Yes, we collapsed in the second half, but if we get some pitching help in the offseason, we could contend next year. #talklikeapirateday
— Ruben Bolling (@RubenBolling) September 19, 2012
We can fairly well predict that the Pirates are not going to make the playoffs this year, for the 20th straight season. They still have a fighting chance at their first winning record in two decades, as they stand at 74-74 after Game 148, but that looked almost like a lock before their 11-17 August and their 4-13 September.
So why do the Pirates always suck in September? If you look at the team’s win totals, month by month, from 1993-2011 — their record 19 straight losing seasons, you see a remarkable pattern emerge:
The 1994-1995 strike accounts for the fact that there are fewer games played in April and September than in the other months. But you can see: for the last two decades, the Pirates have been a much, much different team from March through July than in August, September, and October — which is to say, before and after the trade deadline.
Before the trade deadline, from 1993-2011, the Pirates were a .442 team — that’s 72-90 over a full year, 9 games under .500, not good but not catastrophically awful. However, after the trade deadline, they were a .402 team — that’s 65-97 over a full year. The difference is crucial: it measures the difference between a team that is a hot streak away from a winning season for most of the year, and a team that never has any hope.
It’s not a complete surprise to see that the Pirates have been worse, historically, after the trade deadline. After all, they have often been sellers at the deadline, getting rid of Aramis Ramirez and Brian Giles in 2003, Kris Benson in 2004, Oliver Perez in 2006, Jason Bay and Xavier Nady in 2008, Ian Snell and Jack Wilson and Adam LaRoche and Nate McLouth in 2009, and so on.
But they weren’t always sellers, and actually have made their share of misguided win-now trades. They traded Mike Gonzalez for Adam LaRoche in 2007, and a few days later traded Rajai Davis for a completely washed up Matt Morris; they brought in Derrek Lee in 2011; and in 2012, they got Chad Qualls, Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez, and Wandy Rodriguez before the deadline. Obviously, none of it worked. It isn’t obvious that their habit of getting rid of stars at the deadline is the sole explanation for their late-season ineptitude.
A better reason is almost certainly their catastrophically bad draft history. It’s not just that the Pirates don’t have much to call up in September. It’s that the Pirates have hardly ever had any organizational depth to speak of, so as the season wears on and injuries mount, they inevitably lack good replacements.
Case in point: In 1992, the Pirates had a great year: they won 96 games, finished in first place in the NL East, and drafted Jason Kendall. It was the last time that they finished above .500 for two whole decades, as we know. It was also the last time that they drafted an above-average player for a whole decade.
After Kendall, the team did not draft a single good player until Paul Maholm in 2003. (Andrew McCutchen came in 2005.) The only major leaguers of note that the team drafted in between Kendall in 1992 and Maholm in 2003 were Kris Benson, drafted in 1996, whose career was almost exactly average, and Sean Burnett, who’s a decent enough setup man. And they signed Aramis Ramirez as an amateur free agent in 1994. That’s it.
When current general manager Neal Huntington got his job in late 2007, he inherited a team whose earth had been scorched in both the majors and the minors for 20 years, thanks to the strategic short-sightedness and talent-blindness of GMs Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield. Huntington immediately moved to address his team’s depth, and those fire sale trades in 2008 and 2009 were his doing. Some of the players that he brought in have paid dividends, like Derrek Lee, or, at least for the first half of 2012, James McDonald. Others have not, like Brandon Moss, Craig Hansen, and Andy LaRoche.
This year isn’t the first time that the Pirates have come tantalizingly close to a good season only to come up disappointingly short. You only have to remember back to 2011 for another example of that. But it’s remarkable how robust the pattern has been over the past 20 years: the Pirates play decently for a while, and then they fall off a cliff. Rinse and repeat.
Of course, with the strides that Pedro Alvarez has made, and the tantalizing flashes of ace potential shown by McDonald, and Neil Walker’s solid comptency at the keystone, there are the makings of a baseball team here, especially considering that their center fielder is a perennial MVP candidate. But it’s hard to say Wait ‘Til Next Year. To quote Battlestar Galactica, all of this has happened before.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.