The 1902 Pirates team has the best winning percentage in the franchises 129 year history but are they the best Pirates team ever? They are one of only two Pirates teams to win 100 games and the other team, the 1909 Pirates, played 12 more games in their season. They have the lowest loss total in franchise history which is amazing partly due to the fact the 1882 team played 63 less games, and 22 other seasons they also played less games than the 1902 team. So the question is, are the 1902 Pirates the best team the franchise has ever put together.
To start with, the team had the best player in franchise history, Honus Wagner, but he had a run of 14 straight seasons in which he hit .300 with the Pirates, so that means 13 other teams also had him as well including the 1909 team which won the first World Series title for the franchise.
They also had the franchises best manager ever as far as wins and winning percentage, Fred Clarke, plus he was a Hall of Fame player too. Just like Wagner though he was also there for the 1909 season as well as the other two pennants the team won in 1901 and 1903.
The pitching staff was deep with future Hall of Famer Jack Chesbro leading the way with 28 wins in 1902. They also had three very good pitchers in Sam Leever, Deacon Phillippe and Jesse Tannehill who won a combined 55 games that year and in their career they went a combined 580-326.
The 5th starter, Ed Doheny had a great season but he is a tough pitcher to figure out. Was he good only because of the team he was on or did he just seem bad prior to joining the Pirates due to the fact he was playing for a bad team? In 1899 Doheny while with the Giants issued 158 walks, he also led the league in hit batters and wild pitches while also allowing more than a hit per inning pitched. In seven season in NY he was 37-69 4.26 with a 1.61 WHIP. He came to the Pirates in late 1901 and would win 38 games in just 56 starts, 57 less starts than it took him to win one less game for the Giants.
The team offense led the National League in runs, hits, doubles, triples, batting average, slugging and on base %. They finished 2nd in walks, home runs and stolen bases. They also had the 2nd fewest strikeouts in the league. The Pirates scored 142 more runs than the next nearest team, exactly one run per game played.
On the team pitching side, the Chicago Cubs had a lower team ERA as the Pirates finished 2nd in the NL, 2.19 to 2.30 overall. The difference is that the Cubs allowed 190 unearned runs so they actually gave up 65 more total runs than the Pirates did. Now this was the deadball era, so with knowing that this next number won’t sound as impressive but the Pirates pitching staff allowed just 4 home runs all season. They led the league in strikeouts and the starters threw 21 complete game shutouts plus one combined shutout.
Pittsburgh scored 334 more runs than they allowed on the year. The next closest team in positive run differential was the Cincinnati Reds who scored 66 more runs than they gave up, giving the Pirates a 268 run lead in that category. The played great at home (56-15) and on the road (47-21). They were very consistent as they never lost more than eight games in any month of the season.
Among league leaders the Pirates had three players in the top 6 in batting average with Ginger Beaumont leading the league with a .357 mark. In slugging % they had five guys in the leagues top ten led by Honus Wagner. Wagner was also the NL leader in on base %, runs scored, doubles and runs batted in. In fact, the Pirates had the top four players in runs scored with Wagner (105), Clarke (103), Beaumont (100) and third baseman Tommy Leach added 97 more.
For the pitchers, three of the big four starters were among the ERA leaders. The Pirates had three of the leagues seven 20 game winners. All four of the big four starters were in the top 5 in the league in winning percentage. The only player who wasn’t a Pirate in that group was Ed Poole who went 12-4 for the Reds. He actually started the year as an extra pitcher for the Pirates before they sold him to the Reds. Among games started, only Chesbro was in the top 10 so it is possible that the reason the team pitched so well is that they had so much depth that no one was getting overworked and therefore never pitching tired.
Now it is obvious by those stats that the team dominated the league in the NL and they had the best record, but how do they compare against other Pirates teams with those totals.
For runs scored they are just one run outside of the top 20 in franchise history. Four of the top five on that list are from the top years in baseball history for runs scored, 1893-94 and 1929-30. The other one was the 1925 team which would be one of five world series winning teams in franchise history. The most comparable years would be the 1901 team which scored one more run in 2 less games and the 1903 team which scored 18 more runs in one less game. No other teams in the top 25 were from the era designated as the deadball era.
For runs allowed we see this 1902 team near the top. Only three Pirates teams ever allowed less runs and one was during the strike-shortened 1981 season. Another was during the 1882 season, first in franchise history and they played just 79 games that year. The team that allowed the lowest amount of runs was the 1918 team, right at the end of the deadball era and a season that was shortened by the war. They allowed 28 fewer runs than the 1902 team but played 16 less games.
Here is where we find the most comparable team because the 1901 and 1903 teams were not that close in runs allowed. The 1909 Pirates allowed 447 runs, just 7 more than the 1902 team but they played 12 more games so the pitching was slightly better. That team was near the middle of the pack for runs though scoring 701 and did not have near the run differential that the 1902 squad did. They didn’t have the lead over the 2nd place team in runs scored that the 1902 team did either. Their pitchers also didn’t allow the fewest runs in the league that year (they were 2nd) and they finished just 6.5 games ahead of the Cubs while the 1902 team won their division by 27.5 games.
One thing about that big lead is it allowed the 1902 team to throw out a 24 year old rookie with no experience near the end of the year named Harvey Cushman. A local kid that couldn’t do much harm when he pitches for a team with a 20 game lead in late August, Cushman made 4 starts and the Pirates lost four times. He allowed 31 runs in just 25 innings while the Pirates would score just 8 runs in those games. Taking that into account it makes the run differential the team had that much more impressive.
When you take everything into consideration, the team record, the dominance over the league, the consistency, the complete package of hitting, fielding, speed and pitching, you really have to put this team right at the top of all-time Pirates teams. Comparing teams from different eras is always tough but these guys surely made a good argument for their case and 109 seasons later it’s hard to find a team that made a better claim to that top spot