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Giles: Are the Pirates out of the NL Central Race?

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Entering the current home stand, the Pirates found themselves at 19-17, eight games out of first place behind a 27-9 Cubs team that is among the NL leaders at the plate (2nd in wRC+), on the mound (2nd in FIP), and in the field (1st in UZR and DRS). Their excellence in execution has given them a historic +109 run differential through 36 games, the best to start a season since the 1939 Yankees (+116), who were recently named the best team of all time by FiveThirtyEight.

Even before their mostly disappointing performance at Wrigley Field this weekend, in which they fell to 1-5 against the Cubs with a -25 run differential, it seemed like the Pirates will be sparring with the Cardinals for 2nd place in the NL Central. This would mean that the best case scenario would have them hosting a fourth consecutive Wild Card game at PNC Park in October.

As Pat Lackey noted over the weekend, being committed to competing for a Wild Card spot at this point in the season is an unfortunate byproduct of the current playoff structure. I decided to look into just how dire things actually are, and whether there are any signs that the Pirates have the ability to rejuvenate their NL Central title hopes.

My first instinct was to review the various projection systems to get some perspective on how they see the rest of the season playing out. Unfortunately, they’re not optimistic about the Pirates’ chances to compete over the rest of the season.

Projections Chart

It’s worth mentioning that these projection models, particularly Baseball Prospectus’s version, have not been high on the Pirates in recent years, despite their three consecutive playoff appearances. But here, they all agree in their analysis that the Pirates will compete for the Wild Card, but ultimately fall short of the playoffs despite a winning season.

These projection models also agree that the 2016 Cubs are the best team in baseball, and one of the best teams we have seen in recent years. I was surprised to see Clay Davenport’s system arrive at a projected total of 105 wins, considering these models report the 50th percentile outcome—think the peak of the bell curve—which usually ends up lower than the best teams’ actual win totals. This could mean that the Cubs push several games beyond the 100-win mark.

If we assume that the average of the projection models is an appropriate baseline to operate from, the Pirates would need to go 84-42 over their remaining 126 games to match the Cubs’ projection of 103 wins. To put that in historical perspective, the last Pirates team to close the season with a record of 84-42 or better was the 1902 NL champion team led by Honus Wagner that went 89-34 over its final 126 games. Not to be outdone, the 1909 World Series championship winners went 93-32 to finish that season, setting the franchise record.

If we expand our view to the best 126-game streaks in franchise history, not necessarily the ones to close a season, the last team to go 84-42 in any portion of a single season was the 1972 NL East champions, who were exactly 84-42 from May 1st through September 16th of that year. No other Pirates team since Honus Wagner has done better than 84-42 in any 126-game stretch.

You may recall that last year’s team faced a 7.5 game deficit after 36 games, and was able to claw its way back into the race essentially by the All-Star Break. Surely that’s reason for optimism, right? The 2015 Pirates went 81-45 over their final 126 games, enough to finish two games behind of the division-winning Cardinals, who were not as good as this year’s Cubs are projected to be.

In order to hit that 84-42 target, which I should mention is just to tie where the numbers say the Cubs will end up, the Pirates will need to significantly improve their starting rotation and bullpen in the immediate future. Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow may be part of that solution, but the Pirates have not seen the kind of aggregate production from their run prevention staff that they have seen over the last three seasons. To paraphrase a recent tweet of mine, prospects can be part of the solution, but the pitchers already with the Pirates need to pitch better.

It’s tough to think of games in April and May as having huge consequences for the rest of the season, and it’s even harder to think that this year’s Cubs are so good that the NL Central was already decided before the regular season began. What we do know is that the projections say the Cubs are extremely good, and the Pirates are just above-average. Better performance by the Pirates and less super-human performance from the Cubs could shift those projections closer to each other, but in all likelihood the NL Central race never really started.

The Pirates are still among the best teams in the league, and it’s reasonable to expect that the Cubs will come back to the field at least a little bit. Unfortunately, the projections all seem to say it’s highly unlikely that the field will be able to catch up, and thus the Pirates will have to prepare themselves for another long summer of competing for a Wild Card spot.

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