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MLB Handicapping: A Case Study of the “Lucky” Pittsburgh Pirates


Earlier this week, we discussed the Cincinnati Reds and their “unlucky” record. Let’s shift gears and dive into the Pittsburgh Pirates who heading into Friday have been outscored by over a run per game and yet are one game over .500.

Pittsburgh currently owns the highest “luck” factor in MLB with an overall record of 21-20 but a Pythagorean W-L record of 15-26. The first thing that stands out with the Pirates is the number of blowout losses they’ve suffered. We had pointed out that Cincinnati’s positive run differential was really aided with the help of two games in which they outscored the competition 26-1. Pittsburgh has losses of 11-1, 17-4, 14-1, 11-2, and 10-1. That’s being outscored by a whopping 54 runs in five games! In their other 36 games, they own a +6 run differential. Two schools of thought: With the season being as long as it is, it’s not uncommon to see a team just “eat” a few games which can lead to lopsided scores. However, unlike Cincinnati’s two arguable outliers, Pittsburgh has five which one could argue is a sure fire sign of a below average team.

Statistically is where we start to see signs that the Pirates have in fact been fortunate to be a game over .500 this deep into the season. They rank 24th in MLB in wRC+. This isn’t a Marlins or Blue Jays bad offense but it without question is well below league average. Pitching-wise, it’s been a tale of two seasons. Through their first 19 games, the Pirates’ staff owned a sparkling 2.54 ERA. In looking at their last 22 games, the team’s ERA is an alarmingly high 5.94 ERA. Like a lot of “extremes”, the true quality of the staff probably lies somewhere in between. It certainly doesn’t help however that Jameson Taillon was recently placed on the 60-day IL with an elbow injury. Staff ace Chris Archer has been nothing short of disaster with a 5.58 ERA. And Chad Kuhl, who at times has shown to be a capable National League starter, is out for the year after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

In comparing Cincinnati to Pittsburgh, the Reds, on paper, have the pieces to stay afloat — for a while — and in a tough National League Central. The Pirates meanwhile, appear destine for a sub 75-win season, especially with the loss of Tallion. The betting markets also don’t appear moved by their profitable start (+3.7 units). Pittsburgh won 82 games last season and was on average a +101 moneyline underdog. This year, their average price tag is +109. Today’s line movement really points towards the betting markets viewing this team as “bottom tier.” San Diego opened -130 and was steamed up to -155. In the end, Pittsburgh’s start has in fact been “lucky” but it’s obvious enough where bettors are unlikely to really make a killing fading this squad.