How Did the Pirates Win 94 Games in 2013
A Guest Post by Joe Luchok
The Pittsburgh Pirates won 94 games and I wonder if we consider the magnitude of what they did. Only four teams won more, Boston 97, Oakland 96 Altanta 96, and St. Louis 97. The Pirates were the only team that won 94 this season. It is not easy to win 94 games.
In 2012 six teams won 94 or more. Yanks won 95, Oakland 94, Washington 98, Atlanta 94, Cincinnati 97, and San Francisco 94. Only Oakland and Atlanta won 94 or more in 2013.
In 2011 six teams won 94 or more. Yanks won 97, Detroit 95, Texas 96, Philadelphia 102, Milwaukee 96, and Arizona 94. Only the Yanks would win 94 or more the next season.
Twelve teams won 94 or more in 2011 and 2012 but only three won 94 or more the next season.
Winning 94 games requires some combination of being good, lucky, and having a number of things come together. Remember the rotation the Pirates opened the season with? AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez, and Jeff Locke. AJ Burnett was the only one to pitch in the playoffs. Sanchez and McDonald were not even in the system at playoff time. Fortunately, Francisco Liriano came off the DL and pitched like a number one starter while Gerrit Cole came up and pitched like a teams number one draft choice is expected to pitch.
The Pirates only had two starting pitchers take the mound 30 times, AJ Burnett and Jeff Locke both had 30 starts while Francisco Liriano had 26. The Reds had four starters take the mound 31 or 32 times and the Cardinals top three hurlers started 34, 33, and 31 games. The Reds top three started 96 games, the Cardinals top three started 98 games, and the Pirates top three only had 86 starts. The Pirates top three starters combined for a record of 36-26, Reds top went 42-26, and Cardinals top three put up a 49-28 mark.
According to Baseball Reference, the Pirates’ Pythagorean record was 88-74, which still would have gotten them into the wild card game but as the visiting team. The Cardinals Pythagorean record was 101-61 and the Reds was 93-69 so the Cardinals and Reds were below Pythagorean expectation while the Pirates finished above it.
The 2012 Pirates scored 651 runs while the 2013 team scored just 634 runs, 17 less runs touched homeplate, but the team won 15 more games.
How did the Pirates win 94 games? Luck tends to even out over a season and all teams have some good and bad luck. If you count injuries as luck, the Pirates had the good fortune to replace injured or ineffective pitchers with pitchers who were effective. I see that more as having a deep system than luck. The Cardinals did the same thing. The Pirates position players were relatively healthy and when one went down players like Jose Tabata and Tony Sanchez filled in well.
The Pirates also had a superior bullpen. Their pen was 3rd in major league baseball in ERA, second in saves, 5th in batting average against, 3rd in OBP, 2nd in slugging, 2nd in OPS,3rd in save percentage, and 3rd in WHIP. Clint Hurdle also did an excellent job in managing the bullpen usage throughout the season.
Another area the Pirates were good at was defense. Start behind the plate. Russell Martin shut down other teams running games. In 2012 opposing teams stole 154 bases and the Pirates only caught 19 trying to steal, which was 11%. In 2013 there were only 95 steals and 43 were caught stealing, which was 31%. That means less players on 2nd or 3rd thus less scoring from those bases. That also eases pressure on the pitcher and often enables them to return to the windup instead of pitching from the stretch. We have no way to calculate if Martin’s pitch calling also saved runs, his pitch framing certainly did.
The Pirates also had better defense in other positions. In 2012 the most common outfield was Alex Presley, Andrew McCutchen, and Jose Tabata. In 2013 Starling Marte took over left giving the team great coverage in left and center. In the infield Pedro Alvarez was a plus defender despite his errors. The other infield positions were about the same both seasons until Morneau took over first base the final month of the season.
The Pirates combination of pitching and defense led to a significant drop in runs allowed. The 2012 team gave up 674 runs while the 2013 team only gave up 577. That is 97 less runs, more than half a run per game.
The offense was not that different as the 2012 team scored 651 runs while the 2013 team scored 634 runs.
That brings us back to the beginning, 94 wins is an excellent season. They had some good players and also had several things come together. They had some luck, particularly with injuries as they only lost one starting pitcher and the backup catcher for a long period of time. Winning 94 games is not easy but since only 3 of the 12 teams that won 94 or more in 2011 and 2012 won that many the next season it appears that winning 94 or more two seasons in row is harder. Of course, a team does not have to win 94 to make the playoffs but they have to come close.