For the second straight season, the Pittsburgh Pirates have come out of the gates from the All-Star break and found themselves in a tie for first place in the NL Central. For the second straight season, almost nobody believes they are "for real."
In fact, I suspect you'd find more people who think that Santa and the Easter Bunny are "for real" than those who believe the Pirates will continue to contend for the division title through the end of the 2012 season. It is hard to blame those who don't believe since the Buccos followed up their surprising first half to the 2011 season in which they went 47-43 by finishing the season 25-47. Add to that a healthy dose of skepticism created by Pittsburgh having not had a winning record since 1992 and now the legions of Pirate doubters makes a lot more sense.
That, however, doesn't make it right. As a thought experiment, forget we are talking about the Pirates. Just pretend we are talking about a team that good for one half season, then horrible for one half season and then very good the following half season. What would you expect them to do in their next half season? Logically, you'd probably expect that team to be somewhere between below average and pretty good. But once you factor in the reputation of the team, the answer varies further. If it is the Yankees, they will be good because they are the Yankees. If the answer is the Pirates, they will stink because they are the Pirates.
That's a gross oversimplification, but it is done so to point out that reputation and history can cause bias. In reality, the fact that Pittsburgh has been lousy for the last 20 years has little predictive value. The 1993 Pirates that went 75-87 have nothing to do with the 2012 Pirates, nor do the 2001 Pirates that lost 100 games. Even the 2010 Pirates that lost 105 games don't have much to do with this year's Pirate club. Many of the players on the roster now were not on the team then and those that were are at much different points in their career. For example, Andrew McCutchen has gone from solid young player to budding superstar in that short time.
In fact, one could even argue that their disastrous finish to the 2011 season. Like this season, that team was perceived to be overachieving as a result of several pitchers that were performing over their heads in the first half. But in the second half, Charlie Morton came back to earth, Jeff Karstens regressed, Paul Maholm fell apart and Kevin Correia completely bottomed out.
With the Pirates once again winning with pitching, having allowed the second fewest runs in the Nation League in 2012, there is an expectation that regression will once again submarine the Pirates' rotation. There's only one problem with that, these aren't last year's Pirates. Maholm has been effectively replaced by A.J. Burnett and Burnett's ERA is almost exactly in line with his FIP, xFIP and SIERA. Charlie Morton has been pitching a lot like everyone expects Charlie Morton to pitch. Kevin Correia is beating expectations, but only slightly, as has Jeff Karstens. The real difference maker though is James McDonald, who was mediocre all of 2011, but seems to have finally tapped into his potential and pitched like a frontline starter this year.
As a whole, one the 2012 Pirates ERA is about half a run better than their xFIP, so there is some degree of overachieving, but it does not appear to be on the same level as the 2011 Bucs nor does there appear to the obvious outliers performance as there were last season.
So, could the Pirates fall apart in the second half this year too? It is certainly possible in that anything is possible, it just isn't as likely or at least not for the same reason. The pitching looks a lot more "for real" this season. The offense, well, that could be another story as even their middle-of-the-pack production seems to be based entirely on Andrew McCutchen and then a whole lot of smoke and mirrors, but it has worked well enough for them for one half and to assume that it won't continue to work simply because they are the Pirates is just wrong-headed.