How the Pirates Got Here

Pirates ownership failed to build upon its core. Now the core has broken up.
(Photo: Chappy02)

My book Big Data Baseball was published back in 2015. For those unfamiliar with it, it chronicles the Pirates’ 2013 campaign, when the club broke a string of 20 straight losing seasons (a North American pro sports record) and advanced to the NLDS.

There was a misnomer back then that the Pirates were a young team coming of age. They were not. Gerrit Cole was the only prominent prospect who debuted that season, while 90% of the roster was composed of holdovers from 2012. The book documents how the Pirates made a dramatic pivot, in part by residing on what represented the cutting edge of analytical thought at the time.

Pittsburgh’s transformation came in the form of a three-pronged approach, based on framing, shifts, and ground balls. They were the first club to invest significant dollars on the open market in pitch-framing when they signed Russell Martin to a then-club-record, free-agent deal of two years and $17 million. (Yes, that was a record amount.) They increased their defensive-shift usage by 400%. And while they were not the first club to more frequently employ a shift, they were the first — through sequencing, location, and pitch type — to consciously spike their ground-ball rate, to coerce more ground balls into the shifts. The Pirates led baseball in ground-ball rate from 2013 to -15.

The Pirates were also on the cutting edge of communication, the first known club to integrate a quantitative analyst full-time, even on road trips, into their clubhouse. Mike Fitzgerald was there not only to enhance scouting material but to be a conduit in exchanging ideas between the clubhouse and front office. Of course, having peak Andrew McCutchen didn’t hurt either.

When the book appeared on shelves, the Pirates were at their high-water mark, en route to a 98-win season. They were viewed then as a model, sabermetric-leaning organization having engineered a remarkable turnaround. Since 2015, though, both the trajectory of the big-league club and the perception of the organization have turned south.

Ben and Jeff had me on a recent edition of Effectively Wild to discuss what exactly happened, how the Pirates got here, but I think it makes sense to share some additional words here, too.

The Pirates never benefited from the happy ending that the Kansas City Royals got to experience. They were never able to win a World Series. There is no flag that will fly forever from this leadership group’s efforts to date. They also had some misfortune, running into Jake Arrieta and Madison Bumgarner at the height of their powers in back-to-back NL Wild Card games. Over the last couple of offseasons we’ve seen the core of those postseason clubs dismantled — most dramatically so over the last week with the trades of Cole and McCutchen.

Yes, Colin Moran and his swing changes are interesting. Joe Musgrove’s velocity bump and Michael Feliz’s swing-and-miss stuff are promising elements of a return that Kiley McDaniel reviewed favorably. But even if you think the Pirates acquired some interesting pieces, these transactions still symbolize the end of something of an era in Pittsburgh and a mission that came up short not only of a World Series title but even a deep push into October.

There is a perception problem in Pittsburgh. While the recent deals have grown on this author the more I evaluate them, they nevertheless resulted in the departure of two foundational players, the face of the franchise and a former No. 1 pick, and the arrival of none.

There is outrage in Pittsburgh. A lot of it, perhaps fairly, is directed towards ownership more than anyone else.

At a time when owners are reaping the benefits of revenue-sharing, of sky-rocketing franchise values (Forbes values the Pirates at $1.25 billion), of windfalls from MLBAM and other media outlets, Pirates owner Bob Nutting is claiming baseball poverty.

Some of this outrage in Western Pennsylvania — and even nationally, at Sports Illustrated, in a compelling piece by Jon Tayler — appears to be just.

As MLB Network’s Brian Kenny noted, what is different about the Pirates’ run than that of the Royals’ is that Pirates never got out of the bottom-third of major-league payrolls despite winning and attendance increases.

And now that once enviable core group, one upon which ownership never built, has been broken up.

This doesn’t scream out “commitment to winning from ownership.” In fact, it screams out that the economic model in baseball is perhaps broken — a point Craig Edwards, Nathaniel Grow, and myself have written and have all made recently in these pages while advocating for everything from payroll floors to replacing arbitration with restricted free agency. The largest free-agent commitment made by the Pirates between 2013 and -15 — and, incidentally, in franchise history — was the three-year, $39-million pact with Francisco Liriano. Liriano was later traded in a salary dump to Toronto in 2016.

In May of 2015, as a newspaper reporter, I asked Nutting about investing in free agents at a time when the game was trending younger.

From that piece:

“I think prudence and judgment would indicate that those long-term, late-in-career deals in any era have generally not turned out to be very good decisions,” Nutting said. “I think we’ve been right to do what we’ve done (in avoiding lucrative free agent deals). I think we’ll be even more right in the next era.”

Nutting isn’t wrong. In essence, he identified then what we are seeing to an even more extreme degree now. Teams have devalued free agency and believe they can win mostly with homegrown and pre-arbitration talent while also residing on the cutting edge of analytics. Rather than try to jump to the middle class of spenders, the Pirates’ 2013-15 success seemed to verify Pirate ownership’s belief they could win with a small payroll and without a significant financial commitment.

Was the lack of spending the culprit? It didn’t help. But there were bigger issues at play in the Pirates’ decline than free-agent spending.

While the Pirates were on the vanguard of some analytical movements, those competitive advantages soon closed. Soon every team was shifting on the majority of plays. Catcher framing is no longer a market inefficiency and neither are ground-ball pitchers. In fact, the Pirates appeared to miss the next big trend in baseball: the home-run surge.

In 2017, in the year of the juiced ball and launch angle, only the Giants hit fewer home runs than the Pirates (151). In 2014, the Pirates were sixth in the majors in home runs (156). Pirates decision-makers thought after the 2014 season that we were headed away from an era of home runs and power and toward low-strikeout, line-drive hitters. (See: Royals’ and Giants’ World Series-winning teams.)

I asked Huntington about planning for the future in today’s environment last season.

“We actually had this misdirected belief that when college baseball went to the less impactful bats that we would get back to good baseball,” Huntington said. “That guys would learn how to hit and how to use the whole field with authority, learn how to hit and run… and we would get back to where we were pre-steroid era. Unfortunately, guys doubled down and tried to launch even more.

“It’s an interesting time in the industry. Is it a new normal? It’s a normal now. I don’t know if it’s a new normal, but it’s a normal now.”

It’s difficult to retain competitive advantages in part because information is so vast and deep, and best practices disseminate so quickly. The speed of change and copy-catting has never been greater in the sport. It’s also hard to stay ahead of the curve and foresee every new trend that is going to be important. In the 2014-15 offseason, not many thought we were on the verge of a run-scoring and home-run surge.

Another cost of winning is not only being copied but losing personnel. The Pirates lost Fitzgerald to Arizona, where he runs the analytics department. They lost pitching guru Jim Benedict to Miami. (He’s since joined the Cubs.)

Another issue is that the Pirates failed to develop a tremendous amount of homegrown, impact talent. While the organization selected in the top four of the draft every year from 2008 to 2011, only Jameson Taillon remains with the club. Pedro Alvarez and Tony Sanchez have long since departed and now Cole joins them. The top 20 rounds of the 2009 draft have produced -0.1 WAR to date for the Pirates. The top 20 rounds of the 2010 draft have produced 3.5 WAR — all positive production coming from Taillon.

The Pirates believe their evaluation process is improving, that Mitch Keller and Shane Baz — the latter of whom had the best fastball spin rate in last year’s draft — might be evidence of that.

But the Pirates’ 2013-15 core, which ultimately helped the club win the second-most games in baseball during that span, did not lead to a productive homegrown core in 2016 and 2017, during which the club posted 78- and 75-win seasons.

Perhaps the greatest culprit of all is that the team’s expected core players in 2016 and -17 — Jung Ho Kang, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Cole, and McCuthcen — have either been absent from the field or failed to perform as expected over the last two seasons.

Between the decline of their analytical advantages, a lack of support from the farm system, the absence of key players, and an underwhelming commitment from ownership, the Pirates have entered a recession.

Now the club is plotting an interesting course.

Rather than burn everything to the ground and rebuild, as the Astros have done and White Sox are doing, the Pirates have decided instead to retool. After the Cole trade, the Pirates’ 2018 wins forecast did not change (81 wins) here at FanGraphs. The McCutchen trade dropped it to 78 wins. Rather than target high-upside prospects in returns for Cole and McCutchen, the Pirates acquired a number of players who have reached the major leagues. The hope is that they bolster the next core, one led by Keller, Taillon, Josh Bell, Austin Meadows, and Kevin Newman, some of whom have already arrived. They’re betting that the dip is more shallow than what the Marlins, Orioles, and Royals face. And the Pirates are more talented than those clubs, on paper, today.

When everyone is either a Have or Have Not, perhaps there is a market inefficiency in occupying that middle ground where fewer teams reside.

While I hope there are still instructive, timeless lessons in Big Data Baseball related to communication, collaboration, and the value of analytics, it feels more like a work of history than one of current events. It’s a reminder of the speed of change in the game, and how difficult it is to stay ahead of the curve, particularly when ownership is unwilling to fill in voids with quality free agents.

The end of the the Pirates’ 20-year drought was something to celebrate, an achievement to be sure. It required ingenuity and resourcefulness. But sustaining success in baseball is the most difficult thing to achieve in major pro sports, where one position (say, a quarterback) or one player (a superstar in the NBA) cannot be a franchise savior, a sport without salary caps and floors to level the playing field.

Getting there is one thing for a small-market club with frugal ownership in major-league baseball; staying there is quite another.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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4 years ago

If my owner said, “I think you’d have [to have] a fundamental redesign of the economics of baseball, that’s not what we’re going to have” to justify not going for it when you had a contention window I would be pissed off too.

I don’t think the decline of the core players is necessarily anyone’s fault, but neither can you use it as an excuse. Of course they are going to decline, that is why you have to maximize your window when you have it.

Note that this doesn’t just mean throwing money at long-term deals on the free agent market. You could take on salary in trades, too.

You have to maximize your windows of contention. Because we have ownership that is not willing to do that, the economic model is broken and not necessarily in the way Nutting is saying.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

“but neither can you use it as an excuse.”

Maybe the team can’t come out and say that their core stunk it up, but that still happened. The top three returning hitters and pitchers from 2015 – Cutch, Kang, Cervelli, Cole, Liriano, and Locke combined for 24 WAR in 2015, and then seven in 2016. Declines happen, but that is just falling off the table. It is near impossible for a team to survive a 17 WAR hit from their top players, and especially so for a small-market team. $20M of spending that offseason wouldn’t have done much.

4 years ago
Reply to  cmd600

No, I’m suggesting they should have spent more before that, when they were breaking out.

Easy to say in hindsight, but when it looks like you have a contender you gotta go all in.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Gotta spend more before that. Or make a trade that would take on money and talent.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Their payroll went from $52M in 2012 to $100M in 2016. Sure, maybe they could have afforded to spend more, we’ll never know, but they didn’t sit on their hands.

“Easy to say in hindsight, but when it looks like you have a contender you gotta go all in.”

It’s incredibly easy to say when you fall from legit contender to below average that quickly. They averaged 93 wins over those three years, so it’s not like they didn’t have enough talent on the field to have just as much of a chance in the crapshoot as anyone else. They just got some real bad rolls.

They looked like they had the talent to be competitive for at least a couple more years, and had good enough prospects that they could possibly even string out a bunch of chances at that postseason crapshoot. Sure, its a legitimate argument that they should have sacrificed those possible wins in year four and beyond for more in years one through three. But let’s not act like trying for a 15% chance instead of a 10% chance a couple times is always the obvious play over trying for more 10% chances. Choosing the latter has a perfectly reasonable argument.