i looked at the standings today. there must be something wrong with my eyes, or maybe the world, because the pittsburgh pirates are tied with the cardinals for first place.
the pirates have not been a serious contender since you could hear pearl jam's "ten" being played endlessly on the radio. the pirates ended the 1992 season as NL east champs, with a 96-66 record. the 92 pirates were thoroughly okay offensively, with a team-wide 101 OPS+. some members of the club provided more offense (barry bonds in a smaller hat-size provided a 1.080 OPS and 10.0 WAR) than others (second baseman jose lind got 506 PA's despite a 56 OPS+). ex-cardinal andy van slyke also provided some offensive heft, with a .889 OPS.
the pirates' pitching did a lot to win games that year, with a solid rotation led by doug drabek; no starting pitcher had an ERA+ of less than 100. the rotation notably featured the major league debut of a young pitcher by the name of tim wakefield, who started 13 games, finishing with a 2.15 ERA.
eerily enough, the pirates 1992 club featured another major league debut: one 21-year-old miguel b*tista. in two April innings, he walked three batters and gave up a home run. the pirates were so impressed with his initial outing, he didn't pitch in the majors until 1996, for the marlins. and that was kinda how his career went from there. the rest of the bullpen was a mix, including fine performance from closer stan belinda and an excellent 24-inning stint from ex-cardinal danny cox.
i wonder how they could put up such a good record with very little in the way of standout performances. their great players (bonds, van slyke, drabek, shortstop jay bell) were excellent. the rest of the team supplied only modest value, with numerous players getting substantial playing time who were basically replacement value or worse.
fast forward 19 years, and the pirates are tied for first right after the all-star break. and they're winning games in almost the same manner. the rotation is full of solid, unspectacular types, who are keeping the team afloat. the position players are andrew mccutchen (who is on track for a bondsian season) and everybody else (no one else is on track to finish with much more than 2 WAR). since mccutchen seems to be the engine, the question is whether he can keep his production up: the answer, surprisingly, is maybe. he has a pretty ordinary BABIP (.322) and slightly lucky HR rate (12.6%). there's less reason to think he will regress in the later part of the season than i thought i would find.
the rotation is another story. of the major starters, three have BABIP's substantially below .300. paul maholm is rocking a .252 BABIP-against; jeff karstens a .235; and kevin correia a .285. karstens is also benefiting from an 88% LOB rate. other starters are getting a lot of help on home runs. charlie morton and paul maholm have HR/FB rates under 7%. despite his HR luck rate, charlie morton and the amazing groundball rate that could seem like the best candidates to pull to the front of the rotation. the remainder of the rotation will be fine, but unspectacular when luck catches up with them.
while a part of me wants to see the pirates do well and contend, i think it's fair to say that the rotation will not keep this up. further, the position players are very thin beyond mccutchen. i hope he keeps up his run of great performance, but to be realistic, it is dangerous to rely on one person for so much value. the 2011 pirates seem like a story that should give hope to every solid team out there; when everything goes right, you can keep pace. however, this luck won't likely last. i think as the pittsburgh rotation regresses to its norm, the pirates will fall out of contention. but there are some interesting pieces there.
in a division in which the cubs and the astros seem seasons away from being good again, and in which the brewers seems to have purchased this year with the prospects of next year, the pirates could quickly become a very relevant player in the division. they need a few more key pieces to emerge from the farm, or to identify value bargains on the free agent market. all this is to the good. let's not get too relevant, though, pittsburgh.