If you've been paying attention to the Pittsburgh Pirates at all this year, you've probably noticed a pattern. The Pirates' starter pitches six or seven innings, giving up two runs or fewer. The Pirates' offense, meanwhile, doesn't score much. The Pirates' starter then either loses in hard-luck fashion or wins by a run or two. This doesn't happen every game, certainly, but it's been common enough that it should be familiar.
The most obvious explanation for this phenomenon is that the Pirates' pitching is good, and its offense is bad. That's partially true. But let's look a little deeper for the reasons we're seeing these results over and over.
Scoring is down throughout baseball. Run scoring is down throughout the National League this year, so the Pirates aren't the only team that must feel like it's getting great work out of its pitching staff and nothing out of its offense. National League teams are scoring an average of 4.10 runs per game this year, compared to 4.33 in 2010 and 4.43 in 2009. The Padres are scoring fewer runs per game than the Pirates are, which isn't surprising, since the Padres play in a great pitcher's park. But the Nationals and Giants are getting outscored by the Pirates as well.
The Pirates' defense has improved. By team defensive efficiency, which measures the rate at which a defense turns balls in play into outs, the Pirates were the worst team in baseball last year, with a rate of .689. This year, they're in the middle of the pack, at .714. That's a huge difference. It's much too early in the year to draw strong conclusions from individual defensive measures, but outfielders Andrew McCutchen, Garrett Jones and Xavier Paul have graded out very well so far, according to the respected advanced metric UZR, and UZR also suggests that McCutchen and Ronny Cedeno have been much-improved on defense this year. Again, UZR isn't always a great tool in small samples. But the idea that the Pirates' pitching staff has benefited from improvements by McCutchen and Cedeno makes a great deal of sense if you've watched them play.
The hitters really are bad. OPS+ can be used to compare a team's OPS to the rest of the league. The average team OPS+ in the National League this year is 94. The Pirates' is 87. They've gotten a brilliant performance from McCutchen (144) and good ones from Neil Walker (101, good for a second baseman) and, believe it or not, Garrett Jones (114). (Between McCutchen's offense and his defense, it wouldn't be too surprising to see him wind up in NL MVP discussions at the end of the year, especially among analytically-minded fans. And no, that's not hyperbolic - WAR, which measures a player's value in offense and defense, ranks McCutchen the fourth-best position player in baseball so far this year.)
\Lyle Overbay, Pedro Alvarez, and Cedeno, though, have been awful, and the Pirates' bench has been poor, with the exception of two players who are now injured, Ryan Doumit and Steve Pearce. They'll miss Doumit, Pearce and Chris Snyder going forward.
The pitchers really are good. Or, at least, they've played well so far. The Pirates' rotation is due for a slight regression - hands up, who thought Jeff Karstens would have a 2.94 ERA in his first 64.1 innings? But that regression hopefully won't be a huge one. Karstens has actually struck out nearly four times as many batters as he's walked this year, a sign that he's isn't purely getting lucky. Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm both have low strikeout rates but have done a good job preventing walks. Charlie Morton has the highest ground ball percentage in baseball this year after remaking his delivery in the offseason. And while James McDonald has looked shaky in 2011, he was the Pirates' best pitcher down the stretch in 2010.
After Joel Hanrahan, the prognosis for the bullpen is a bit murkier. Jose Veras and Daniel McCutchen, after appearing to dominate throughout much of the early part of the season, have suddenly looked human. Setup man Evan Meek is out for the foreseeable future. And Tim Wood and Tony Watson, who have recently joined the staff, are question marks. There's hope for some combination of Chris Resop, Veras and Wood to emerge (or reemerge?) as strong complements to Hanrahan, but much remains to be proven.
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So while it's broadly true that the Pirates' pitching is good and their hitting is bad, the complete picture is a bit more complicated. The pitchers are likely to take a small step back as the year progresses, and in the meantime, they've benefited from a Pirates defense that is, for once, downright competent. And low-scoring games throughout the National League suggest that other teams' fans are probably feeling the same way Pirates fans are right now: 'The pitching is fantastic! Now why can't the offense get it together?'