Squint your eyes hard enough to induce myopia and these 2019 Pirates bring to mind the franchise’s 1960 team, at least its World Series performance.
File this under Mark Twain’s category of history not repeating, but rather rhyming.
I’m not predicting a World Series win for this year’s Pirates team. Not even close. But it is uncanny how these Pirates are being outscored big cumulatively by the opposition, yet are winning more than the number of games you’d expect considering that statistic.
Admittedly, the Pirates’ uncanny success was more impressive as recently as May 21, when the team had a 24-21 record, was a wild-card qualifier, and these things were true despite them having been outscored by 44 runs on the season. The negative run differential has only gotten worse.
More recently, the combination of a tougher schedule and a lengthening injury list, a bad daily double, has dropped the Pirates out of that wild-card status.
Still, the team has been bumping along barely on either side of .500, and that is notable due to that aforementioned negative scoring differential.
Even the Cincinnati Reds, the Central Division basement dwellers, have outscored the opposition cumulatively this year. The only two National League teams with worse run differentials than the Pirates – Miami and San Francisco – both are cellar dwellers, trailing their respective division leaders by double digits in terms of games behind.
By contrast, the Pirates are still in the hunt – marginally.
And these Pirates are echoing history.
Set the way-back machine to 1960, when the Pirates produced one of the most implausible World Series titles in baseball history.
Most baseball fans know that the Pirates won Game 7 by a 10-9 score on Bill Mazeroski’s ninth-inning home run, a moment made all the more stunning by what had preceded it.
The Yankees outscored the Pirates 55-27 over seven games, the 55 runs marking a Series record that still stands. New York had won three games, by scores of 16-3, 10-0 and 12-0.
The Pirates, aside from the one-run victory in Game 7, had won three previous games by scores of 6-4, 3-2 and 5-2.
Such was New York’s dominance, the Yankees’ Bobby Richardson was named Series MVP despite his team losing, the only time that’s happened.
The 1960 Pirates weren’t supposed to win the Series, but they did.
These 2019 Pirates shouldn’t have this sort of record in view of their cumulative scoring deficit, but they do.
Maintaining that standings levitation is going to be challenging, though.
Injuries have ripped through the starting pitching rotation, expected to be a team strength, and knocked out a few position players as well.
Despite Josh Bell’s off-the-charts production, the Pirates’ team offense is in the bottom half statistically among Major League teams.
The Pirates’ team defense is even worse, ranking in the bottom third.
And the June schedule is packed with games against Milwaukee, Atlanta and Houston – all of them playoff-caliber teams.
Beyond those hurdles is the maddening tendency of Pirates players to make what are flat-out bad baseball decisions.
The past Tuesday night the Pirates were trailing Cincinnati 8-0 in the seventh inning, as Pirates pitching continued to make the Reds’ Derek Dietrich look like a real-life Roy Hobbs.
Not content to idly watch Dietrich swat two-run homers, of which he had three in this game, Starling Marte decided to attempt to stretch a single into a double and was successful, but just by the length of his fingers.
“Oh, my goodness,” offered Pirates play-by-play announcer Greg Brown.
Chimed in analyst John Wehner: “When you’re down big, you don’t want to make outs on the bases.”
Translation: It was a bad risk-reward decision by Marte and just because he was safe didn’t change that.
To reinforce that point, following a token attempt by a Cincinnati infielder to sneak behind Marte for a pickoff attempt, Wehner added, “Nobody’s stealing down eight in the seventh.”
A long pause followed, after which it was added, “We hope.”
Marte didn’t try to steal. And he also didn’t score that inning, despite having risked being thrown out while nabbing that extra base. Even if he had scored, his run would have been insignificant unless many more followed and in that scenario, the extra base wouldn’t have mattered.
By way of contrast, a week earlier the Chicago Cubs had won a close game against Philadelphia largely on the base-running acumen of Kris Bryant,
Bryant had scored from second base on an infield out early in the game and plated the tying run in the ninth by getting an exceptional jump off third base and beating a throw home following an infield dribbler.
Oh, and coincidentally the Cubs lead the division in positive run differential.