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Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Pirates talk of the town, but will it last?


Don't look now, but it's July 19 and the Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place in the National League Central.

It's the latest they have ever been in first place in the NL Central, and the latest they have led a division since 1992 (NL East). They reached 50 wins in fewer than 100 games played for the first time since 1992.

As the season has progressed, the buzz around the Pirates surrounded their streak of 18 straight losing seasons, the longest such streak by any franchise in the four major North American sports.

After winning eight of their last 11 games, the Pirates have many wondering: Can they make the playoffs for the first time since 1992?

Spearheading the turnaround has been the Pirates' starting pitchers, who have compiled a 3.55 ERA, ninth-best in the majors, just one season after finishing with an MLB-worst 5.28 ERA.

The truth is the Pirates' starters probably weren't as bad as the numbers indicated last year and likely aren't as good as the numbers appear in 2011. The transformation can partly be attributed to a vastly improved Pirates defense.

In 2010, the team compiled -81 defensive runs saved, a metric that establishes defensive value in terms of runs. That was worst in the National League. Through 94 games this season, the Pirates as a team have accrued four defensive runs saved, a huge turnaround.

Pittsburgh has a strong division record, going 23-13 against NL Central opponents. That is the highest win percentage by any team in the NL Central against division opponents this season. It should serve the Pirates well, as 44 of their remaining 68 games come against opponents from the NL Central.

While the schedule supports a strong finish to the season for the Pirates, the numbers suggest it will be difficult for Pittsburgh to keep this up.

The Pirates have relied on their pitching this season to carry a subpar offense, which ranks in the bottom third of MLB in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging, among other notable offensive categories.

We look to the metric xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) as an indicator that the Pirates' starters should not be expected to keep this up. It is a statistic that rates pitchers on what they control most and adjusts for league average rate of HR/fly balls allowed, and is used as a predictive measure for future performance.

Pittsburgh's starters have an xFIP of 4.06, highest in the National League, and tied for fourth-worst in the majors.

The Pirates' starters have the second-largest negative differential between ERA and xFIP in all of baseball, making it likely the rotation will regress in the second half.