[Important editor’s note: this fantastic article of Michael’s was written before last night’s games and is being published now for logistical reasons. You wouldn’t think one night’s worth of games in mid-June could alter things too much, but I wanted to note up front: the Pirates won again, their 7th straight, but by only one run. The Cubs, on the other hand, won 17-0, which changes their run differential dramatically. None of that changes the essence of what Michael’s written, but I thought you should know.]
We all knew this was coming, but the Pittsburg Pirates are finally playing up to their talent level in 2015. After winning six games in a row, the Pirates (37-27) find themselves ten games over .500 and two games ahead of the Chicago Cubs. It was silly to think they’d stay as cold as they started, but that probably won’t make you feel any better about their recent surge. Instead of being depressed, though, let’s use the tools at Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs to dig into their record and see where we might expect this division rival to wind up at the end of the season.
After starting 37-27, the Pirates don’t figure to slow down anytime soon. According to FanGraphs, the Pirates will finish their remaining 98 games with a record of 53-45, bringing their season total to 90, third best in baseball, behind only the Cardinals and Dodgers (having fun yet?). According to the same publication, the Pirates have roughly a 20% chance of winning the division, and a 79% (!) chance of making the playoffs (Just because it feels like one of those articles, the Cardinals have a 96.4% chance of making the playoffs…Yippee!). Worse yet, the Pirates have actually been a bit unlucky, this year, as their Pythagorean Record actually reflects a team that should be at 39-25, based on the amount of runs scored and allowed.
According to Baseball Prospectus, though, things may fall a little differently. BP’s PECOTA has the Pirates finishing their remaining 98 games with a record of 51-47, bringing their final total to 88. If that were to be the case, the Pirates would tie the Cubs for second place in the Central with 88 wins a piece (PECOTA has the Cubs finishing their remaining 100 games with a record of 54-46). The Pirates, then, have a 65.5% chance of reaching the playoffs in 2015, compared to the Cubs 62.0% chance. BP believes that the Pirates should have actually won 38 games, so far, based on the amount of runs scored and allowed.
There’s not a ton of good news to take away from this, other than the fact that the Cubs are squarely in this race. It’s unfortunate that two of the best teams in baseball happen to be in the Cubs’ division, but if they weren’t going to win the division anyway, taking the first Wild Card is just about as good as the second.
Furthermore, the Cubs have, for once, actually been a bit lucky this year. While the Pirates should have won two more games than they did, based on their Pythagorean record, the Cubs should have lost three more, based on theirs. If everything played out the way it should have, then, the Cubs would actually be five *more* games back of the Pirates than they currently are.
The one other piece of solace I can offer, though, lies in the next month and a half. While nearly all contenders will look to improve at the deadline, the Cubs are in a slightly better position to do so than the Pirates. While the Pirates also have an above average minor league system (including some interesting pitchers), they probably don’t have the same financial resources to acquire anyone they want. The Cubs, on the other hand, can acquire just about any (available) player as long as they’re willing to pay the price in prospects. This isn’t just theoretical, either, as the Pirates have behaved this way over the past two years. After twenty straight losing seasons, the Pirates were finally good in 2013 and 2014. Instead of making any key in-season additions to improve, though, they remained noticeably quiet at the deadline. Be it by choice or inability, the Pirates do not have a record of adding at the deadline; whereas, we generally expect the Cubs to do so.