While the second half of the 2011 regular season is about to get underway, there's still time to reflect on the first. And through the first, the Pittsburgh Pirates stood as one of baseball's best stories. The Pirates entered the All-Star break with a 47-43 record, a big step up from the previous season's 6-82. And not only are the Bucs currently over .500 - they're only one game behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. The Pittsburgh Pirates aren't just having a good season; it's the middle of July, and they're contending.
Everybody loves this. Even fans of the Brewers and Cardinals love this. The Pirates have been so dreadful for so long that they're the ultimate underdog, and they haven't yet been an underdog in contention long enough to grow passe. Everybody's on board and everybody just feels so darn good for those Pirates fans, as if those Pirates fans aren't also Steelers and Penguins fans.
But you should know that, while the Pirates have achieved a certain level of success to date, things are going to change down the stretch. Below, please find the reasons why:
is literally falling apart
Starting pitcher Jeff Karstens has been a huge part of the Pirates' success. His 2.55 ERA ranks fifth in the National League, and the team is 9-6 in his starts. Between him, Paul Maholm, and Charlie Morton, the Pirates have fashioned an acceptable if unusual group of guys with sub-4 ERAs.
Yet, while Karstens' success to date has been more than welcome, something troubling has happened that hasn't received much in the way of attention. Here is Karstens from earlier in the season:
And here is Karstens from more recently:
Somewhere over the course of the past three months, Jeff Karstens lost his lower jaw. Maybe it deteriorated. Maybe it fell off. What matters is that it was there, and now it is not there, and Karstens' mouth and chin skin just kind of hang around.
Pitching without a lower jaw apparently hasn't been a problem for Karstens, as he's posted a 1.49 ERA since the start of June. But there's little reason to believe that whatever caused the jaw loss will stop there, as these things tend to be progressive rather than self-limiting. What if Karstens loses an eye and can't see the catcher? What if Karstens loses a leg and can't push off? What if Karstens loses an arm and can't actually throw a baseball forward? The speed with which Karstens lost his jaw suggests that he'll lose something else soon, and probably something more important to his pitching.
The Pirates' starting shortstop is six years old. This was cute for a while, and Cedeno has managed a .657 OPS because opposing pitchers would softly pitch him underhand and then deliberately not field the ball cleanly to make Cedeno feel better about himself. But now that the Pirates are actually in contention, opposing pitchers won't be nearly as willing to mess around, and they'll pitch Cedeno the way they pitch everybody else. This will put the Pirates at a disadvantage, because Cedeno is their shortstop and he is six.
The Pirates are 47-43, good for a winning percentage of 0.522. However, even if they avoid a slump and remain successful the rest of the way, they can't keep winning at this clip, because they have 72 games left, and 52.2% of 72 is 37.6. The Pirates can't win a fraction of a game! If they win 37 games, they can post a winning percentage of 0.514, and if they win 38 games they can post a winning percentage of 0.528, but they cannot achieve a winning percentage of .522 in any way. For this reason, along with the previous two, the Pirates maintaining their first-half level of play through the second is impossible.