Pittsburgh Pirates: Battling mediocrity for 20 years

If the Pittsburgh Pirates’ streak of losing seasons was a person, he (or she, but let’s just stick with he) would be a sophomore at college. There would be weekend classes, experimentation with new drugs and new people, and campus parties that I’m probably not invited too. This particular college student, although proud of his heritage and the accomplishments he achieved, would probably like to stop hearing about how good his family name used to be. It’s not his fault he was born a year after one of the more devastating losses in family history, in turn conceiving a child still looking for his first taste of glory.

It’s been 19 years since Sid Bream slid under Spanky Lavalliere’s glove to award the Atlanta Braves the NL Pennant, and the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates played a game that truly mattered. Since then it’s been year after year of disappointment, failed draft picks, poor signings and some of the most head-scratching trades of the millennium. Jason Bay’s Rookie of the Year trophy in 2004 is the most significant piece of hardware the Pirates have been affiliated with since 1992. It’s just been ugly.

They’ve never really been close to breaking the streak, but they have had a few season starts that at least created a sense of optimism. Last season, the team was 53-48 on July 26th but then were on the ass-end of the phantomiest of phantom calls and subsequently lost 10 of 11. They ended up finishing 18 games under-.500. On June 18th, 1999, the Pirates were 34-31 and 6.5 games out of first place. They finished 78-83, 18.5 out of the top spot.

Eerily enough, the Pirates have the exact same 34-31 record this June 18th as they did 12 seasons ago. But could this finally be the year the Pirates stay above that magic mark and end the streak? History says no, but the numbers may speak differently. 

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Pitching

In 1997 the Pirates went 79-83; their most wins in a single season during the 19-year slide. Their top pitcher was a three-way race between Francisco Cordova (3.63 FIP), Esteban Loaiza (4.13 FIP) and second-year starter Jason Schmidt (4.60 FIP). In 2003, the team’s two best pitchers were Jeff Suppan and Kip Wells. Oliver Perez, Zach Duke and Kris Benson have all been on top of the Pirates’ pitching staff, which is pretty much the saddest thing ever written.

This year the Pirates’ number one pitcher actually pitches like a number one. James McDonald has been a revelation atop the Bucs rotation, sporting a healthy 2.68 FIP, 8.63 K/9 rate and a 0.98 WHIP. Not exactly Cy Young, but an ace compared to the number ones who have preceded him. Down the line, A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard have provided solid numbers, which was not necessarily a sure bet coming into the season.

On the back end, Joel Hanrahan, Jared Hughes, Jason Grilli and Juan Cruz have all made at least 26 appearances, and none of them have an ERA over 2.42. That bullpen has helped put together a 17-10 record in one-run games, going a perfect 3-0 in extra inning games.

 

Batting

Not since Barry Bonds have the Pirates had a player as good as Andrew McCutchen (who, when this streak started, was barely in kindergarten). Honestly, there’s not much more to say about the sure-to-one-day-be-MVP McCutchen, so here are some fun stats to look at. Going into Wednesday, he has a .325/.382/.541 slash line, 11 home runs, 35 runs scored and 13 stolen bases. His ISO (Isolated Power [extra bases divided by at-bats]) is .216, almost 50 points above league average. He’s been worth every penny of his contract extension. He just has that superstar look; something that doesn’t hurt in a quest for above average.

To put in bluntly, the rest of the team sucks. They’ve scored the least amount of runs in the league, own the league’s worst OBP and rank above only the mighty Padres and Athletics for worst slugging percentage. Only two other players besides McCutchen have an OBP above .300, and only one other player has a WAR above 1.0 (Neil Walker’s astronomical 1.2). The 19-year-old season losing streak must be a fan of True Blood, because this team’s offence sucks (sorry about that one).

Pittsburgh’s above average pitching staff has masked the ineptitude of the offense, something that may not necessarily be a recipe for long-term success. But this team isn’t hopeless. The 2010 San Diego Padres were built kind of like this Pirates team; strong starting pitching, effective bullpen, good defence and a little bit of luck. That season, the Padre offense was pretty underwhelming, save for blossoming-into-a-superstar Adrian Gonzalez. The Padres won 90 games that season – their highest total in 12 years.

Going up against division-rival St. Louis and Cincinnati’s Joey Votto, the Pirates will be hard-pressed to make the postseason for the first time since Skip-It’s were hip (and the term ‘hip’ was used un-ironically). But a postseason berth doesn’t have to be the endgame for the Pirates to have a successful season. The team has slowly been getting better over the last few years, showing signs of righting a ship that was turned over years ago. Those signs didn’t exist a decade ago.

Finishing .500 would be a massive first step for the organization, one which they’ve been trying to take for 20 years. It would be a move in the direction away from being the biggest sad-sack franchise since the pre-Griffin Los Angeles Clippers. This debate seems to occur every Spring Training, and with the exception of a couple of seasons, dies out by mid-April.

But alas, there is hope with this franchise this season. A strong start coupled with a weak division could finally lead to a finish where the Pirates have more wins than losses. Maybe then, finally, that young adult losing streak can move out of his parents’ successful shadow and start making an impact on his own.

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