The Pirates' struggles over the past month have been hard to watch. But, for once, they haven't been embarrassing to watch. That's an important distinction.
Over the past two decades, the Pirates have played bad baseball in general, and they've played badly down the stretch in particular. Here are the Pirates' August records since Neal Huntington took over in 2008.
Ghastly, no? Compared to the four previous seasons, this year's 11-17 showing seems like a step forward, but the pattern is still roughly the same, especially considering that the Pirates kicked off September with two straight losses against the Brewers.
Except that it isn't quite the same. The 2008 through 2011 squads were bad teams who played worse in August, either through coincidence, or lack of motivation, or because they'd been gutted at the trade deadline the month before, or some combination thereof. This year's team isn't a bad one. It isn't a great one, and it might not even be a good one, but this is a higher-quality team than in years past.
Runs scored and allowed are usually better indicators of a team's talent level than its actual won-loss record. Including losses to the Brewers Saturday and Sunday, the Bucs have scored 554 runs and allowed 541 this year. They've played worse than that since August 1, but not by an off-the-charts amount -- they're scored 135 runs and allowed 150. Their runs scored and allowed totals suggest that they should have won about two more games since August 1.
Of course, the Pirates got some luck from Pythagoras to get to where they were by the end of July. But the point is that the Bucs don't appear to be in the midst of a 2011-style collapse. The numbers confirm what we're seeing when we watch the games -- this team hasn't played well recently, and the starting rotation in particular has frequently been horrible, but the Bucs aren't embarrassing themselves.
Typically, the Pirates play an unwatchable brand of Bad News Bears baseball in August. This team isn't doing that. It actually posted a higher OPS in August than its opponents, and a number of players had very strong months, including Garrett Jones, Pedro Alvarez (thanks in part to his outburst against the Cardinals) and Jason Grilli. It's generally playing solid fundamental baseball, as well, even though it's been terrible at stopping its opponents on the bases. And the Pirates' two shutouts of a good Cardinals team last week ranked among their best games of the year.
The Pirates aren't as good as the Reds or the Cardinals. In the end, they probably aren't going to the playoffs. Most fans surely realize that now, if they didn't a month ago. And injuries to Jeff Karstens, Neil Walker and Starling Marte aren't helping the Pirates' cause. But this season's August swoon wasn't the usual one -- this is still a better Pirates team than we're used to seeing. And with a modestly talented team, a soft schedule and only a month of baseball left, anything can happen.
Maybe Andrew McCutchen can get hot again, and maybe Alvarez can stay right there with him. Maybe A.J. Burnett and James McDonald can get back to crushing opposing hitters the way they did in the first half of the season. Maybe someone like Travis Snider could step up and have a hot streak in September. More losing isn't inevitable, and this year's Bucs have earned something like the benefit of the doubt.
The Pirates are still just a game and a half out of a playoff spot. They have 13 games remaining against the Astros and Cubs, including six in the next week. To Pirates fans weaned on horrible August performances, the season might feel like it's over. It's not. Not yet.
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