It's difficult to imagine things having gone any better for the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff through first eight games in 2011. The offense has hit for a team on-base percentage of just .312 and a stunningly bad (but not league-worst) .295 weighted on-base average. But the pitching has kept the team in every game it has played.
And they're winning.
The Pirates are 5-3 almost entirely behind their starting pitching and bullpen, with some cameo appearances from outfielders Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen, second baseman Neil Walker and first baseman Lyle Overbay. Third basemen Pedro Alvarez has been terrible. The offense has, really, gotten contributions from four people.
And they're still winning. Yes, it's the pitching. But have the pitchers really been all that good?
The staff ERA is a sleek 2.76, which is unattainable for any team. No club can keep the opposition under three earned runs per game for an entire season. There will be a regression to the mean.
The question at hand is just how hard the crashing down to Earth will be when it happens.
The guess on this end is that it will be pretty destructive. Their K/BB ratio is third worst in the league at 1.52 and they're only striking out two batters every three innings. Those numbers are even worse for the starting pitching, which has itself covered a bit by the extraordinarily K-prone closer Joel Hanrahan.
Where will the Pirates' staff ERA fall in 2011?
The ERA is 2.76, but the fielding independent pitching (FIP) is 3.62, and the xFIP (fielding independent pitching with an expectation of home run rates rising to league average) is a lousy 4.62. Translation: The Pirates are getting lucky. Lucky to have had so many balls hit to stoppable spots and lucky to have given up just three home runs in eight games despite having the 11th highest flyball rate in the league (39.3 percent).
The team defense has been okay in spurts so far this year, but in reality, the only members of the starting lineup with above average defensive pedigrees are Tabata, McCutchen, Overbay and injured catcher Chris Snyder. With a pitch-to-contact staff, it seems unlikely that its pitches will keep being hit right at fielders.
Pittsburgh's rotation is far from the worst in the league, as some anticipated it would be before the year. There's a good shot that they can be at least respectable this season, and the bullpen should be above average if Hanrahan, Jose Veras, Evan Meek, Mike Crotta and Chris Resop stay healthy.
A playoff rotation, however, they are not.