You've got teams that have been down in the dumps now among the best in baseball; the Houston Astros and the Kansas City Royals (who in June 2014 when THC saw them play at home looked like a AAA team). And in the last month two other downtrodden teams have caught fire - the Cubs and the Mets.
The Pirates aren't leading their division but have a stronger team than the past two years when they've made the playoffs as a wild card team. Which brings us to the team they are trying to catch - the St Louis Cardinals who have the best record in baseball. The question is why? Their lineup is good but not great and they've got decent, but not overwhelming pitching, particularly after losing their ace, Adam Wainwright to an Achilles tendon injury in April.
The Cardinals starters:
Over at Grantland, Ben Lindbergh takes a look at the puzzle and comes to some surprising conclusions. It's all about the pitching. The Cards staff has an ERA of 2.60 which as of now would be the lowest in the majors since 1972. But it's not because they are giving up dramatically fewer hits than their opponents; it's that they are historically good in preventing runners from scoring once they get on base - giving up somewhere between 60 and 85 fewer runs than expected given the number of hits and walks they give up; an enormous differential in baseball terms.
The Cardinals relievers:
Lindbergh shows that the major league average performance is that with runners on base, OPS (on-base % + slugging) is about 40 points higher with men on base or with runners in scoring position (on 2nd or 3rd). The Cards pitchers allow an OPS in those situation that is more than 100 points lower than average. Lindbergh shows us the data and concludes:
With runners in scoring position, St. Louis has allowed fewer hard batted balls, made evident by a lower line drive rate, a higher percentage of popups, and (in part because of the popups) fewer fly balls going over the fence.And, as Lindbergh notes, the sample size is now huge, more than two thirds of the season so it does not appear to be chance.
The next question is why is their clutch pitching so much better than expected and here Lindbergh poses several possibilities all of which he convincingly rejects for lack of evidence: they're better at inducing doubleplays; they throw harder in the clutch; they optimize pitch selection and location; they hold runners better.
So, for now, let's just sit back and enjoy an historic performance.