What's Wrong with the Pittsburgh Pirates?

After making the playoffs a season ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates are now 10-16. Are they bound to bounce back?

Despite an early playoff exit a season ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ were a success. After 20 miserable losing campaigns, that’s really the only way you can describe the magical run the 2013 team went on: successful.

As a result, for the first time since skinny Barry Bonds was a thing, the Pirates entered a Major League Baseball season as contenders. While the expectation from many was that they’d regress a bit, the overall feeling towards the team was consistent - they were built for long-term competitiveness, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see them playing in October once again.

But through the first 16% of the Major League Baseball season, the Pirates have fallen back to their losing ways. After starting the year with three series wins, the Buccos have dropped 13 of their last 18 games, losing sight of even second place in the NL Central. They’re now one of five teams in baseball with 10 or fewer wins.

What happened? Is the curse back? Are the Pirates destined to be a losing franchise forever?

Underperforming Bats

Hitting in pitcher-friendly PNC Park isn’t easy, so you wouldn’t expect Pittsburgh’s bats to be the reason they made it to the playoffs for the first time since 1992 last September. And it wasn’t. The Pirates ended last season with the 16th-best weighted on-base average in the bigs, while the team’s batting average sat in 22nd. They also struck out at a higher rate than all but five teams, and scored the 20th-most runs.

The only thing the Pirates arguably did above average at the plate was hit for power. They finished 13th in home runs, and their .151 ISO was 11th-best in the league. Outside of that, there wasn’t a lot of good that came from the Pirates’ lineup.

The hope was that, in 2014, some of the young bats would improve with experience, while the All-Star caliber hitters would continue their pace. The problem? That hasn’t happened.

The Pirates are one of 10 teams that haven’t scored 100 runs this season. Only three Pirate hitters have wOBA scores above .320, and one of those three goes by the name Gaby Sanchez. The team, as a whole, ranks 25th in wOBA so far this year. They’re still striking out at a rate well above 21%, and Starling Marte and Pedro Alvarez, two young studs who needed to step up their game in 2014, are hitting no better than .229 with a .297 wOBA.

Remember though, these numbers still include the Pirates’ solid start. Over the last two weeks, the team wOBA is tied for worst in the league, and the only reason they’ve been able to score runs (they haven’t scored many, by the way) is because they’ve kept up a decent home run pace. The team K rate has dropped slightly, but it hasn’t resulted in more opportunity for the Pirates.

The clear, most obvious hope for the Pirates lies within the BABIP metric. Lame, I know, but it’s true. During this two-week stretch, the Pirates’ batting average on balls in play has been .249. That’s 13 points lower than the team second-to-last on the list, San Francisco, and 45 points down from their average a season ago.

I’m not incredibly down on their batted ball profile over this time, either. The team’s line-drive rate has been below average, ranking 23rd in the league, but they’ve seen fairly average numbers in terms of ground balls and fly balls hit.

Of the 10 players who have seen the most playing time during this period (26 or more plate appearances), only Jose Tabata has a BABIP average over .300. And 60% of the regular Pirate starters have hit to a BABIP of .250 or less.

It’s easy to pinpoint the lineup and say that the bats are the problem. And then stemming from this, the number of tweets and opinions you’ll hear about the Pirates bringing up potential star Gregory Polanco from the minors are endless. But in truth, the lineup has seen a string of bad luck, and really may not be the true problem here. The issue - at least in the long term - may actually be the team’s strength from 2013: pitching.

Pitching Woes

It’s no secret that the Pirates were a playoff team last year due to their pitching. The team finished fourth in all of baseball in xFIP, and were an above average squad in strikeouts per nine. Starters A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole each finished the year with xFIPs below 3.15.

This year, the team’s xFIP has dropped to the 20th-best in baseball, and the slew of ground-ball pitchers have just a 7.08 K/9 rate, good for 25th in baseball.

Over the last two weeks, Pirates’ pitching has thrown to a 3.89 ERA, and their FIP numbers suggest that it should be even higher. That’s right, the pitching staff may be overperforming during this 5-13 stretch.

They can thank their starters for that, as the rotation is giving up 4.29 runs per nine innings, the 10th-worst rate in baseball over this time. The scary part is that the starters’ LOB% has been roughly league average, while they’ve seen a .280 BABIP against. In other words, that 4.29 ERA isn’t exactly a result of some misfortune. Things could be even worse.

That’s actually been the story for this team so far this season. You may look at their 12th-ranked team ERA and feel fine about it, but a higher than average LOB% and .279 BABIP against forces you to believe they’re hurling the ball better than they should be. Even last year when the team pitching was dominant, their BABIP and LOB% rates were worse than what they’ve seen this year. But the team’s ERA last year was 3.27, while this year’s version sits at 3.65.

Turning it Around

I didn’t really hit on this, but the Pirates are also losing close games. Last year, the team went 54-39 in games with a margin of victory of two runs or fewer. That was the second-best win percentage within those types of contests in the NL. In one-run games, the Buccos were six games over .500.

This year, Pittsburgh is 7-10 in games with a margin of victory of two or fewer runs. Though they’re not horrible in close games, they’ve seen a decent decline – and one that can clearly be fixed – over last season.

But if you want to pinpoint one underlying cause for the Pirates’ April gloom, I’m not sure you can. The lineup has been unfortunate all at once, making it difficult to score runs. And while prospect Gregory Polanco will eventually make the order a lot stronger, rushing a potential star up from the minors when the team’s issues aren’t just in the right field spot isn’t a reasonable thing to do. Can he help? Sure. But helping in the short-term isn’t nearly as important as continuing to build for the future.

On the other side of things, Pirate pitching isn't what it was a season ago. Franky Liriano has the best xFIP at 3.44 (remember, three of the team's starting pitchers had xFIPs below 3.15 last year), and meanwhile, over the last 14 days, every single starter has an xFIP that's over 4.00. The team's 2014 losing ways aren't because of poor pitching (yet), but that's only due to a little luck. You could actually argue that this is a bigger deal in the long-term than the bats are.

Can they turn it around? Of course. It's only April, our sample sizes are incredibly small, and as a result, matchups can skew this data tremendously. But at the very least, we've found out why they're slumping (unfortunate batting), and perhaps provided a glimpse of troubles they may encounter moving forward (worse pitching). Without an improvement, the Pirates could be looking at another losing season.