For the first time in what feels like forever (20 years, to be exact), people are talking about the Pittsburgh Pirates. At 44-41 (as of last night), the Bucs are a game out of first place and won’t be selling off players at the trade deadline. They’ve sold out PNC three nights in a row and boast one of the game’s best young players in Andrew McCutchen. On top of that, they’ve re-stocked a farm system that was once the model for poor player development. As the Pirates celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1971 title team, could this be the year the Pirates get back to the playoffs?

In a word, “no.”

There’s a lot to like about the Pirates’ (relatively) strong first half, but if you look a little deeper, one begins to doubt if they can keep it up.  Sure, the pitching has been great and their division is terribly weak, but there’s a pretty significant case against them:

  1. The offense is mediocre at best. Twelfth (out of 16) in runs and home runs. Thirteenth in OPS.  Eleventh in on base percentage. They start only two guys carrying an above-average OPS. Those are not good numbers.
  2. The pitchers are playing over their heads. While they are fifth in the NL in ERA, they are dead last in strike outs and have given up the seventh-most walks. The Pirates also enjoy the third-lowest batting average of balls put in play, which means their defense has been solid, but also pretty damn lucky. Sure, a good defense can make average pitching pretty good, but a staff that walks a lot of batters and struggles to strike guys out will eventually regress to mediocrity.
  3. They’ve avoided the injury bug. Six position players have played in at least 71 games (out of 85). Five pitchers have started 82 of those 85 games. Their top four relievers have all chipped in with at least 38 relief innings. That kind of stability is almost unheard of in today’s game. They’ve lost Ryan Doumit and Pedro Alvarez for extended periods, but it’s not like those guys were lighting the world on fire before they got hurt.  While their farm system is vastly improved, it’s not ready to supplement a big league team.

Throughout the course of a long season, it’s easy to take a feel-good story like Pittsburgh’s and make it a cheap “warm and fuzzy,” but it’s just not right. Bottom line: the Pirates are a great story. Fan bases like Pittsburgh’s deserve a winner — and they’ll get one. Just probably not this year.

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