder. Barry Bonds was in left field. That was 20 years ago. Every player, save Miguel Batista who pitched one game, on the roster is retired from playing the game of baseball.

The Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012 may win half of their games for the first time since 1992. They are 48-37 at the All-Star Break, two games better than they were through 85 games in ’92. For the first time since the end of the 1992 season, the Pirates are 11 games above .500.

Sure, the Pirates are playing well, but they had an amazing first half in 2011, too. In fact, they were 47-43 headed into the All-Star Break – just a game out of first place, a position they would take later in the month. But then they collapsed. After going 47-43 in the first 90 games of the season, they had the worst second half record in the National League and the third worst second half record in the Majors, winning just 25 of their 72 games post-All-Star Break. Fans are leery of believing in the team because it might happen again.

But it won’t.

The biggest chance the Pirates have at a collapse is Andrew McCutchen. Cutch is hitting an incredible .362/.414/.625 with a .437 wOBA. As Jim of North Side Notch points out, Andrew McCutchen’s first half is better than MVP-worthy. His 1.039 OPS is second behind only Joey Votto at the break. He was elected to his second consecutive All-Star Game by his peers and even placed in the Home Run Derby by National League captain Matt Kemp after Giancarlo Stanton suffered a knee injury, requiring surgery. When McCutchen does regress after the break, some will blame it on his participation in the Home Run Derby – Jon Anderson of The “Mc” Effect researched the second half performance of players who were in the Derby; the results may surprise you. Instead of blaming it on some notion that playing in the HR Derby will mess up a player’s swing, it might be better to look at his BABIP right now. Yes, it’s actually .407. Since the beginning of the new millennium, only two players have finished a season with a .400 or higher BABIP. Manny Ramirez finished his 2000 campaign with a .403 BABIP and Jose Hernandez finished 2002 with a .404 batting average on balls in play. It’s possible that McCutchen can continue his domination of pitchers, but it’s incredibly unlikely.

Although Andrew McCutchen will undoubtedly revert to the mean, that doesn’t mean the offense as a whole will regress. Fans won’t have to watch the insufferable offense that put up 2.9 runs per game over the first 44 regular season games. While the Pirates likely won’t put up the numbers they have been since May 25th, scoring 5.3 runs a game, it will be closer to it than the first quarter. If the average between the two is calculated, that is pretty close to league average with a .292 BABIP (league average is .296) while scoring 4.1 runs per game.

What hurt the 2011 club was the poor second half performance by the pitching. While this season’s starting pitching has not been as good, as last season’s first half ERA was 0.32 points lower, the peripherals are much better. The K/9 rate is up over a strikeout an inning (5.5 to 6.7), the BB/9 is down a little bit (3.0 to 2.8), all contributing to a FIP (for those who aren’t familiar, FIP or fielding independent pitching can be used to predict future success) of 3.92, which is actually lower than the 3.94 ERA among the Pirates starters.

That’s all nice, but how does it contribute to the Pirates’ chance of making the playoffs, or at least being above .500?

Baseball Prospectus has playoff odds for each team that it continually updates based on some sort of black magic. The current percentage BP has for the Pirates making the playoffs is 47.6%, a 7.5% rise from last week. BP also has projected rest-of-season records, which project the Pirates to have a 35-42 record in the second half, which puts them above .500 and third place in the division.

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