It's August now. Barring the mathematically nigh-unthinkable, the Pittsburgh Pirates will finish the season with at least a winning record, most likely with a playoff berth of some kind. They have an honest chance of winning not only the National League Central but finishing with the best record in baseball.
We won't congratulate the Pirates fans until the deed is done, of course. Any Pirate fan who's currently exulting in their team's slim lead over the St. Louis Cardinals and looking forward to the NLDS instead of waiting with bated breath for win 82 probably hasn't been following the team very long. There's nothing wrong with that -- everyone's fandom has to start somewhere, and at least some of yesterday's bandwagoners turn into tomorrow's diehards.
Now that the answer to the question "what needs to happen for the Pirates to finish under .500?" has been reduced to essentially Reds and Cards fan-fiction, it's time to start asking: "How far can the Pirates go?" Their floor at this point is third place in the Central with a record close to .500, missing the playoffs, while their ceiling is first place in the Central with the best record in the National League and home field advantage against the Wild Card winner in the NLDS. I think the most realistic expectation for the Pirates is right between the two: second place in the Central as the first Wild Card team, with home field advantage for the one-game Wild Card round against (barring a late season surge from the Washington Nationals) the Cincinnati Reds.
The Pirates are where they are right now -- top of the NL and a game behind Boston for the best record in baseball after Thursday's games -- mainly through extreme overperformance, which is not the same as luck. Pittsburgh is only playing three wins above their Pythagorean record, which is unremarkable in the grand scheme of things. That's about what you'd expect from a team that's had as good a bullpen as the Pirates have all year, and is excelling due to just about every pitcher on the active roster having a career year.
There are elements of luck hidden within this. For instance, the Pirates staff allowed a home run every 52 plate appearances last season at PNC Park, while this season they're only allowing one every 90 plate appearances -- every three home games or so. PNC Park has had by far the fewest home runs hit at it out of any stadium in baseball so far, and while the Pirates pitching better on the mound should lead to fewer home runs against them as a matter of course, there's no reason for the difference to be that outstanding outside of a variance in a relatively small sample size. Being lucky in that regard isn't a one-way ticket to the lowest ERA in baseball by a quarter of a run (3.04), however -- the Pirates are legitimately pitching out of their minds.
But guess who else is right down there with them? Cincinnati (3.30, 2nd in MLB) and St. Louis (3.44, 4th in MLB), their division rivals. And both of those teams are scoring more runs per game (St Louis: 4.76 runs per game, fourth in the majors; Cincinnati: 4.31 runs per game, 12th in the majors) than the Pirates are. In fact, the Pirates offense has been fairly woeful on the season: Pittsburgh is 23rd in the majors in runs scored per game at 3.93, and 21st in OPS at .701. Neither of Pittsburgh's two rivals can match their pitching this year, but both have clearly better players at the majority of the positions on the field. Second base and shortstop have been black holes for the Pirates all year with Clint Barmes, Jody Mercer, and Neil Walker's respective injury and consistency problems. And the team's attempts to upgrade in right field at the trade deadline were foiled by ridiculous demands from sellers -- Neil Huntington, the Pirates general manager, was quoted after the deadline Wednesday saying that the Pirates "were willing to do something stupid, but not insane" when asked why the team didn't want to meet other clubs' asking prices. The Pirates can still acquire a bat -- trades can still be made after the deadline, but all of the MLB players involved have to pass waivers to do so -- but it will be much more difficult now.
The Pirates also have a lot more games to go in the second half against Cincinnati and St. Louis, though they're off to a good and very important start, taking four out of five against the Cardinals this week. They will also play the Texas Rangers, Arizona Diamondbacks, and the weirdly resurgent Miami Marlins before the season ends in one of the harder late season schedules. The good news is that they've played well inside the division so far, and so long as the pitching remains consistent, they should finish neck and neck with the Cardinals. That said, it's difficult to pick against St. Louis, a team with one of the majors' top five offenses and top five pitching staffs, regardless of what's happened this week.
It's taken awhile, and the Pirates have endured a lot, including some collapses over the past two years that on other teams might have cost people their jobs. But the team, at least for this season, is legitimate. They should make the postseason despite playing in a division with two other playoff teams. And as long as the team makes the right moves after the season ends -- doesn't extend its overperforming veterans into oblivion, for instance -- it doesn't have to be a one-time thing.
Because obviously what the rest of us needed was another successful pro sports franchise in Pittsburgh.