Are the Baltimore Orioles for real?
I say no.
Are the Oakland Athletics for real?
Are the Pittsburgh Pirates for real?
Let's talk about it.
The Pirates haven't enjoyed a winning season since 1992. That's worth thinking about for a few seconds. There are college graduates running around right now, some of them Pirates fans, who literally cannot remember a winning Pirates team.
That streak's probably going to end this season. The Pirates are 54-40*, and sitting atop the Wild Card standings.
* Tried to come up with a "54-40 or fight!" joke. Failed.
So what's the question here, anyway? Aren't the Pirates obviously for real?
Well, here's your discouraging word:
Just for a little perspective, this #Pirates team is only 4 games ahead of the record of the 2011 Pirates. Anniversary of Meals game is Thursday.— David Todd (@DTonPirates) July 23, 2012
It's true! Last July, the Pirates went 50-44 in their first 94 games. They were in first place!
Now, it wasn't difficult to predict that the Pirates would not finish in first place, or qualify for the postseason at all. It would have been exceptionally difficult to predict they would utterly collapse, going 22-46 the rest of the way and finishing 24 games out of first place. A collapse of that magnitude is moderately historic and simply cannot be predicted.
Which is why, without knowing anything else, we would not predict a similar collapse, or even much of a collapse at all, for this year's Pirates.
There's another reason, though, based on things we do know.
Last year, through 94 games the Pirates had outscored their opponents by only 14 runs. This did not suggest their collapse, but did suggest they were marginally good enough to actually contend for a postseason spot. At best. More worrisome, as I recall, was that they seemed to be winning with smoke and mirrors more than with good baseball players.
This year, the Pirates have outscored their opponents by 42 runs. No, there's not a huge difference between +42 and +14. Not huge, but significant. Also, this team just feels more talented. Perhaps because James McDonald has come into his own, and A.J. Burnett gives the rotation a steady veteran presence it didn't have last year. Perhaps because Andrew McCutchen is playing like an MVP and Pedro Alvarez has, however improbably, found himself.
Or perhaps because what happened last year was so bizarrely improbable that the Baseball Gods must balance the scales by at least letting the Pirates enjoy that winning season. And perhaps even keeping things together long enough to play into October.
However improbable that would have seemed, just a few months ago.