Jul 5, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano (47) is congratulated by catcher Russell Martin (55) after their win against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. The Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Chicago Cubs 6-2. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Pirates will regress in second half, but won't collapse

Jul 4, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Jose Tabata (31) slides safely into second base with a double as Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley (26) reaches for a tag during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates are not a 100-win team.

That much has been clear from the start of what has otherwise been a tremendous season. After dropping four of six games to open the second half, the Pirates are still 19 games over .500 at 53-34, tied with St. Louis for the best record in the big leagues. However, even though Pittsburgh is on a 99-win pace, only the most optimistic Bucs backers expect this club to challenge the century mark.

Although the Pirates have been an elite pitching-and-defense team – their 299 runs allowed are the least in MLB – their offense has been below average by any measure. Whether we judge by runs per game (3.92 – 24th), batting average (.243 – 23rd), on-base percentage (.310, 22nd), slugging percentage (.392 – 19th), OPS (.702 – 21st), the Bucs’ bats have been below average during the first 87 games.

The only category in which Pittsburgh is above the median is OPS+, which adjusts for ballpark in measuring a team’s output. The Pirates are 14th with a 98 OPS+, a scale in which average is set at 100.

PNC Park has traditionally favored pitching slightly, so we’ll give the Bucs some bonus points for producing there. Also, the Pirates have hit .229 with runners in scoring position, the second-worst average in MLB. That rate figures to increase in the final three months by dumb luck alone.

But even considering the “hidden vigorish” (R.I.P. Bob Prince) due to the Pirates, this offense isn’t good enough to cover up for inevitable pitching regression, as Pittsburgh hurlers have limited opponents to an MLB-best .219 average with RISP. That rate is the definition of unsustainable, meaning more runs will score against the Bucs in the second half as compared to the first.

So if the pitching drops back a bit, but still stays in the top half of MLB, while the offense creeps upward toward the median level of production, we’re left with a team projected to be slightly above .500 in its remaining 75 games.

Guess what? That will put the Pirates at 92-95 wins at the end of the season, more than enough to at least lock up one of the two National League wild card spots and challenge for the division title.

Putting 50-plus wins in the bank prior to the all-star break has been an enormous accomplishment for the Pirates, if only for the leeway it provides for the upcoming dog days. The Bucs have struggled to be average late in the past two seasons, but if they can manage .500 ball this year, it’s shaping up to be an exciting fall in Pittsburgh.

As a clever Pirates t-shirt at Sunday’s game in Chicago read: Keep calm n’at.

Tags: MLB Pittsburgh Pirates

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