With apologies to Andrew McCutchen, one of the best center fielders in the major leagues, the Pittsburgh Pirates are basically a team of no-names. Not a lot was expected from them again this season, for obvious reasons.
Oddsmakers set Pittsburgh’s regular-season win total around 77, indicating another lost summer was on the horizon.
As the All-Star break approaches, however, the Pirates were the first team to reach 50 wins, they share the best record in baseball and appear to be rolling toward their first winning season since 1992.
“It’s the best thing about baseball right now,” said Micah Roberts of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com. “You’ve got the Pirates, Indians and Orioles all doing well.”
Baltimore and Cleveland could be good stories. But after two decades of pitiful results, Pittsburgh represents the most appealing storyline of the second half.
McCutchen hits with power and has good speed. He has the look of a star. With his long hair and slender frame, he also resembles the guys from Milli Vanilli, the lip-synching frauds from the early 1990s, when the Pirates were last this popular.
Are these Pirates soon to be revealed as phonies, too? That’s a question fit for a proposition wager.
Will Pittsburgh reach the playoffs? Roberts said “Yes” would be the favorite at minus-170, with “No” at plus-150.
“I would actually make it a little bit higher, at about 2-1, but that’s just a guess,” said Jimmy Vaccaro, director of public relations for William Hill sports books. “I like what I see from the Pirates.”
William Hill’s oddsmakers are starting to post more baseball props. There are daily props on whether a no-hitter will be thrown, any player will hit a grand slam and any player will hit for the cycle.
The grand slam prop (plus-160) cashed Sunday thanks to Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman. Last week, a bettor put down $438.95 at 40-1 odds on a no-hitter the day Cincinnati’s Homer Bailey tossed one.
We might see team props in the near future. Will the Yankees make the playoffs? Ask the same question about the Los Angeles teams, the Angels and Dodgers, and there would be varying opinions and a decent amount of wagering action.
The Pirates are an especially interesting prop case because they flopped after the All-Star break the past two years. Still, Roberts, a former bookmaker, said Pittsburgh deserves to be a minus-170 favorite to reach the postseason.
“The number probably should be a little higher, but you have to consider the public perception of the Bucs, which isn’t in high regard based on the past two years of failures,” Roberts said. “But let’s not confuse what Pittsburgh is doing now with what the team’s previous two versions did.”
Despite dropping two games in a row to the lowly Chicago Cubs, the Pirates are 53-34. At the same juncture last year, they were in first place but only nine games over .500 at 46-37. In 2011, they were 45-42 on the same date.
Pittsburgh faded in the late-summer heat both times, finishing 79-83 last year and 72-90 two years ago. So, do the Bucs stop here?
“It would be a greater catastrophe for the Bucs to miss out this year, especially with the additional wild-card spot that was created last season,” Roberts said. “St. Louis got that final wild card at 88-74, with a .543 winning percentage, one of four teams making the National League playoffs with a percentage that high. The Cardinals also grabbed the 2011 wild card with a 90-72 record, one of four teams with a win percentage higher than .543.
“This season, there are four NL teams with winning percentages higher than .543, and three of them are in the Central. If we keep that percentage as a barometer, the Pirates could finish 35-40 and still have a legitimate shot of making the playoffs at 88-74.”
Aside from McCutchen, Pittsburgh is getting offensive punch from third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who has 22 home runs, and other no-names. Its starting rotation is solid, boosted by the promotion of rookie Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. Jason Grilli, a journeyman and first-time closer, has converted 28 of 29 save opportunities.
The Pirates have been the most profitable team to side with in the majors. A one-unit bet of $100 on each of their games has produced a net of $2,400.
“The major difference between this squad and years past is just maturity, all the way down the roster,” Roberts said. “To compare these Pirates to the last two seasons is ridiculous. They are nothing alike, and their record says so. They play fundamentally sound ball and do all the little things right.”
Will the Yankees make the playoffs? Probably not. The Pirates are a much better bet, and it has been a long time since that could be said.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at email@example.com or 702-387-2907 . He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.