At 64-67, the Pittsburgh Pirates are nobody’s idea of a special team. Although they harbored some aspirations of contending before the season — and even held a half-game lead over the NL Central as late as May 17 — Pittsburgh has been pretty mediocre for most of the 2018 campaign, even after inexplicably picking up pitcher Chris Archer at the trade deadline.
One way in which the Pirates have been exceptional, however, is in their lack of exceptionality. In addition to their .500-ish record, they’ve scored almost exactly as many runs (576) as they’ve allowed (577), at per-game rates that are almost exactly average on each side of the ball, in a manner — as measured by their on-base and slugging percentages for and against — that is almost exactly average. The Bucs are unspectacular right down to the core, and that makes them, statistically, the world’s most middle-of-the-road baseball team — not just of this season, but in all of modern history (since 1901).
Or at least, they are according to a method I put together to seek out the North American pro teams in the big four leagues (so, MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL) who hewed closest to their sport’s average numbers in a season. For each team, I calculated its z-scores (standard deviations above or below average) in winning percentage, per-game victory margin and scoring per game (both for and against), plus a metric I threw in (varying by sport) to represent each team’s style of play. Then I squared each z-score, weighted them (see below) and added up those numbers to arrive at a team’s overall difference from league average, where lower is better.
Here are the numbers I looked at for each sport, along with how much weight each one carries:
|MLB||10 PTS||Winning percentage|
|6||Runs per game* vs. avg.|
|4||On-base percentage and slugging percentage* vs. avg.|
|6||Points per game* vs. avg.|
|4||Passing/rushing yards per attempt* vs. avg.|
|6||Points per game* vs. avg.|
|4||True shooting percentage and free throw rate* vs. avg.|
|6||Goals per game* vs. avg.|
|4||Shots per game and shooting percentage* vs. avg.|
The weights are somewhat arbitrary, but hopefully they make sense: A record close to .500 is the essence of average-ness — and worthy of the strongest weight — but we can also give bonus points for being average at every level as we dig deeper into a team’s statistical portfolio.
(The components I chose at the deepest level — true shooting percentage, yards per attempt, etc. — in each sport were also arbitrary, but I wanted to include metrics that summarize how a team plays on both offense and defense. To truly be the most average team, you must not only finish as close to .500 as possible, but you must do so while playing like a typical team of the era.)
And by that standard, the Pirates have managed to outshine every other current team, easily topping the other sports’ most mediocre contenders: the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks.1
|Z-Score (std. deviations above/below avg.)|
|Team||Sport||Win PCT.||Scoring Diff.||Scoring Off.||Scoring Def.||Sum of Sq. Z-scores*|
The old MLB single-season record holder for mediocrity — who could reclaim their crown, I suppose, if the Pirates play too well or too poorly over the next month — were the 1923 Brooklyn Robins,2 whose record and number of runs scored and allowed were impeccably ordinary. But the Robins’ OBP was a little outside the norm, and that might prove to be their downfall against a team as relentlessly humdrum as this year’s Pirates. Pittsburgh’s only real historical competition could be the NHL’s 1976 Vancouver Canucks (who went 33-32 with 15 ties, scoring just one less goal than they allowed) and the NFL’s 1984 Cincinnati Bengals. With an 8-8 record and precisely identical numbers for points scored and allowed (339), those Bengals were the 2007 Patriots of garden-variety football. Pittsburgh needs to bear down and really focus on being as unremarkable as possible if it has any hope of catching the Bengals.
Here are the most average teams in each sport since 1971, when the NBA began tracking opponent statistics (which allows us to calculate our detailed numbers for all four leagues):
|MLB||SQ. DIFF.||NFL||SQ. DIFF.|
|1||2018 Pittsburgh Pirates||0.30||1||1984 Cincinnati Bengals||0.20|
|2||1979 Chicago Cubs||0.49||2||1972 Atlanta Falcons||0.56|
|3||2010 Florida Marlins||0.51||3||1981 Washington||0.79|
|4||1993 Seattle Mariners||0.64||4||1991 New York Jets||0.87|
|5||2000 Detroit Tigers||0.75||5||1999 Detroit Lions||0.88|
|6||2013 Arizona Diamondbacks||0.78||6||1999 Green Bay Packers||1.03|
|7||1997 Detroit Tigers||0.83||7||1978 Washington||1.12|
|8||1984 California Angels||0.85||8||2011 Chicago Bears||1.14|
|9||2001 Toronto Blue Jays||0.86||9||1970 San Diego Chargers||1.15|
|10||1976 Cleveland Indians||0.86||10||1987 Minnesota Vikings||1.17|
|NBA||SQ. DIFF.||NHL||SQ. DIFF.|
|1||2016 Dallas Mavericks||0.42||1||1976 Vancouver Canucks||0.23|
|2||2017 Indiana Pacers||0.69||2||2008 Nashville Predators||0.23|
|3||1989 Boston Celtics||1.01||3||1997 Phoenix Coyotes||0.34|
|4||2007 New Jersey Nets||1.17||4||1975 St. Louis Blues||0.35|
|5||1998 Washington Wizards||1.23||5||2009 Anaheim Ducks||0.55|
|6||2005 Cleveland Cavaliers||1.33||6||1979 Los Angeles Kings||0.70|
|7||1997 Minnesota Timberwolves||1.38||7||2014 Detroit Red Wings||0.72|
|8||2008 Washington Wizards||1.42||8||1989 Hartford Whalers||0.72|
|9||1982 Portland Trail Blazers||1.59||9||1983 Vancouver Canucks||0.78|
|10||2018 Washington Wizards||1.64||10||1978 Detroit Red Wings||0.83|
Pittsburgh wasn’t always this nondescript, of course. As of a few years ago, they’d been quite good — making the playoffs3 in three straight years from 2013 to 2015 — and before that, they’d been extremely bad, missing the postseason for 20 straight years. Obviously, neither of those performances will land you anywhere near our list of the most average teams. But Pittsburgh has turned in some faultlessly pedestrian play recently, with a string of near-.500 seasons that culminated in this year’s middling masterpiece.
For fans seeking long-term mediocrity, the Philadelphia Flyers might be a good option, having finished with between 39 and 42 wins in four of their last five seasons. (And in the one season they didn’t, they still racked up points for a league-leading 18 overtime losses, which could easily have turned into ties — aka the best possible outcome for fans of .500 play — under the NHL’s old standings system.) According to our algorithm, no team in major pro sports has been more consistently mediocre over the past five seasons than the Flyers, although they narrowly edged out the NBA’s Washington Wizards — another great pick if you want to watch dependably so-so basketball.
In the long run, the Pirates still have a ways to go to catch the Flyers and Wizards, not to mention the Tampa Bay Rays (MLB’s current five-year kings of the commonplace). But for one magical season, Pittsburgh has been home to one of the most fiercely undistinguished teams in pro sports history.