This post was written by Kurt Evans.
Ten years ago, I was in my glory as a sports fan. My team, the Chicago Cubs, were having a surprise surge toward the playoffs, riding atop the broad backs of sluggers like Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou and Aramis Ramirez, and the strong arms of Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement. For the sake of perspective, Clement was the oldest pitcher in the Cubs rotation that year, coming in at the age of 28, while Wood, Prior, and Zambrano averaged 23.3 years of age. At the same time, the offense relied more on past-their-prime veterans and journeymen as guys like Corey Patterson and Hee-Seop Choi were still “developing.” Little did we know at the time that 2003 was the closest we’d get to seeing a World Championship Cubs team. Ok – maybe I had my suspicions, as optimistic as I was. More on that in a bit.
Ten years later, the Cubs are kissing the basement while the Pirates – a team which was, frankly, instrumental in the Cubs’ brief flirtation with winning, due to a couple of significant trades – are having the kind of year that fans talk about for years after. That is, assuming that September looks a lot more like June than August.
It’s not an easy thing, winning. But you know that – Pirates fans have endured a lot of hardship since Barry Bonds split town. And, right now, many of you are probably panicking a bit. In past years, I probably would have tried to temper your worries, but I’m way past the cheerleader phase of my own personal fandom. Instead, I’ll just present you with some comparative stats.
Home Games vs. Road Games
Including today’s game, the Pirates have 35 games remaining on the season. For good or for bad, 18 of these games are on the road, including the final two series of the season, against their playoff spot rivals, the Reds, and against the Sucktacular Cubs. For comparison’s sake, the Reds play 15 more games on the road, while the Cardinals play 14. The Reds are currently under .500 on the road and Pittsburgh is 3 games over .500. The Cardinals actually have as many road wins as home wins, but only because they’ve played more road games to this point. That said, the Cardinals have the worst home winning percentage of any of the three teams competing for a playoff spot in the central. Advantage: Cardinals – but not by as much as you’d think.
Strength of Schedule
In order to figure out which team had the best schedule, I took a look at the teams they play in the games remaining. For every game against a particular team, I added that team’s record to the total. (For example, the Reds are blessed with a series against the Astros. The Astros are 41-85, and play the Reds 3 times. Their record multiplied by 3 is 123-255.)
The combined record of teams playing the Pirates is 2,208-2,243 (.496)
The combined record of teams playing the Cardinals is 2,286-2,171 (.513)
The combined record of teams playing the Reds is 2159-2153 (.501)
Advantage: Pirates. What really works in their favor is that half of their road games are against really, really crappy teams while the majority of the rest are against division rivals, who the Pirates have crushed for most of this season. This advantage could be even bigger if the Pirates can top Texas while on the road, and the Astros manage to somehow outplay the Reds.
As a fan of good baseball, I love that so many of the remaining games are against inter-divisional rivals. The Pirates play Cincy and St. Louis 12 more times, while the Reds and Cardinals play the Pirates and each other 13 more times. It’s unlikely that any team is going to go out and trounce one of the others, which makes things additionally advantageous to the team with the stronger overall schedule.
A few other points about this before I move on – the next 16 games the Cardinals play are against winning teams. Maybe St. Louis is better than their record; maybe they have the talent and mentality to persevere, but it is entirely possible that, by the time September 10th rolls around, they will be too far out to make back any ground. Especially if the Pirates and Reds (who they play 13 straight against) can get hot.
The Reds have a more balanced schedule – apart from 7 straight against tough teams (the Dodgers and Cardinals) their challenging series’ are intermixed with theoretical walks in the park, against teams like Chicago and Houston. The Pirates have a similarly balanced schedule.
Bottom line – I strongly feel that the remaining schedule is a huge advantage for Pittsburgh. Unless the Cardinals have a really good two weeks, they will be hard pressed to do anything but compete for a Wild Card spot.
Well, it can’t all be good news. After rattling off 5 straight wins early in the month, the Pirates have stalled out and gone 5-8 in their last 13. Since their skid began, on August 9th, the Cardinals have gone 8-5, and the Reds have gone 10-4. Advantage: Reds.
On the other hand, the Pirates are 7-6 this year against the Reds and 8-5 against St. Louis, while the Cardinals have won 8 of their 12 contests against Cincinnati. In other words, overall Pittsburgh is 15-11 against divisional rivals, St. Louis is 13-9, and Cincinnati is 10-15.
Just quickly looking at League statistics, the Pirates, as a team, have a 3.18 ERA, with teams batting a league low .234 against them. Comparatively, the Reds come in with a 3.35 ERA (4th best in the league) and a .235 league AVG against, while the Cardinals have a 3.50 ERA (5th best in the league) and a .250 AVG against.
Offensively, it’s not so impressive for Pittsburgh – St. Louis leads the league with 620 runs scored, Cincy comes in at 4th with 552, and the Pirates a meager 9th (just above my mediocre Cubs) with 500. The net difference between runs scored and runs allowed goes to St. Louis, with +146, followed by the Reds with +90 and the Pirates with +55. This looks like a clear advantage for St. Louis, until we remember that the Pirates have beaten them like a vengeful loanshark all year long.
So What Does it Mean?
Anything can happen, but at this point, were I a betting man, I would slap money down on the Pirates to take the division. Granted, they are no shoe-in, but why not? Certainly nobody outside of Pittsburgh expected them to be this good, and without the crushing weight of expectations, perhaps the Bucs can rise up and overwhelm the rest of the league.
Probably an instrumental necessity will be the acquisition of help. With the debilitating injuries that Pittsburgh has suffered, a few post-deadline trades might make a huge difference. The question is – which players have cleared waivers? How much budget room does Pittsburgh have? And what are they willing to give up in order to reach the post season?
Were it up to me, I would push for Pittsburgh to make a few trades. Maybe even one or two high cost deals. The reason why is simple – 10 years ago, the Chicago Cubs were a young, talented team with a huge upside. They surprised everybody with a post-season appearance, and came within 6 outs of reaching the World Series… and that was as close as they ever got. I remember at the time looking at similar teams through history, and finding the 1985 Royals – a good, young team, with an intensely talented starting rotation that achieved glory once and never made it back to the World Series, against all odds.
In other words, just getting to this point, to competitive baseball in late August/early September is not something any team should take for granted. If the mix of talent and production is right, and if things align the way they might, then taking a chance for a championship now supersedes the theoretical likelihood of a championship team in the future. At least, that’s my take. I’m not advocating for the Pirates to gut their farm system, but perhaps they can justify one or two high-stakes trades in order to increase their chances this September.
One way or the other, Pittsburgh almost seems like a lock for the post season. At the moment, St. Louis and Cincinnati enjoy a 7 game lead over the next possible Wild Card team, the Diamondbacks. Even if a team manages to overtake Pittsburgh in the standings, there should be at least one exciting, tense, stressful October game in the Pirates’ future.