CINCINNATI, OH - JULY 17: This is a real photograph.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are six games over .500 this morning, and look, through their Baseball Reference page, to be what you'd get if you inverted the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals. The offense has been predictably terrible, though not as terrible as might have been predicted, and their star player is playing over his head; the pitching has been outstanding, driven mostly by an inexplicably excellent bullpen. Oh, and Jeff Karstens's ERA is half his ZiPS projection, while Ryan Franklin's ERA was twice his own ZiPS projection.
If you want to know how well things have been going lately for the Pirates, Brandon Wood's OPS+ is over 10! Since June he's hit .253 with a slugging percentage of .475, doing his best to avoid scoring a point for people who believe in the idea of AAAA hitters.
I don't think the Pirates are the most pressing of the Cardinals' concerns—their win over the Reds is good news to me, and not just as someone keyed up from the Reds' status as rivals of the year—but it's worth noting that flukes like these happen to make good teams into successful teams as much as they do to make bad teams into good teams.
Outliers from the last few World Series champs, with ZiPS OPS[+]/ERA[+] projection on the left and next year's numbers on the right:
For all the press Brian Sabean gets about being a kind of standard-bearer for the last pre-Moneyball generation of baseball execs, his offensive strategy for 2010 was basically to grab everybody who got good press in Baseball Prospectus 2003 and then wait for them to start raking. He must not have been able to reach Josh Phelps, Jack Cust, or Ben Grieve through their Friendster accounts.
New York Yankees: Pass. Not only can I not find the Yankees' 2009 ZiPS projections, they're also mostly fluke-free, unless you count their immense wealth or their players' nonstandard aging patterns—Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Hideki Matsui all had mid-peak years despite being in their mid-to-late thirties.
The weird thing about this Philies team is that it weathered severe projection misses from Ryan Howard, who missed his projection by more than 100 points of OPS, and Jimmy Rollins. Of course, Pedro Feliz overshot his projection by 40 points to help make it up; he got his OPS+ all the way up to 81 that year.
This is a nice set of all possible best-case-scenarios for a championship team—Lowell, the veteran playing way over his head; Ortiz, the star who gets even better; Pedroia, the rookie who makes good on his promise all at once; and Beckett, the erstwhile star/prospect who puts it all together again after some uncertainty.
The Cardinals mostly have veterans playing over their heads and stars getting even better, though if you put Jon Jay and Allen Craig together it makes for one nice Rookie-Type Makes Good. It looks like Lohse has already lost the fluke-season luster, and I'll worry about Berkman and Holliday for the rest of the year, but that the Cardinals' offense is currently being carried on Lance Berkman's knees is not necessarily a disqualification for postseason glory.
How desperate are you for relief help? Desperate enough for apparently released ex-Met Aaron Heilman? Heilman went from polished starting prospect to Terrible Mets Failure to set-up man success story to punching bag so fast that it's hard, in hindsight, to see when, exactly, any of that was supposed to have happened.
At this point he's given up a few too many home runs for four years running, and while there might be something left in Heilman more interesting than P.J. Walters, I don't see the Cardinals fighting off a crowd to figure out what it is. If they go after a reliever at the deadline I'm still fond of Hong-Chih Kuo, who between his struggles with anxiety and the Dodgers' struggles with not squandering millions of dollars could be a K-Roddian bargain.
Actually, discussion question: What's your pet scrap-heap trade proposal for what ails the Cardinals in July? For me it's Kuo or fellow struggling-Asian-LOOGY Hideki Okajima, currently sporting a 28:2 K:BB ratio with the Red Sox' AAA affiliate. The more ridiculous LOOGY stats begin to look to me, the more I'm convinced that the best possible way to install one on the cheap is to pick up a guy with a funny delivery that most hitters in the league haven't seen before and then pitch him into the ground until he gets spooked and starts walking everyone.