Will Pirates score enough runs to compete?

You have a baseball team. Let's call it the Pittsburgh Pirates. The season is about two weeks old, so you decide to take stock. The first thing you notice is that the pitching has been much, much better than anyone would have thought. There’s the team ERA of 2.80, the opponents’ on-base percentage of .299, and the fact that the staff has yet to allow more than five runs in a game. You’ve even done it all with a low-cost rotation that won’t cost you hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 10 years.

The second thing you find is that the offense has been so bad you have a team OPS (.540) that’s worse than David Wright’s OBP (.550). Despite the staff holding opponents to a maximum of five runs, your offense has also failed to score more than five in any game. You’re dead last in the majors in average (.205), on-base (.252), slugging (.287), OPS, total bases, and more. To make matters worse, all that is with Andrew McCutchen, your star outfielder, pulling more than his weight, hitting .400 with a .460 OBP. You don’t need to have a high-powered offense to compete in the NL Central, but it’s got to be better than this.

Welcome to the Pirates. If you want to get some sense of what it might be like to be a Pirates fan, consider that the team hasn’t had a winning season since the George H.W. Bush administration. Last season, things seemed to be going better (for a little while, anyway). The Pirates managed to find themselves in first place for a couple of days in July before finishing 19-42, a run that started with a 19-inning loss against Atlanta on a blown call at home plate. They finished in fourth place, 24 games behind the Brewers, a team they briefly led.

The season is not even a month old, so comparing the Pirates’ offense to the historically awful 2010 Mariners isn’t warranted (yet), but whether you’re amazed that the Bucs are doing as well as 5-7 or distressed that they are only 5-7 will probably have to do with how much you value an offense, and how much you value a pitching staff. The common maxim is that good pitching always beats good hitting, but the truth is a little more complicated.

Just look at the Phillies; the other Pennsylvania team has a rotation that includes Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Cole Hamels, but with an offense that ranks 29th out of 30 in runs scored. The team has the same 5-7 record as the Pirates. No one has to be the 1927 Yankees or 1999 Indians at the plate, but what the Pirates and Phillies have produced offensively won't cut it. The Pirates’ extension of McCutchen was rightly praised as a team-friendly deal that would keep their best homegrown player in years in western Pennsylvania for some time, but he can’t be the team’s only producer at the plate. Even the Dodgers haven’t been relying totally on Matt Kemp (well, OK, that’s pushing it, but Kemp’s numbers thus far are ... well, they’re good. Really, really good).

We’re not in the business of predicting baseball, but most fans and prognosticators would likely agree that the Pirates aren’t expected to win the NL Central or finish ahead of the defending World Series champion Cardinals or the NL Central-winning Brewers. Still, the possibility, at least in the abstract, should be there for the Pirates to have a better season in 2012 than they’ve had in nearly 20 years ... but they’ll have to start hitting if it’s got any shot of becoming reality.

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