The Pittsburgh Pirates made a hell of a run last year, finishing the season at 94-68. The record was the third best in 3rd best in the National League and the 5th best in baseball. Unfortunately, playing in the same division as the St. Louis Cardinals meant a Wild Card spot was the best they would achieve.
Their great season carried them into a 1-game playoff against the Cincinnati Reds and ended their 21 year playoff drought. The Pirates rolled through the elimination game fairly easily behind a dominant pitching performance from Francisco Liriano (total surprise) and a good day at the plate from Russell Martin (rediscovered his bat).
From there, it was the best of 5 National Division Series, where despite holding a 2-game-to-1 advantage, the Buccos fell to the eventual National League Champions Cardinals.
It was an every-few-years, “Cinderella” kind of story; one that turns a team into more than a team. Anyone whose favorite team wasn’t in the playoffs became a Pirates fan. That’s the kind of season it was. But it’s not the kind of season it is going to be.
The Pirates, as of this writing, are projected to finish second or third in the NL Central, depending on who you follow. Even if they finish second again, they’re going to end the season with between 82 and 88 wins. At best, they’re going to be a full 6 games worse than they were last year – very likely not good enough for even a Wild Card berth.
Listen, I love the Pirates, but the odds of them repeating the success they had last year? They’re not good. And here’s why: the entire team played over its head, and a repeat of that is highly, highly unlikely.
1. At WAR With Themselves
Last year, a number of Pirates played over their heads, and career WARs can tell us who, exactly. The following table shows us the WAR for Pirates with over 200 plate appearances.
Certainly a number of the Pirate’s players performed very well. Now let’s look at those same players, specifically at their 3-Year WAR.
Clint Barmes, Gaby Sanchez, Garrett Jones and Travis Snider all performed worse in 2013 than their 3-year averages, and these are often the result of one exceptional year among many bad years (Barmes and Sanchez, I’m looking at you). These players, with lower 2013 WARs, are the ones you could expect to move back up to their averages. But when you look at those names again, you remember that they’re not going to.
Everyone else OVER-performed their averages, and it’s unrealistic to expect Andrew McCutchen to continue to get better year after year. Eventually it has to level out, or worse, start to regress.
The only player here with a legitimate chance to improve his overall WAR is Starling Marte. With only a year and a half under his belt, there is certainly room for growth with him. Other than that, I’d expect a lower team WAR.
All of this is to say that this team played exceptionally well last year – so exceptional that it was better than they ever should have been playing. As they come down to earth next year, you’ll see baseball’s Cinderella stumbling – slipperless – away from the ball.
2. Pitching Is Everything (Almost)
2013 was a good year on the mound for the Pirates starting pitchers. Anchored by ace A.J. Burnett, inspired by the comeback of Liriano and motivated by the emergence of Gerrit Cole, the Pirates starters led a pitching staff that owned an impressive 3.27 ERA, 7.7 K/9 and 1.233 WHIP. But, like their offensive counterparts, these guys were also playing over their heads.
Burnett was the team’s ace last year and rightly so. He put together an incredibly respectable season with 191 IP, 209 Ks, a 3.30 ERA and 1.215 WHIP. The Pirates rescued Burnett from what seemed like a certain ending of his career – no doubt in large part due to pitching coach Ray Searage. Burnett may be 37-years-old, but he would appear to be their best bet to repeat his success from 2013. Except for one thing – he plays for the Philadelphia Phillies now. So there’s that.
Liriano definitely turned heads last year with his reemergence as an elite pitcher and for 26 games and 161 innings, he certainly was elite (although he had his moments – 2.2 innings, 12 hits and 10 runs against the Colorado Rockies, for example). But can he repeat his 3.02 ERA, 1.224 WHIP, 9.1 K/p and 2.59 K/BB ratios? Let’s take a look:
The last time Liriano approached his 2013 numbers was in 2010, and even then he posted an ERA .60 points higher than his 2013 ERA. The last time he was better than 2013? In 2006, when he was 23. The now-30-year-old is injury risk, erratic, and owns a career ERA over 4.00. Sorry Bucco fans, but this flash in the pan was just that in 2013.
Jeff Locke was also a surprise in the first half of 2013. In fact, he was superb in the first half. But with the amount of walks he gives up and the BABip against him (.283 in 2013, the league average was .307), the wheels were bound to fall off sooner or later, and that’s exactly what happened in the second half of the season. Locke can be a solid #3 pitcher, and that is his ceiling.
The lone bright spot on the staff is Cole, who by the end of 2014 will be the Pirates undoubted ace. But, unfortunately for Cole and the Pirates, one stud young pitcher isn’t going to win you 94 games. Just ask Matt Harvey.
3. To Bring It All Aboard…
Yes, I know, that was a terrible pirate pun. Better get used to them.
Essentially, the 2013 Pirates played above the level of play that anyone expected and above the level that they belong. They did the same thing in the first half of 2012, and in the second half completely fell apart. I won’t say that 2014 is going to resemble the second half of 2012, but it certainly won’t be quite as bright as 2013.
I love me some Pirates baseball, but at a certain point you have to face the facts. Expect this team to fall back to earth. Third place in the NL Central, 84 wins.
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