First Pitch: Why Do the Pirates Lose to Bad Teams Right Before Playing Good Teams?

Gerrit Cole
Gerrit Cole will take the mound tomorrow to try and snap a three game losing streak. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The Pittsburgh Pirates have lost three in a row to the San Diego Padres, which means you’re going to hear a lot of questions that you’ve heard in the past. The main question will be “how can they win against the Reds if they can’t even beat the Padres?”

If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s very similar to these questions.

“How can they beat the Cardinals after dropping two of three to Miami?” (The Pirates went on to win the next four against the Cardinals.)

“How can they beat the Cardinals after being swept by the Rockies?” (Granted they went 1-2 that time against the Cardinals.)

“How can they beat the Cardinals after losing two of three to the Brewers?” (This time they won 2-for-3 against St. Louis.)

“They’re going to get swept by the Rangers after being swept by the Cardinals.” (They swept the Rangers.)

This isn’t how baseball works. The Pirates aren’t going to go 0-10 the rest of the season because they lost three straight to the Padres. Based on the season results against the Cubs and Reds, it’s more likely they go 6-4 or 5-5 the rest of the way, and either one would get them in the playoffs, even if Washington went 10-0.

When thinking about those other instances where the Pirates had disappointing results leading into a big series, I started wondering about the “trap game”. A “trap game” is where a team has an easy opponent right before a difficult opponent. The idea is that they might be looking past the easy opponent and looking ahead to the tougher team. That creates a great opportunity for an upset.

The Pirates would never admit to doing this, and if you ask any of their players they would respond with “one game at a time” lines. The results speak differently. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Pirates are taking these easy teams lightly. It could all be coincidental. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that they’ve lost against some bad teams right before they’ve had a big series.

Looking at each individual instance, you could explain them away one by one. The Marlins series was on the road at the end of a ten game road trip. They came back to play the Cardinals at home the next day.

The Rockies series was also on the road, and Coor’s Field is a tough place to play. The Pirates followed that by losing 2-of-3 to the Cardinals on the road.

The Brewers series was at home, and the Pirates could have easily taken 2-of-3. Instead they lost the first game 7-6 when the bullpen gave up two runs late. They bounced back to take 2-of-3 against the Cardinals at home.

The final instance wasn’t exactly the same. The Cardinals are a good team, and I don’t think the Pirates were looking past them to play the Rangers. This was more of a situation where the Pirates lost, then everyone thought they couldn’t possibly win, and they immediately turned it around.

That’s the common theme here, and it has been the common theme all season. The Pirates have gone through stretches where they’ve looked horrible for a series. Yet they’ve never lost more than four in a row, and they’ve limited the losing stretches. I’ve talked about this many times, but here are the updated numbers after tonight.

**The Pirates haven’t gone worse than 3-7 in any ten game stretch the entire season.

**They have only gone 3-7 on three separate occasions, out of 143 possible ten game stretches.

**They have 20 losing stretches this year, again out of 143 possible ten game stretches.

In previous years the Pirates always turned a bad series into a bad losing streak. They didn’t stop at four losses in a row. They had a lot of ten game losing stretches, and they were worse than 4-6 many times throughout the season. That’s what losing teams do.

That’s not this team. This is a team that has looked really bad at times throughout the season. But they’re also a team that immediately bounced back almost overnight every single time. Every team in baseball is going to look horrible the way the Pirates have looked horrible the last three games against the Padres. What separates the winners from the losers is whether those teams can break out of that slump, and how quickly they can turn things around. The Pirates have done a great job of that this season.

It’s weird that the Pirates keep losing to bad teams right before they face good teams. They may or may not be looking past those opponents. The more important issue is how they respond to losing stretches. Losing three in a row to the Padres makes you think crazy things. It makes you think that it’s possible that the Pirates will miss the playoffs, even though that would require them to go 4-6 the rest of the way and the Nationals to win out. Or 3-7 and 9-1. Or 2-8 and 8-2. Either way, it’s extremely improbable, especially when the Pirates have winning records this year against the Reds and Cubs.

At this point it looks like the Pirates are capable of a horrible slide. But that’s nothing new. They’ve looked this way at various times throughout the year. And each time they surprised people by immediately bouncing back. Don’t be surprised if they do this again. It’s only what they’ve been doing for 152 games now.

Links and Notes

**Morton Electric, McCutchen ‘Clutch’, Pirates Lose 3-2

**Pirates Notebook: A Man with a Plan for Martin

**Trades Were Never Going to Help This Streaky Offense

First Pitch

  • See I don’t really think it is about playing GOOD teams or BAD teams. Reds got swept by the Cubs recently. After 150 games cellar dwelers like the Cubs and Brewers have still won only 20 games less than the Pirates. All these teams have good major league players and pitchers. To think you should take 2 of 3 from a team every time because they have a bad record is just not reality. Now I will admit that the hex the Padres have over the Pirates at PNC is almost unfathomable.

  • Good perspective Tim. Last night´s loss was a tough one, but I am putting in it in perspective too. Before the Rangers series I posted here that I thought the Pirates were going to be swept at Texas. It ended being all the contrary. So now I am just replacing those 3 wins with these 3 losses against San Diego.
    Anyway, this is more fun than being 70-82.

  • You can cite the season records against the Reds and Cubs but I see two weaknesses in that:

    1. SSS, both in terms of establishing those season records but more importantly in applying those winning percentages to the few remaining games;

    2. Teams get hot and teams get cold, and right now our offense is struggling to score more than 2 runs in a game and our bullpen is looking a lot less reliable (though still good) than it has.

    I worry about our offense pressing–with the exception of McCutchen and maybe Mercer and Tabata, our hitters do not look comfortable at the plate. Eventually they’d break out but will it be in the next 10 games?

    • #1 might be a small sample size (16 games vs the Cubs and 13 vs the Reds), but #2 is an even smaller sample. It was only a few games ago that the Pirates were scoring more than two runs per game. From the Byrd trade to the Padres series, the Pirates were scoring 3.89 runs per game. That’s slightly below the league average, but much better than the last three games.

      I think that stepping back from the Padres series shows that the Pirates are still a below average offense, but not an extremely below average offense that can’t score runs. If we’re using SSS, then all of the arguments support the good numbers against the Cubs/Reds and the 3-4 runs per game since the Byrd trade, as those have a bigger sample than the three game slump against the Padres.

  • If the Pirates don’t win another game it’s a successful season to me. I thought they were a mid 80 win team and they have already surpassed that. The pythag stuff says they are way over their heads. They have one hitter with an OPS over .800. They have used 12 different starting pitchers. It’s time to put things in perspective. This is an incredibly flawed team that has already surpassed realistic expectations. There are more good players heading through the minors. 2013 is a success without even one more win.

    • Deeply flawed, compared to what? Welcome to world of roster construction with limited payroll and hard to predict assets. I have seen you use this justification before, pythagorean record is not some true talent level or true record. It is a derived statistic with a recognized range of variance of +/- some 7 wins. Additionally, it is only more predictive (of final record) than current record through June.

      What if Melacon gets one more out last night, how does that alter the commentary and analysis today? This is September baseball, and it is a lot better than the mediocrity disguised as competitive balance that other North American sports leagues offer.

      • Well we have 33 less runs than any other winning team in baseball right now.

        We have a leadoff hitter with an under 5% walk rate.

        We have started 12 starting pitchers including Johnathan Sanchez and Kris Johnson for 5 games.

        Hurdle completely overworking Justin Wilson and Bryan Morris to the point of injury/fatigue/inneffectiveness.

        The starting pitchers combining for a total of 3 complete games.

        Nobody on the team with an OPS over .780 besides McCutchen.

        There are lots of good things as well but if you don’t see the Pirates as flawed compared to the other teams in the NL playoff discussion or at least somewhat fortunate to have 87 going on 88 wins, then you and I should just agree to disagree from this point forward because we have different standards in what it means to be a good team or categorize good players.

  • It’s just the Padres. Bud Black knows how to pitch Pirates hitters. Thankfully nobody copies the strategy because I’ve never seen a group collectively refuse to make adjustments like these guys.

    • I think the league knows how to pitch Pirate hitters not just Bud Black. Get ahead with the fastball, and then throw junk out of the zone and watch the Bucs chase it.

    • The unwillingness/incapability of making adjustments by most of our hitters drives me crazy. Jones looked like anything but a lead-off hitter in the 9th last night, Alvarez seems more concerned about winning the HR title than doing the little things that might help the team, and guys like Martin, Marte, and Barmes don’t seem to ever see a pitch they don’t think they can pull.

  • Thanks for this article. I needed it after last night. I’m still nervous though.