I’m not falling for this one again.
It’s July 4, so you know what that means. Fireworks, barbecues and unrealistic expectations for the Pittsburgh Pirates. That’s right, the Pirates — the 52-31 Pirates, the best-record-in-baseball Pirates, the 20-straight-losing-seasons Pirates — are atop the NL Central Division on our nation’s 237th birthday.
Just like last year. The year before that, the Pirates were 43-41 on July 4, 1.5 games out of first. But the team actually moved into first a couple of weeks later. Then what happened? A serious swoon. In 2011, Pittsburgh rewarded optimistic fans and pundits with a final record of 72-90. During August and September, the team was 18-38, good for a .321 winning percentage.
Last year, the Pirates took a similar dive, finishing 20-39 in August, September and October. The final record was better, 79-83, but when you’re 16 games above .500 on Aug. 8, and you haven’t finished with a winning record in two decades, it’s hard to find encouragement.
I wouldn’t say I caught Pirates fever the past two seasons, but I was always hopeful come July. When teams like the Pirates and Cincinnati Reds are good, baseball is good. These are smaller-market teams with such proud traditions: the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati, Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell’s “We Are Family” team in Pittsburgh (though they weren’t quite lovable, let’s also not forget the Barry Bonds–Bobby Bonilla tandem that won three straight division titles in the early 1990s). The Reds have thrived in today’s have and have-not baseball economy — Cincinnati’s opening-day payroll was 13th in the majors, at $110.5 million, and the team has won two of the past three NL Central titles. The Pirates, who had the fourth lowest opening-day payroll in baseball at $66.2 million, haven’t broken through.
Sure, there’s more reason to believe this, indeed, is the year. The team’s 52-31 record is much prettier than the 43-41 and 44-36 marks going into Independence Day in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Updating some numbers that Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci crunched last week, teams are batting just .265 on balls in play against the Pirates, lowest in the majors. That’s a surefire sign of improved pitching and defense. (Last season, teams hit .285 against the Pirates on balls in play). In a July 2 Forbes story headlined “The Pittsburgh Pirates Are Baseball’s Best and Business Is Thriving,” Kurt Badenhausen notes that the Bucs’ lineup is “led by their young core trio of Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Álvarez and Starling Marte. All rank in the top 25 of the NL with on-base percentage plus slugging of more than .800.” (Going into July 3’s games, we’ll update that to top 26. But whatever, it’s still pretty darn good.)
And whatever, I’m still not buying it. Twice burned, I refuse to give in. So go Pirates. But I’ll save any excitement for September.