Don’t look now, but after twenty straight losing seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates entered August with the best record in baseball at 65-43, two percentage points ahead of the Red Sox. True, they’ve teased their fans the last two seasons by flirting with contention this late, only to collapse down the stretch like a straw suitcase. This year feels different though, for a few reasons to be examined later.
Their last winning season was 1992, the last of three 90-win years from 1990-92. To give some idea of how long ago that was, George H.W. Bush was the President, Desert Storm was in full swing and the Internet was in its infancy. One of the Pirates’ star pitchers was Kyle Drabek’s father Doug and another was Tim Wakefield, at the beginning of his long, recently finished career. Their main star was Barry Bonds, back when he was skinny, when there were asteroids, deltoids and hemorrhoids, but steroids were a problem for the Olympics and the Tour de France to deal with….. right? The manager was Jim Leyland in his first go-round, looking about a century younger than he does now. They had some other stars in Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla, but it all fell apart abruptly in ’93 and the team entered a wasteland, not just losing games, but hope. No payroll, no fans, no prospects, no direction, no nothin’.
This pattern is entirely in keeping with the team’s past; its history is marked by brief (or sometimes slightly longer) periods of contention built around a few stars, followed by long, Siberian periods of abysmal losing. This is true of quite a few teams, but the Pirates’ gulag stretches were longer and darker than most. The 1993-2012 streak of losing is their longest, but in terms of being downright horrible, the stretch from 1947-57 was the worst. They lost over 100 games each year from 1952-54, the 1952 team finished a ghastly 42-112.
They were great from 1902-09, with good pitching and the best shortstop ever in Honus Wagner. The teen years were not so good, but they rebounded in the ’20s, winning pennants in 1925 and 1927 with teams featuring the Waner brothers and Kiki Cuyler. They were decent in the ’30s, not winning any pennants, but finishing second a few times. The big slide started in the mid-’40s, for a while there they had Ralph Kiner hitting home runs and not much else.
Things started to turn around when Branch Rickey took over after being ousted from the Dodgers. He pried Roberto Clemente loose from them in 1955, when the Dodgers had left him unprotected in the draft and tried to cover this by hiding him in their minor league system. With Clemente blossoming, the team improved and won a surprise pennant and World Series in 1960. They were pretty strong from then till 1980 – a couple more championships, Stargell, Parker et al – in their best sustained period as a team. It all disintegrated in the ’80s under Chuck Tanner as the Bucs’ clubhouse resembled a baby powder factory, became cocaine central.
They’re not likely to collapse this year for a number of reasons. For one, they’ve been very consistent, their record has been among the top three or four in baseball for most of the season, much better than the last two years. They haven’t had any long losing streaks yet and even if they do, their record is likely strong enough to withstand any. Their recent surge wasn’t flukey or overly long, just well-timed – they played well, while the rival Cardinals had their only bad stretch so far – a seven-game losing streak, to fall out of first place. Of course, the last four of those losses came at the hands of the Pirates, who took the first four of a key five-game set in Pittsburgh. In their past two pretender seasons, the Bucs had the Cards to deal with and their slides from contention generally began with losing these head-to-head showdowns, badly. This year it was the Cards who blinked first, though they look to be a more balanced team, certainly stronger with the bats than Pittsburgh.
For another, although they have a lot of holdover players, their roster is deeper and more mature than in the last two seasons. Russell Martin has really helped their catching, Pedro Alvarez has become a legitimate power-hitter and players like Starling Marte, Jose Tabata and Alex Presley have come more into their own. Their one true superstar is the whippet-like Andrew McCutchen, one of the best athletes in the game, but he no longer has to shoulder so much of the load himself.
The Pirates are mostly winning with really good pitching and unlike previous years, look to have enough depth here to withstand injuries. Picking up such veterans recently as Francisco Liriano (11-4, 2.16) and Wandy Rodriguez (6-4, 3.59 and injured short-term, but recovering) has helped to offset the long-term injuries to mainstays Jeff Karstens and James McDonald. Youngsters Jeff Locke (9-3, 2.36) and Gerritt Cole (5-4, 3.56) have both been very good, made a huge difference. All of a sudden, their oldest pitcher is A.J. Burnett and he’s pitched really well, but often in bad luck. He’s just 4-7, but his ERA is an excellent 2.86 and he’s eaten up a lot of innings. The Pirates lead the N.L. in ERA by a wide margin (3.09) and are among the leaders in most important pitching categories.
Also, their bullpen is both very deep and very good. Its collective ERA is well under 3.00, the relievers have won more than 20 games so far and they lead the league in saves with 39. 30 of these have come from closer Jason Grilli, who’s on the D.L short-term. This is a concern, but there’s a lot of quality and length among the relievers in Mark Melancon, Vin Mazzaro, Bryan Morris, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson, these guys can pitch. They say you can never have enough pitching, but the Pirates have more of it than anyone else and I can’t see them falling apart on this front, their offense is more the worry.
Most of all though, I like their chances because of what they’ve been through the last two seasons; the collapses have served as a forge, they’ve been through the fire and are now battle-tested. I’ve only seen them in a handful of games this year, but in each of them they appeared to be alert, motivated, poised – they looked like a team. Their batting average isn’t too pretty, much of the lineup still has a no-name, platoon quality, but they have some power and some guys who can run. They’ve won an awful lot of low-scoring games, which indicates their defense and execution of fundamentals have really improved. Maybe it’s too early to say this, but they just have that look about them, of a team that’s learned how to win; they’re still mostly young, but not too young. Their pit bull, gum-chomping manager Clint Hurdle, with his face like an angry welt, deserves a lot of credit for all this, he’s seen them through a lot.
The Pirates play in the National League’s Central Division, which has been a bastion of mediocrity for the last few years, much like its counterpart in the other league. The last few years it’s mostly been the Cardinals in the N.L., the Tigers in the A.L. and a bunch of also-rans. This has changed drastically, we might call this season “The Year of the Central” and this has been refreshing. For long periods the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds have all been jockeying for the best record in baseball; the Reds have tailed off a bit but are still solid. It seems likely both wild cards will come from this division, as the East and West have become weaker in the N.L..
It’s been similar in the A.L. Central, though a little less extreme. The Tigers are still the power, but recent hot streaks by the Indians (eight straight wins) and the Royals (nine straight) have made that division competitive again. The Indians have been pretty solid all year, haven’t quite gone away and I really like their starting lineup. They’ve played their way to the same general level as the Orioles and Rangers, if they keep it up they could win a wild card spot. As for the Royals, well…. they’re more than due, their run of losing seasons – 18 of 20 – is almost as bad as Pittsburgh’s. They’ve been rebuilding for some time now, slowly assembling young talent without much result, but it may be finally starting to happen for them. It’s heartening for the team that was such a model expansion franchise so early in its existence.
For those of us who care, the run of the Bucs provides something to cheer about in a season that’s mostly been lacking in this. For Toronto fans, there’s been the relentless boredom and disappointment of the Blue Jays’ rudderless and moribund drifting, it looks like more meaningless September baseball for us yet again. Then there’s been the miasma of the ongoing Biogenesis affair and other rotten-egg smells emanating from such underachieving teams as the Angels, White Sox, Nationals and Giants.
When the Pirates seemed to be on their way to a winning season in 2011, I wrote a gushingly optimistic piece on their rejuvenation and almost immediately after this, they fell into an elevator shaft and dropped straight down, the same with last year. Not that there’s a long-standing tradition of superstition in baseball or anything – nooooooh – but before posting this I think maybe I’ll say a little prayer and step over any cracks in the sidewalks on my way home.
© 2013 – 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.