As is the case every spring, Pittsburgh Pirates fans began the 2012 season wondering if this would be the winning summer they’ve been waiting for. But with the Bucs boosting their record to 16 games over .500 Monday night, the team’s focus is understandably on making the MLB playoffs for the first time since 1992.
Partially thanks to baseball’s new postseason qualifying format, they are in good shape in that regard. With the second wild card playoff berth added to both leagues this season, the Pirates currently lay claim to the NL’s second-best non-division leading record, which puts them in playoff position.
Of course, even in previous years the Bucs (62-46) would be playing a meaningful August for the first time since 1997, as they are just percentage points behind Atlanta (63-46) for the NL’s top wild card spot entering Tuesday. Heck, even after losing two of three to Central-leading Cincinnati (66-43) last weekend, the Pirates are within range of the Reds – just 3 1/2 games behind with 54 to play.
There is a natural temptation to look at the teams ahead of the Pirates and identify them as the team’s primary threats. Certainly, it would be advantageous to win the division and avoid the new one-game wild card playoff; if you can’t pull that off then you’d prefer to be at home for the winner-take-all tilt, especially if you’re a team that has a 34-16 record at PNC Park.
However, since the goal is to qualify for the postseason, the teams that the Pirates and their fans should keep their eyes on are the ones currently chasing. As Matt Shetler wrote earlier today, it’s easy to pinpoint the defending World Series champions as the most dangerous pursuers.
The St. Louis Cardinals (60-49) have been underachieving all season long, at least if you look at their run differential. Their current plus-116 mark in that telling category ranks first in all of MLB, with the Yankees’ plus-87 differential the nearest competitor.
For comparison, the Pirates have outscored their opponents by 40 runs, a better plus-minus than all five teams in the NL West but the fifth-best mark in the league behind St. Louis, Washington (plus-83), Cincinnati (plus-69) and Atlanta (plus-67). Going deeper into the numbers, using Baseball Prospectus’ Third-Order Wins metric, the Black and Gold ranks sixth in the NL with the Mets and the Diamondbacks rated higher after adjusting for schedule and a team’s “true” offensive and defensive performance.
I know, baseball doesn’t hand out playoff berths based on who “should” be the best teams. You have to actually, you know, win the games. But I’m just looking in the rearview mirror to see who is most likely to overtake the Pirates and stretch the franchise’s postseason-less streak to a full 20 years.
Drawing from the above information, St. Louis (2 1/2 games behind) and its 546 runs scored should be the current Public Enemy No. 1 for Pittsburghers.
The rest of the challengers fall into a group much less menacing than the Redbirds:
- The Dodgers (59-51) trail the Giants by a half game in the NL West and are four games behind the Bucs in the wild card hunt, but they have been outperforming their peripherals all season long and don’t figure to hang in the race. A rejuvenated Hanley Ramirez could bump their prospects, but it’s still a “stars and scrubs” depth chart in L.A.
- If the Giants (59-50) do fall behind in the West, they could be an intriguing team down the stretch. However, they are almost identical to the Dodgers in that they have overachieved compared to what you might expect. Put the two California rivals in the same category as flawed but pesky.
- Staying out West, Arizona (55-54) has scored the fifth-most runs in the NL and have similar differential numbers (plus-38) to the Bucs. With Justin Upton perhaps coming out of his lengthy slump, maybe the D’Backs can slug their way up the charts. They are four games behind the Giants, but last night’s loss in Pittsburgh dropped them 7 1/2 behind the second wild card.
- Finally, the stagnating Mets (53-56) should be over .500 according to Baseball Prospectus, but the reality of being nearly 10 games behind the Pirates gives them minimal margin for error over the final eight weeks of the season.
The Bucs, on the other hand, do have some room to play with. But as the Cardinals proved last year when they rallied from way back in the wild card standings to snatch a playoff berth, they have the talent to erase a deficit if they get a little help.
Pittsburgh and St. Louis meet six more times this season. It’ll be up to the Pirates to provide as little assistance as possible, both in head-to-head matchups and in general.
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