Full disclosure: as you might be aware, I authored a book on the Pirates — Big Data Baseball — which was published in 2015. As a result, it’s possible that I write this piece with some bias.
Still, I wouldn’t have entered into that book project if I thought the Pittsburgh Pirates were run by fools, engaged in uninteresting practices, and set for a catastrophic 2014 season. To work on the project, I had to believe the Pirates were a team likely to enjoy more success.
I pitched the book following the 2013 campaign, after the Pirates’ first winning season since 1992. I felt it was a compelling narrative: the Pirates ended the longest consecutive streak of losing seasons in North American pro sports history by residing on the cutting edge of analytics and innovating new practices (like having a quant embedded in the clubhouse) while also remaining attentive to the human element. It was a story of creativity, collaboration, and peak Andrew McCutchen.
When the Pirates were eight games under .500 in May of 2014, I was concerned about the book’s future, but the Pirates turned things around and returned to the postseason. In 2015, the club won 98 games but had the misfortune of playing in a division with a 100-win Cardinals team.
Consider that this is a club that hadn’t had a winning season or entered the playoffs since 1992. Consider what Neal Huntington inherited at the end of 2007 — an organization lacking in talent and without an analytics department, some four years after the publication of Moneyball. What the Pirates engineered in 2013-15 sure seems like an impressive turnaround.
On Tuesday, the Pirates announced that Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle, each of whom had club options for 2018 that hadn’t yet been exercised, had agreed to four-year extensions. The new deals will keep them under club control through the 2021 season. If Huntington and Hurdle remain with the club through the duration of these extensions, they’ll have been with the Pirates for 14 and 11 seasons, respectively.
For most on the outside, this would seem like an uncontroversial decision: the leadership group that ushered the club to its best run since the advent of the World Wide Web has been extended. But you wouldn’t know it by much of the public discourse in town.
If you choose, click and read some of the comments in response to this tweet from the club:
— Pirates (@Pirates) September 5, 2017
Baseball America’s Ben Badler, a reasonable man, took notice of this.
Only four teams have won more games than the Pirates over the last five years. Now read the replies. https://t.co/SY7M3J4rg5
— Ben Badler (@BenBadler) September 5, 2017
What’s going on here? Why such a disconnect?
Part of it is simply winning. The Pirates are suffering through their second consecutive losing season. Sports are emotional.
Part of it is context.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are coming off another Stanley Cup season and the Steelers have added a couple Super Bowls this century. There’s this joke that Pittsburgh is the city of champions… and the Pirates.
Of course, those are apples-to-oranges comparisons, as the NHL and NFL are salary-cap leagues. The Penguins won a draft lottery to acquire Sidney Crosby, and the NFL is a one-position league: you either have a quarterback or you don’t. If you have an elite quarterback, it’s akin to having Clayton Kershaw throw every pitch of the season.
Small-market clubs have had it somewhat easier in recent years. As the average age of players has declined in the PED-testing era, the importance of acquiring players via free agency (which is typically populated by older players) has diminished. Still, it’s more difficult to win as a small-market club in MLB relative to other major pro sports.
Part of this hostility is conflating ownership spending with the front office.
While the front office largely determines how to allocate the payroll pie, it does not determine the size of the pie. Could the Pirates spend more? I suspect they could, though, unfortunately, we in the media can not send a FOIA request to get a look at owner Bob Nutting’s revenues and expenses. But that’s not really at issue at hand with regard to these extensions.
Part of the unfavorable view many hold of the current leadership group is also partially outcome-over-process thinking.
There are critics who point toward the Pirates’ postseason record. The Pirates haven’t won a playoff series under Huntington and Hurdle. In fact, they’ve only reached one series: the 2013 NLDS. This leadership group knows it has to improve that mark. But the Pirates faced at-their-peak versions of Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta in the 2014 and 2015 Wild Card games, limiting their postseason experiences to the one-game variety. Huntington joked Tuesday how he regretted voting for the second Wild Card, as it was the No. 2 Wild Card team that knocked the Pirates out of the 2014 and 2015 playoffs.
Teams in baseball, a sport where no one player can dominate the ball, have less control over their fortunes in the small-sample formats of October. Teams dohave more control over getting to the postseason, however, and the Pirates have won a lot of baseball games since 2013, more than 25 other clubs. The best way to ensure postseason success in baseball is to advance there as many times as possible.
Part of this discontent is also likely tied to the decline of objective media.
Passion and restlessness are stoked by some local media members. The media has become less objective, more polarized, across the entire country, and Pittsburgh is not immune. Pittsburgh is no longer a two-newspaper city. It ceased being one in my time here. As reporting and fact collection has declined, opinion, agendas and extremist positions have filled the void.
Has the Pirates’ leadership group been perfect? Absolutely not. There have been premium draft picks failures like Tony Sanchez and Pedro Alvarez. There have been trades gone poorly (Neil Walker for Jon Niese). We’ll have to see how the final year of the Francisco Cervelli extension plays out, though there was merit to the decision at the time.
Some of the club’s player-development stories haven’t gone as well as hoped. Gregory Polanco seems to have plateaued. Austin Meadows can’t stay healthy. The Juan Nicasio waivers decision was weird (and the Cardinals just acquired him Wednesday). There are some concerns that the analytical element of the front office is gaining too much influence. The Pirates don’t often win PR campaigns.
The Pirates could have done better, sure, but from 1993 to 2007, they had done much worse.
Ultimately, fans hold significant power. They buy the tickets, they turn on the television, their eyeballs are what advertisers are after.
Attendance in Pittsburgh is down for a second straight season, from 30,847 fans per game in 2015, to 27,768 last season, to 24,241 this one. TV ratings are down significantly, as Craig Edwards noted last month. But the following graphic reveals the perception problem from which the Pirates seem to suffer, as the club’s ratings have declined far more dramatically than their on-field performance:
Said Hurdle to reporters Tuesday: “One of the first comments I shared when I got here was I felt my job was to reunite the city with its baseball team. That’s still at the top of my list. Not that we’ve divorced, by any means, but there are some people we need to get back in the park.”
Next month, I’m leaving Pittsburgh, where I’ve resided since 2013. I’m returning to Cleveland, my native land.
I haven’t been a full-time Cleveland resident since 1998. I can remember, however, the calls for a certain coach to be fired back in the early 1990s. I can recall his negative Q rating and very high unfavorables. That coach was Bill Belichick. Ultimately, he was fired in 1995. The team moved to Baltimore later that year, however, so it was something of a moot point.
Belichick is an outlier. To expect any athletic leader to rival the success he’s experienced with the Patriots is unreasonable. But Belichick made mistakes in Cleveland. He improved in New England. I covered Clemson University athletics before jumping to Pirates/MLB coverage. After the 2010, there was a number of vocal fans calling for the firing of Dabo Swinney. Last winter, Clemson ended a 36-year national title drought in football. There’s something to be said for patience and continuity if you believe an enterprise is led by competent people.
For example, Huntington believes the club’s scouting operation has improved since he began there. As FanGraphs’ own Eric Longenhagen wrote this week, Pirates first-rounder Shane Baz is opening eyes. Baz is perhaps one example of an improved process. While continuity for continuity’s sake is not a winning strategy, continuity can also foster improvement.
The Pirates’ farm system was ranked No. 1 overall by Baseball America in 2014. They were BA’s Organization of the Year in 2015. BA doesn’t have a pro-Pirates agenda.
Huntington and Hurdle’s job, going forward, is not going to be easy.
The goodwill is largely exhausted. Many teams have adopted practices similar to Pittsburgh’s and evaluating the same way. They’re going to have to scout and develop at a high level and think differently in some areas to find competitive edges at the margins. The Pirates lack the budget of just about every other team. Challenges abound.
Ultimately this leadership group must win again, of course. Perhaps the Pirates need to be bolder and take greater risks, as they did in the 2012-13 offseason (committing to Martin and Francisco Liriano) and in 2014-15 (when the club signed Jung Ho Kang). The process must ultimately produce better results. Still, I’m surprised that the goodwill built from 2013-15 has largely been extinguished.
My point is really this to those wanting regime change in Pittsburgh: be careful what you wish for.