The Strange Fortunes of the Pittsburgh Pirates

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May 24 2010 9:04 AM

The Strange Fortunes of the Pittsburgh Pirates

Because I root for the Baltimore Orioles, I have been reading this year's

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upside down. Once the O's had started the season with a 2-16 record, the question of whether it was the Rays or the Yankees who were further out of reach stopped being interesting. Who would the Orioles have to climb over to stop being the worst team in baseball? What else was going on in the grim depths of the cellar?



This was how I discovered the

. At first glance, the Pirates seem uninterestingly mediocre: 19-25, sitting in fourth place in the six-team National League Central, 5-5 in their last 10 games.



But how did they get there? It is a truism, but also an important principle of baseball analysis, that the way you win ball games is by scoring more runs than your opponents. As of this morning, Pittsburgh had scored 149 runs, the second-lowest total in baseball. And Pittsburgh had given up 258 runs, the second-highest total.



For the season, that gives the Pirates a run differential of minus 109. The Orioles, the least successful team in the American League, are at a mere minus 62. The Milwaukee Brewers and Houston Astros, the two teams behind Pittsburgh in the NL Central, are at minus 29 and minus 73—meaning the Pirates are worse than both of them put together.



Worse, that is, except at actually winning and losing ball games. The average score of a Pirates game is Other Team 5.86, Pittsburgh 3.39. Yet the Pirates have won 43.2 percent of those games.



By Bill James' Pythagorean winning-percentage system, which uses run totals to judge what a team's expected record would be, the Pirates should be 12-32.



Here, as they do so often, the evaluative and the narrative ways of describing baseball collide. The Pythagorean system is meant to express the underlying merit of a team, to help predict what to expect from the team in the future. But the events that have already happened on the field are not necessarily so classifiable. Sometimes they just

are

.



Take the events from

: First the Pirates hosted the Cincinnati Reds and beat them three straight, by scores of 4-3, 5-4, and 5-3. Then the Brewers came to town and swept the Pirates—by scores of 8-1, 8-0, and

.



So the Pirates played .500 ball, while being outscored 46-15. Has any other team done anything like that? The 2007 Orioles lost to Texas

, also within a 3-3 spell, and still didn't come close. The runs evened out. The Pirates' runs have just kept diverging.

.

.



Brewers and Astros fans—or Orioles fans—can look at those numbers and try to take heart. The statistics say that the Pirates are the worst team in baseball, and that sooner or later, their record will reflect it. Probably so. In the meantime, though, in their gravity-defying mediocrity, the Pirates have given their fans a chance to see something extraordinary. The other teams just plan stink.


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