The Pittsburgh Pirates are two games over .500 and are in a comfortable fourth place in the National League Central, just three out from the division lead. That may not sound like much for spoiled fans of successful teams, but Pittsburgh hasn't been able to finish a season over the .500 mark since 1992 -- doing so now, after so many attempts at rebuilding in the past two decades, would be a boon for the organization and its tortured fan base.
The Pirates didn't make any major signings over the winter, though, and they didn't call up any more top prospects from their suddenly deep system, so why is it that they are playing well now, all of a sudden, and unexpectedly?
A quick glance at the team's run production shows them to be deserving of their near-.500 record, as they have scored just five fewer runs than they have allowed (258 to 263). Last year, at this same time, the Pirates already had a run differential of -154. The offense has been a little better this season, thanks to the continued growth of Andrew McCutchen, as well as starting the year with Jose Tabata and Neil Walker rather than the dreck they had been throwing out there, but the major improvement has been in terms of runs prevented, not scored.
Pittsburgh's ERA+ in 2010 was an abysmal 80, worst in the NL, and well behind the No. 15 Brewers, who finished at 89. They allowed 866 runs to score despite pitching half of their games in a park that favors pitchers, and, besides the promise of a full season of James McDonald, there was very little done this winter to shore up the staff and improve on their numbers. Kevin Correia was considered a solid pickup for a Pirates pitcher, but that had less to do with Correia and more to do with the staff that was in place.
Despite this, and with the same pitchers (excepting Correia) that they used last year, the Pirates have an ERA+ of 109; that puts them fifth in the NL. This is even more of a surprise now than it would have been in the pre-season, as the Pirates pitchers have been no better in 2011 than they were in 2010 by any measure except for ERA. In 2010, they struck out 16.3 percent of hitters, walked 8.5 percent of them, and allowed homers to 2.7 percent. So far in 2011, those numbers sit at 16.4, 8.2, and 2.2 percent -- never mind a revolution in the rotation, there isn't a hint of progress to be found within the pitchers themselves.
A look at the team's fielding tells a different story, though. The Pirates ranked dead last in the majors in Defensive Efficiency in 2010, converting 68.9 percent of balls in play into outs. Defensive Efficiency is essentially a reverse BABIP, so consider that, with the league BABIP around the .300 mark, the Pirates were allowing a .311 rate to the opposition -- and, again, in a park that favors pitchers more than hitters. The 2010 season was not the start of this trend, either, as Pittsburgh's Defensive Efficiency numbers over the four years prior to that paint a similar picture: 70.0, 68.9, 68.5, and 68.8 percent.
This year, things are different in Pittsburgh for the first time in a long time. The Bucs are converting 71.6 percent of balls in play into outs, a fact that has caused them to go from allowing 10 hits per nine in 2010 to a more normal 8.7 per nine in 2011. This has, in turn, made it so that Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton, and Jeff Karstens can safely take the mound without fearing that every time they fail to strike a hitter out -- an event that occurs very often, given their limited stuff -- they are going to allow a hit. Fewer baserunners also means that homers are not as costly, as chances are good that there will be fewer runners to drive in each time a ball is put over the fence.
The question now shifts from "What are the Pirates doing better?" to "Can the Pirates keep doing it?" Defensive Efficiency is wonderful, because it tells you, for a fact, what has occurred, but its predictive powers are not as strong. A few changes were made over the winter and early spring to improve the defense: Lyle Overbay was signed to man first, Lastings Milledge was let go, Ryan Doumit was forced to ceremoniously burn his outfielder's mitt, and Brandon Wood, for all his problems on offense, can field well, and was signed after being cut by the Angels. Having Tabata around from the start has also helped, and Walker, who started playing second base last year, has a bit more experience under his belt.
Those changes add up to some difference, but don't account for the whole. The major change appears to be due to McCutchen, who was at -4 runs in center field according to Total Zone (and -12 according to Fielding Runs Above Average) the past two years, but is at +12 this season already. Combine this with the flood of tiny improvements (and possibly a little sample size luck) and the Pirates rise on defense starts to make sense.
There are still holes in the lineup, and the team needs better pitchers, but, in theory, the fruits of their farm system will fix those problems in due time. For now, Pittsburgh fans can take joy in the fact that this iteration of the Pirates can field without embarrassing themselves, and that the effects of that positive change are showing in the standings.