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2013 Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates


What They Did:        79-83, 4th Place NL Central.

     Actual Runs:        Scored 651 runs, Allowed 674.

                                  Expected wins based on RS and RA:  78.4 (0.6 below actual)

          Restated:        Scored 637 runs, Allowed 651.

                                  Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA:  79.4 (0.4 above actual)


(Glossary: Expected wins, based on a modification of Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem, are the amount of wins a team should win in any season based on the amount of runs it actually scored and allowed.  Deviations will be explained in the appropriate team capsules.

Restated Runs Scored and Runs Allowed are the amount of runs a team should have tallied based on its actual components of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging achieved/allowed.  In the case of the Pirates, if they posted exactly the same stats in 2013 as 2012, they should expect to win 79 games.)

The Pirates fooled me last year and maybe it’s because I wanted to get fooled.  Outside of the Phillies somehow managing to wrest control of the NL East back from the Nationals, this is the outlook I hope is the most inaccurate to the downside.  For the second consecutive year, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team with the unfathomable twenty-year run of under .500 finishes, had themselves in the thick of a pennant race well into August.  After beating St. Louis 6-3 in a thrilling Sunday afternoon-into-late-night 19-inning game, exactly three-fourths of the 2012 season was over and the Pirates were 13 games over .500 and leading the pack for the second Wild Card berth. 

The year before (interestingly, the Pirates 2011 season also fell apart after a 19-inning game) Pittsburgh’s collapse seemed entirely predictable.  Both the offense and pitching were getting results in excess of their skills displayed, and most of all the fielders – largely the same collection that was worst in the majors the year before – was playing best-in-baseball defense.  When it all turned around the last two months, it wasn’t a surprise.  Last year though, I saw an offense that scored 392 runs in the second and third quarters, the most in the National League.  And the runs scored appeared deserved and sustainable as the team had developed into a legitimate band of sluggers.  The power never waned (they would finish fourth in the NL in homers) but I missed some warning signs; it’s o.k. for a team of sluggers to strike out a lot (only the Astros struck out a higher rate) but to be truly explosive power must be accompanied with patience.  The Pirates were 28th in baseball at taking walks.  Worse Pittsburgh was the only team in baseball to give up more runs in each quarter than the previous one.  By the time the season ended, the Pirates were a 79-win team in both results and talent.

The talent upgrade coming into 2013 has been minimal.  Former Yankees catcher Russell Martin replaces the weakest link in Pittsburgh’s 2012 lineup, Rod Barajas, but Martin doesn’t bring much more to the table.  He provides a little better batting eye and a little more power, but that's if he doesn’t continue to age rapidly.  Given his swift decline in both speed and power over his short career, Martin appears to be an old 30.  Everyone else projected to get major playing time is 30 or younger except 32-year old Garrett Jones who hit a career high 27 homes runs last year.  It’s nice to be young and have potential improvement ahead of you, but if that doesn’t happen to the Pirates this year, their low-walk-rate, low-contact lineup may hit a lot of home runs again, but there won’t be enough people on base to overcome the runs the pitching staff is going to allow.

The Pirates front office did a great job in the 2012 offseason acquiring strikeout pitchers which minimized defensive deficiencies because fewer balls were hit into play in 2012.  From 2011 to 2012 the Pirates went from 29th in strikeout rate to 17th and it was a large reason why they allowed 38 less runs year-over-year.  Promising youngster Jeff Locke will move into the starting rotation where  he will probably match the near strikeout-an-inning pace of the departed Erik Bedard.  While that’s an upgrade given Bedard’s 5.01 ERA over 24 starts, I’m telling you if new rotation mate Jonathan Sanchez matches that ERA, there will actually be rejoicing in the Three Rivers area.  Sanchez had an 8.07 ERA (not a misprint) in 15 starts last year and a 4.26 ERA the year before pitching in the ERA-friendly confines of San Francisco’s AT&T Park.  When a pitcher walks more batters than he strikes out, as Sanchez did last year, my model doesn’t spit out a win expectancy figure when he takes the mound, it simply displays a picture of an ATM machine.

In the bullpen, Jason Grilli is a huge upgrade over Joel Hanrahan as he strikes out more batters and walks less, both in material quantities.  Hanrahan may have been the wildest closer in the majors (Carlos Marmol excepted, who held that role for the Cubs during parts of 2012) but he managed to stay dry between the raindrops and produced a 2.72 ERA.  Gilli, like Hanrahan is also flyball happy and even though he’s better, I don’t’ think he’ll match Hanrahan’s results this year. 

The Pirates were awful in quarters 1 and 4 last year and terrific in the middle 81 games.  I’m through being fooled with those bi-polar results and realize I have to regard them as essentially a sum of their season parts.  They are a mildly-below .500 team with a ceiling no more than mildly-above .500. 

Oddsmakers’ expectations:  The Pirates are once again poised to surprise people if they can play over .500 baseball for any stretch of time to begin the season.  Despite their hot starts the last two years, their total wins market opened at just 77 games.  I’m on board with a season to top that, but not by enough of a margin to recommend an “over” play. 

2013 Outlook:

79-83 – Fourth in NL Central

659 Runs Scored       675 Runs Allowed


Mop Up Duty:

Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball*  (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) publication currently available wherever books are sold.  Here are three on-line booksellers you can currently choose from:

He is also the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to the book.  If you have been forwarded this issue and would like to be placed on the mailing list, please send an e-mail to

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You can follow me on Twitter here:  @MagicRatSF

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