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The Pirates Just Won’t Go Away

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The Lineup! This is a weekly column that will examine — you guessed it — nine topics from the world of baseball in numbered order.

1 If you don’t love MLB’s cavalcade of Olympians, you must have a heart of stone.

Last week, a series of Olympic champions — repatriated to their places of origin like Neil Armstrong after having returned from the moon — were honored by their local MLB teams. Katie Ledecky threw out the first pitch at Nationals Park, but only after handing Bryce Harper all five of her medals from Rio, one by one. Two days later at Fenway Park, David Ortiz, who is the Dane Cook of baseball players, stole Harper and Ledecky’s gag when Aly Raisman threw out the first pitch. Ledecky and Raisman are two of the most famous Olympians taking a national victory lap, but they aren’t the only ones: Basketball player Tina Charles showed off her medal to the Mets, and wrestler Helen Maroulis lifted the Nationals’ Teddy Roosevelt mascot (which looks hard, but I guess lifting people is what Maroulis does).

The best part about all of the Olympians at the ballpark was watching pro ballplayers treat Olympians the way most of us treat pro ballplayers.

It’s absolutely adorable, and I can’t get enough of it. I think every one of the 30 MLB teams needs to adopt a local Olympic athlete to befriend.

I’m not sure baseball has an equivalent to what Ledecky and Raisman — and countless others — accomplished in Rio, but even if Harper’s MVP season in 2015 or Ortiz’s three World Series titles are as impressive as winning a gold medal, the Olympic achievements just feel more grandiose because they come along only every four years and are steeped in national pride.

Finally, though I doubt that Harper or Ortiz meant to make any social or political statement, it’s nice to see some of the biggest stars in baseball share that mutual nod of respect with elite female athletes. Our society’s still wired to tell girls they can’t grow up to be like Bryce Harper, but at least Ledecky’s shown that they can grow up to be an athlete Bryce Harper respects.

2 The Pirates are in a pretty good spot.

Pittsburgh is doing it again.

After ditching closer and free agent-to-be Mark Melancon at the trade deadline, the Pirates have struck the white flag of surrender and rolled the Jolly Roger back up the pole. On the date of the Melancon trade (July 30), Baseball Prospectus had the Pirates at 8.8 percent to make the playoffs, and a month later that number is up to 16.3 percent.

There’s been a lot to feel good about in Pittsburgh since the Melancon deal. The 25-year-old left-hander they got back from Washington, Felipe Rivero (23 strikeouts, 11 walks, 0.60 ERA in 15 IP), has more or less equaled Melancon’s performance (13 strikeouts, one walk, 0.71 ERA in 12.2 IP) since the trade. Iván Nova has a 2.87 ERA in five starts since he was acquired at the deadline, and Jameson Taillon made his long-awaited big league debut in June (after missing 2014 with Tommy John and 2015 with a sports hernia), and he’s posted a 123 ERA+ in 13 starts. Andrew McCutchen is hitting .294/.406/.447 in August, even if his full-season OPS+ is still only 97.

But it’s not like the Pirates turned into the 2001 Mariners all of a sudden. Their record in August is only 15–12, not wildly out of line with their performances in any month except for a disastrous June, when they went 9–19. Outfielders Gregory Polanco and Starling Marté are both hitting just fine in the second half, but both have dropped off from star-making first halves. John Jaso still has his unfortunate dreadlocks. And ace Gerrit Cole missed Monday’s start with elbow inflammation and went on the DL. Any extended absence from Cole would leave Pittsburgh’s wild-card chances at the mercy of Chad Kuhl and Ryan Vogelsong.

Even so, pennant races are about making up or losing ground to your competitors, and the National League’s middle class has been a total shambles this past month. The Cubs and Nationals ran away with their respective divisions a long time ago, and the Dodgers are back in first place in the NL West, but after that it gets ugly: The Pirates’ 15–12 mark in August isn’t that impressive, but nobody else in the top six in the NL wild-card standings is better than the Cardinals’ 14–12 mark this month, and most of those teams have problems at least as bad as Pittsburgh’s. Miami may have lost The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton for the year; the Mets can’t find Michael Conforto; the Giants are in a total free fall; the Cardinals are having trouble filling out a rotation; and the Rockies flirted with contending in late July, but they bounced off .500 like a toddler off a well-polished glass door and are currently as close to the Phillies in the standings as they are to any of the teams they’re chasing.

The Pirates didn’t have to be that good to get within two and a half games of a playoff spot, and they don’t have to be that good to snag one of the wild-card spots come October. At this point, there just aren’t enough games left in the season to iron out the bumps of randomness to which baseball is so susceptible; Pittsburgh just has to do a better job of ironing them out than its competitors.

Despite going 3–11 against the Cubs so far, putting Cole on the DL twice now, and suffering the worst season of McCutchen’s career, the Pirates are still in the playoff race. While their competitors are scrambling to cope with potentially season-killing obstacles, Pittsburgh has already faced them and come out the other side in the thick of the wild-card chase. Staying in it can’t be much harder.

3 There’s an MVP case for Ervin Santana and Odubel Herrera.

The canard about how the MVP must come from a team that made the playoffs is total old-crank bullshit, but like most total old-crank bullshit, it didn’t get made up out of nowhere. There’s an underlying logic to it that’s been stretched and overgeneralized, but the idea that great players tend to be on good teams is generally true. If you take an average team with an average third baseman and replace that average third baseman with Josh Donaldson, that’s going to be a difference of around six wins, which would put that team in the playoff hunt. Beyond that, the idea that great players can simply will their teams to victory is certainly seductive. Plus, good teams just tend to have better scouting and development infrastructure and more money, so they can acquire more good players, while bad teams often sell off their good players for prospects in service of a rebuild.

Sometimes, though, you get a truly outstanding player with truly shitty teammates. One of the best examples is the 2004 Diamondbacks, who finished 51–111 despite having Randy Johnson. In 2004, the Big Unit put up an 8.5-WAR season, according to Baseball-Reference, while his 51 teammates combined for minus-2.8, which looks even worse when you factor in Brandon Webb’s 3.2 WAR that year.

This year, no team in baseball is so extremely unbalanced that it has one star player keeping the whole team above replacement level. But if you split each team up into pitchers and position players, you can find a few players who are carrying an outsize portion of the load.

Tops among position players is not, as you might think, Mike Trout, because the Angels have several bad-but-not-quite-replacement-level position players. That’s less true of the Phillies: Center fielder Odubel Herrera has posted 3.0 WAR while the rest of the team’s non-pitchers have cobbled together 1.1. No other position player has produced such a large share of his team’s position player WAR this year.

Among pitchers, it gets a little wild, because it’s not particularly rare for a pitcher, at least in terms of WAR, to be better than the rest of the team’s pitching staff. Take Matt Shoemaker off the Angels and his team would have a negative pitching WAR. The same is true of Dan Straily of the Reds and four different Twins, plus Fernando Abad, who hasn’t played for the Twins in a month after being traded to Boston. Back in Arizona, Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, and Brad Ziegler (who also was traded to Boston) are all outperforming the rest of the team, according to WAR.

But the king of this phenomenon this year is Minnesota’s Ervin Santana. The Twins have the league’s worst overall pitching staff by Baseball-Reference WAR (0.6), and while most of the players who are outperforming the team overall are doing so by ineffable fractions of a win, Santana’s ahead of his team’s total by two full wins. A year removed from an 80-game PED suspension, Santana’s having a nice season — 117 ERA+ and 113 strikeouts in 147.1 IP — but he won’t be anywhere near the Cy Young conversation, nor should he be. Yet he’s produced 433 percent of his team’s pitching WAR this year, and no other pitcher in baseball has been so successful relative to his teammates.

4 We’re not allowed to laugh at Rick Porcello anymore.

Laughing at Rick Porcello and his four-year, $82.5 million contract was one of the best things about this past offseason, but Porcello has quietly been the best pitcher on the Red Sox this year. Porcello was a 2007 first-round pick by Detroit, and the Tigers developed him as a pitch-to-contact guy in order to rush him to the majors at age 20. Over the next five years, he pitched to a ton of contact, lots of it hard, before a good season in 2014 (204.2 IP, 113 ERA+ despite a 5.7 K/9 ratio) got him dealt to Boston the following offseason for Yoenis Céspedes. The Red Sox inked him to that risible contract extension right after the 2015 season began and he reverted to his usual ERA in the mid-to-high fours.

Today, Porcello is leading the big leagues with 18 wins, which doesn’t mean much on its face, particularly considering the team he’s got behind him, but he’s also got the 24th-best ERA among qualified starters (3.26), and he’s doing it in a hitter’s park in the American League East, which means not only having to deal with the DH, but also four combined starts against the Blue Jays and Orioles. That’s good enough for a 140 ERA+, second on the team by a razor-thin margin to knuckleballer Steven Wright, who’s thrown 27 fewer innings than Porcello but walked almost twice as many batters.

Porcello’s K/9 ratio (7.6) is just shy of the career high he set last year, and even though that’s slightly below-average in this strikeout-rich pitching environment, it’s close enough to average that Porcello’s inability to miss bats is no longer a problem. Now he’s a pitcher with an OK strikeout rate who’s still got all the positive attributes he had before: durability, control, and a high ground ball rate. Do those things at 5.7 K/9, and you’re a no. 4 or no. 5 starter. Do those things at 7.6 K/9, and you’ll get some down-ballot Cy Young votes.

5 The WPA Graph of the week goes to the Cubs and the Pirates.

Great googly moogly.

FanGraphs
FanGraphs

Highlights of this game included two opposite-field home runs off of Jake Arrieta (one by Josh Bell, one by Polanco), a game-tying home run by Jorge Soler in the bottom of the ninth, and the Pirates ending an 11th-inning rally when a ground ball hit Josh Harrison on the bases. Jeff Locke had a three-inning relief stint in which the Cubs got to within two balls of shrimp in the 10th and had the winning run thrown out at the plate in both the 10th and the 12th. The Pirates took the lead in the top of the 13th before Locke ran out of gas in the bottom of the frame, which unfortunately coincided with the top of the Cubs order coming to the plate. Not that there are any easy spots in that lineup, but you don’t want to find yourself out there with the tank empty and Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo next on the lineup card.

6 Frank McCourt is back.

You remember Frank McCourt, right? Not the late Irish American author, whose memoir Angela’s Ashes won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997. No, the real estate developer–turned–parking lot impresario whose ownership of the Dodgers in the late aughts was a farce even by baseball standards.

In 2009, McCourt and his wife, Jamie, separated, and the Dodgers basically got caught in the middle of a custody battle that nearly left the team insolvent. In April 2011, McCourt took out a loan from Fox just so he could make payroll, after which Bud Selig, then commissioner of baseball, essentially seized control of the Dodgers’ operations and forced McCourt to sell the team. The Dodgers then filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June, and were sold to the current owners, a group fronted by Magic Johnson, for $2 billion the following March.

That’s probably the most damning thing about McCourt; Selig has allowed numerous owners to keep their teams despite not investing enough money to remain competitive. He never forced the Wilpons to sell the Mets after Bernie Madoff took them to the cleaners or after the string of embarrassments that followed, including a discrimination lawsuit from a female executive who was allegedly fired for getting pregnant without being married.

So it is with nothing short of sheer, unbridled awe that I found out that (1) McCourt is in the process of purchasing Olympique de Marseille, a soccer club in Ligue 1 in France, and (2) that the club touted McCourt’s “tremendous economic success.”

If the French don’t already have an idiom equivalent to “bless your heart,” they should invent one.

Marseille isn’t some fly-by-night operation; it’s one of the biggest clubs in France, the 1993 European champion. And it’s not like the dangers of mismanagement aren’t clear in the team’s institutional memory: A match-fixing scandal got the team relegated and stripped of a domestic title in 1994.

Still, it appears that money matters just as much in French sports as in American sports. McCourt managed to walk away with roughly $2 billion after crippling the Dodgers financially, and that makes the reported $45 million, give or take, that he’ll pay for the soccer club look like a drop in the bucket. But apparently it’s enough to get people to forget about the past.

7 It looks like the Rangers are at it again.

It certainly looks like the Texas Rangers know how to have fun at the office.

Apart from Adrián Beltré trying to out-switch switch pitcher Pat Venditte, the latest big news from the Rangers involves Carlos Beltrán’s hair, which is supposed to be making fun of Rougned Odor (it always comes back to Rougned Odor) and his back-to-the-warning-track hairline. It looks much more like a test run for a “Teal’c in the pilot episode of Stargate SG-1 Halloween costume.

Congratulations to the Rangers on their marketing deal with Flex Seal. With its new waterproof rubber coating, Beltrán’s head will be safe from the elements.

8 Starling Marté still can’t stop getting hit, but Brandon Guyer’s got it worse.

Back in mid-June, Marté had been hit by nine pitches but had walked only seven times, and he’s still keeping up a decent pace: 16 HBPs against 23 walks, five of them intentional, but he’s probably not going to break even.

Instead, a new leader has emerged: While playing for the Rays and Indians this year, Brandon Guyer has walked only 16 times in 304 plate appearances, but he has worn a major league–leading 28 pitches in that time, including three last weekend against the Rangers. That’s a ratio so preposterous I checked three different sites to make sure it wasn’t a data-entry error. It’d be by far the most extreme HBP-to-walk ratio in the past 100 years, and it’s actually skewed Guyer’s career HBP-to-walk ratio past even. In 1,033 career plate appearances, Guyer’s been hit by 63 pitches but walked only 58 times. In other words: About one in every 16 Guyer plate appearances ends in a hit-by-pitch.

9 Tim Tebow’s tryout has turned into a media circus, and I am here for it.

I have two thoughts on Tim Tebow’s tryout:

1. I have no doubt that the speed and power are real. Certainly nobody who watched him play football questions either of those attributes. However, when anonymous scouts put an 80 on Tebow’s power, I’m inclined to believe that those scouts are playing a practical joke. That’s the grade you’d give Stanton or Joey Gallo; an 80 means Hall of Fame–grade game power. But even if he did have 80-grade power, that’s not the problem. The problem is the hit tool, the tool from which all other offensive attributes flow. If you can’t put the bat on the ball, nothing else matters, and simply put, nobody in the modern era has ever taken 12 years off from baseball (after topping out as a junior in high school) and managed to hit big league breaking stuff with any regularity. Nine-year big league veteran David Aardsma, who threw to Tebow before the tryout, told Ben Lindbergh and me on The Ringer MLB Show that Tebow had surprising plate discipline but struggled with breaking stuff away. And if and when Tebow shows up in the minor leagues or independent ball, my guess is pitchers will steamroll him on soft stuff away. Hitting a baseball is just such a specialized skill that even a couple of years of lost developmental time can kill a career, and Tebow’s simply coming back to baseball too late.

Purely from an on-field perspective, I’d point anyone curious about Tebow’s potential to Michael Jordan’s season at Double-A in 1994. Jordan hit .202/.289/.266 with 114 strikeouts in 497 plate appearances at age 31, and I believe his ability to just jump in and even hit that well is an athletic achievement on par with anything he did on a basketball court. It’s unreasonable to expect more from Tebow.

2. Serious Baseball People might decry this as a publicity stunt, which it is, but who gives a shit? Tebow got to this level of fame because he’s a compelling human being whose athletic career has been bathed in weirdness wherever he’s gone; how joyless would you have to be to not be at least a little curious what comes next?

It’s a big sports media landscape — there’s plenty of room for Tebow and more serious stories — and baseball is in the dog days of a season that’s played out slowly over months and sometimes feels like it’s played out over centuries. I’m interested just in case Tebow makes good on the minuscule possibility that he can actually play baseball at a high level. And even if he doesn’t, it’s fun to talk about absurd things sometimes. I’m having fun with this, and you should, too.

All stats are current through Tuesday afternoon.