Bucs bulldozing way to their longest win streak

Club's recent success has nothing to do with luck; it's playing as complete team

July 25th, 2018

The thing about the Pittsburgh Pirates, who won their 11th straight game Tuesday night, their longest winning streak in more than 20 years, is that they are not getting lucky. "Luck" is always a weasel word when discussing the success or failure of a baseball team, but what people are really trying to say when they say "luck" is, essentially, "variance." You're going to win some one-run games and you're going to lose some one-run games, and theoretically, it all evens out in the end. But when you are "lucky," more of those one-run games are falling for you than against you; the Mariners, in the first half of this season, were a great example of this. The victories still count, just as much as winning by 10 does. But if you're winning an unnaturally high number of one-run games, it tells us something about you. It tells us you're getting a little lucky.
That is absolutely not what the Pirates have done during this winning streak. Most of their wins have been like Tuesday night's win over the Indians. They scored two in the first inning and five in the second, and next thing you knew, they had a 7-1 lead and the game was essentially over. (The final score was 9-4.) It was not a game in which they sneaked out a victory. The Bucs hit better than their opponent, pitched better than their opponent and fielded better than their opponent. They dominated.
It is what they do. Here are the scores of Pittsburgh's 11-game winning streak:
• 2-0
• 6-3
• 7-3
• 2-1
• 6-2
• 7-6
• 12-1
• 6-2
• 9-2
• 7-0
• 9-4
There are only two one-run wins in that streak, and seven games won by four runs or more. The Pirates have actually won 13 of 14, and they've outscored their opponents 84-33 in that stretch, which means they're basically winning games 6-2, every night. In their past five, they've outscored their opponents 43-9, which, for all intents and purposes, makes them Alabama and whoever they're playing Texas-San Antonio. The Bucs, for two weeks, have been the 1927 Yankees.
Understandably, this is getting Pirates fans excited about their postseason chances. Thought to be obvious sellers a fortnight ago, the Bucs have now passed the Cardinals into third place in the National League Central, and are only three games out of the second NL Wild Card spot. (Did you imagine a point this season where the Pirates would be three games ahead of the Nationals?) But let's not get too carried away with the future. Maybe the Bucs will make the postseason, and maybe they won't. (Fangraphs still says no.) Eleven-game win streaks don't come around often and we should appreciate them while they happen, not fret about what they portend for the future. For the past two weeks, there has been no more fun team to cheer for than the Pittsburgh Pirates. Here is what they are doing so right.
1. The rotation has turned into five  (Mikoli?)
That's the way to think of them, not as Max Scherzer or Chris Sale, big fireballers blasting guys away with strikeouts. The Pirates are simply a quality start machine. In their past 14 games, Pittsburgh starters have an ERA of 2.47, and, tellingly, 10 wins from those starting pitchers. Yes, yes, Brian Kenny: The win stat is silly. But when your rotation makes it through an entire time through with each pitcher earning a win -- like the Bucs just did -- it is obviously doing something right. Here are the lines for their starters in those past five wins:
• , 5 1/3 IP, 6 K, 1 BB, 6 H, 1 ER (12-2 win)
• , 6 1/3 IP, 3 K, 2 BB, 4 H, 2 ER (6-2 win)
• , 6 2/3 IP, 2 K, 2 BB, 5 H, 2 ER (9-2 win)
• , 6 IP, 1 K, 2 BB, 4 H, 0 ER (7-0 win)
• Joe Musgrove, 7 IP, 2 K, 1 BB, 5 H, 2 ER (9-4 win)

None of those are overwhelming stat lines; heck, only one of those starts had more than three strikeouts. But none of those pitchers lost the game for the Pirates. They gave them a chance to win every night. (And Taillon, of late, has been giving them a lot more than just that.) And win they have.
2. The lineup has become what the Pirates had always imagined it would be
Here's another fun stat: The Pirates have scored six runs in seven straight games for the first time since 1946. They're launching balls out of whatever park they're in, with homers in nine straight games, totalling 21 over that span. And the outfielders are leading them.

Remember a couple of years ago when the Pirates were thought to have the best young outfield in the sport? Everybody ended up taking a step back. struggled; got suspended; went to San Francisco. In 2018, though, the outfield has emerged, though not exactly how the Bucs might have predicted. Marte is back to his pre-suspension form, leading the NL in stolen bases and on pace to set career highs in homers. Polanco had never taken the step forward the Pirates were waiting for, but he's now leading the team in homers; he still isn't a great on-base guy but remember, he is only 26. But the breakthrough has been Corey Dickerson, the Rays castoff the Bucs got for free and still can't quite believe their luck. He has actually improved on his 2017 All-Star season, with less power than last year but far more production, thanks to a lower strikeout rate. Check out what those three dudes did by the second inning last night:

The Pirates' outfield has been so good that there has been no place for , the once-hot prospect who has actually finally had his breakthrough season this year. In past seasons, Meadows would have been their best-hitting outfielder. Now he can't crack the rotation.
3. Their defense has stabilized
Just one month ago, excellent blog Bucs Dugout noted how the Pirates, traditionally a team with a consistent, smart defensive strategy that has been innovative for years, were struggling in that aspect, and in fact worst in the NL Central. But that has turned around, in large part thanks to these outfielders, led by Dickerson, of all people. One of the reasons the Rays let Dickerson go in the offseason was because of his defense, with some observers wondering if he was a glorified designated hitter. But he has 10 defensive runs saved in left field this year, which, in PNC Park, is one of the toughest positions in baseball. The Pirates are catching everything you hit to them. With a pitch-to-contact rotation, it is at last working out the way the Bucs planned for it to all along.

4. That sudden bullpen
The Pirates aren't being particularly complicated with their bullpen: Unlike the rotation, they're just striking guys out and not walking anyone. Pretty simple. Felipe Vazquez was the All-Star, and he's been as good as you would expect, but in the past two weeks, the Bucs have at last nailed down everybody's bullpen roles. The formula is simple:
1. Get your quality start, six innings or so.
2. Hand the ball to (who hasn't given up a run in three weeks), , (a journeyman who has had six straight appearances without being scored upon), (who hadn't given up a run since June 29 before Tuesday night) and, especially, (who has thrown 16 1/2 scoreless innings).
3. Let Vazquez close it out, if you even need him to.
4. Profit.

The Pirates aren't making this overly complex. Get a lead, hang onto it, go home.
5. A change of perspective
Again, it was just more than a month ago when the Pirates were thought to be sellers at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, and on July 8, general manager Neil Huntington admitted on his radio show that they might be "building for the future" at the Trade Deadline. The Pirates have lost one game since. Now: "We would love to add." (And they're rumored to be in on some more bullpen pieces.) As Huntington noted, Pittsburgh has still only climbed one spot in the Wild Card, above St. Louis, and eventually, as strange as it might seem to consider right now, the Bucs will in fact lose another baseball game. The Pirates still have some questions to figure out about their long term future. But they have some young pitchers coming, they have one of the best outfields in the sport and, more than anything, they are as hot and happy as they have been in decades right now, at this exact point. Maybe the Bucs will slingshot from this run into the playoffs; maybe this is as good as it will get in 2018. Either way: Teams don't get hot like this very often. When it happens, it is as purely enjoyable as anything in the sport.