Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What Will It Take for the Pirates to Win the NL Central?

Back in my lair at Bucco Central, with 95 games under our belts, I'm already starting to wonder just what it will take to win the NL Central.

I'm gonna say 90 games.

It's partly hunch. To be honest, this is not the best division in MLB. There is no one great team here, but there are three good teams -- the Brewers, the Cardinals and the Pirates -- teams which I believe over the next two months are going to beat the crap out of each other, keeping any one team from running away with the division.

Last year, the Reds won the division with 91 wins. The year before, it was St. Louis with 91 wins. The year before that, it was the Cubs with 97 wins (a fluke year, both because of the high number of wins and also, the Cubs. The Cubs? Really?) Before that, the Cubs took it with just 85 wins, and before that, the Cardinals did the same with only 83 wins. (Oh, that the Pirates had this miracle season back in 2006 -- they might have run away with the division.)

In a nutshell, historically, you don't have to win 97 games to win this division. Generally low 90's will do it and I'm going to guess that this year an even 90 wins will take the Central. Sitting on 51 wins, that means the Pirates need 39 more wins.

Their current 51-44 record (downright gaudy compared to other seasons) charts out to a .537 winning percentage. If you apply that winning percentage through the entire season, that maps out to 87 wins.

But if you consider that they need to win 39 of the next 67 games (or so I believe), that's a winning percentage for the remainder of the season of .582. [Which would make the winning percentage for the entire season .555]. Can they bump up their wins that much? And if so, how?

As is well established around these parts, the Pirates have done it with pitching, pitching and more pitching. [Who knew? Good pitching wins ballgames. Wow. Somebody should alert the media.]

Kevin Correia anchors the staff. Not Cliff Lee, not Justin Verlander, not Tim Lincecum, but Kevin Correia. No offense to Correia who has performed wonderfully and much better than expected, but nobody could have seen this coming from a guy who has a career ERA of 4.49. Prior to this season, had thrown just one complete game. He is having the year of his entire life.

Then there's the amazing Mr. Karstens, a scrappy middle-reliever turned team stopper. I should have posted something about his sparkling 83 pitch complete game masterpiece against the Astros last Friday. His ERA last year (when he started 19 games) was 4.92 and the year before that (when he started just 13 games) was 5.42. Not exactly the kind of resume where you see this season coming -- the lowest ERA in the NL for guys who have pitched at least 20 games at 2.34, with 11 quality starts. If I get a vote for MVP right now, I'm voting for Jeff Karstens.

Lefty Paul Maholm had been the face of futility to me, by  virtue of his being one of the longest tenured Pirates. [Well, to be fair, the real face of futility is Ryan Doumit:  Maholm is just his understudy.] Maholm's ERA last year? 5.10. His ERA this year? 3.06. How in god's name did he (and pitching coach Ray Searage) shave two full runs off his earned run average?

The whole rotation is rounded out with Charlie Morton and James McDonald, both of whom are performing world's above what we've seen from them in the past.  McDonald had his most impressive start ever last night. People are comparing Morton to the great Roy Halladay (he's not there yet, people) and J-Mac has turned into an at least reliable, if wild, starter.

Add to the magic of the starting five, the bullpen heros. Tony Watson gave them three scoreless innings on Monday night. The much-maligned Joe Beimel came in to get just one miraculous strike out last night. The suddenly reliable Daniel McCutchen. Chris Resop and Jose Veras have trouble with consistency, but are occasional terrors to opposing hitters. They still make me nervous, but you can see what Searage and Hurdle see in both of them. Then of course, the team has the luxury of calling on the Hammer to close out games.

Other than Hanrahan, every one of the staff arms has out-performed my expectations and I see this season as a minor freaking miracle to date. But even if we can keep the magic going, even if all of the pitchers can keep pulling rabbits out of their hats, I think to get those last four to five wins to get them the division crown, Karstens, Hanrahan, et al will need help in the form of runs.

They need a bat. Or two. 90 wins. I think they're one serious bat away from that.

Dear Mr. Nutting,
Please let Neal Huntington go shopping. 
You can make money with winning baseball. A wee example to prove my point:
In 2010, on Tuesday, July 20th, the Pirates hosted their divisional foe, the Milwaukee Brewers. 13,000 were in attendance.
Last night, on Tuesday, July 19th, the Pirates hosted their divisional foe, the Cincinnati Reds. 26,000 were in attendance.
Now, I don't know how those extra 10,000 people work out in terms of dollars and cents, simply from the sale of the tickets, through the sale of merchandise, food, beer, etc., but I'm guessing it's a nice chunk of change. The kind of chunk of change that would justify spending a little on a hired gun to help the team make  a serious playoff run.
Oh, and sorry about all those times I called you a greedy weasel or other words to that effect. I promise I take it all back. (Unless you instruct Huntington to make salary dumping moves. Then the greedy weasel stuff stands.) 
Pirates fans everywhere

Ticker starts now:  39 games to go. 

[Photos:  J-Mac from; Maholm from]

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