Despite what we’ve seen over the last two decades, the Pirates during their long history have had some mighty good infields and outfields. No, really. Inspired by a brief exchange on a message board recently, I thought it’d be interesting to try to determine which ones were the best.
As a measure, I decided to use Wins Above Replacement (WAR), specifically the version found at Fangraphs. Not that WAR is the be-all and end-all for evaluating baseball players, but it provides a pretty good, one-stop estimate of the overall contribution a player has made to his team during a season, including both hitting and defense. (Fangraphs also includes baserunning, but only for recent seasons.) I looked only at seasons beginning in 1901, because the statistical problems in 19th century baseball get pretty daunting.
In calculating the WAR total for a given season’s infield or outfield, I included all the players who were regulars or platoon players, or who (as best I could determine) played semi-regularly. I also included players who became regulars for a limited period, such as Dick Schofield in 1960. He had to take over the shortstop job for most of September when Dick Groat got hurt, and he hit .397 in the process.
In determining which were the best infields and outfields, I required a minimum of three consecutive seasons. I didn’t require that it be exactly the same players—that rarely happened—but it had to be mostly the same. I found that in most, but not all, cases, the best groups tended to have at least one great player surrounded by mostly good players, and sometimes very good part-timers. As a general guide, a player earning 2-3 WAR is a solid player and 4-5 a good, possibly All-Star level one. The real difference-makers run about 6 and up, and these are the guys who generally distinguish the top units from the rest. Good outfields and infields tended to have around the same WAR totals; even though there are more players in the infield, the best hitters tend to be in the outfield, which balances things out. The better infields and outfields tended to total in the mid-teens and the best ones in the upper teens. Very few reached 20.
Today, the outfields.
The ones that didn’t make it. I found that four outfields stood out from the rest over the course of the Pirates’ history. Two that didn’t make it were the outfields featuring Paul and Lloyd Waner, and those featuring Ralph Kiner.
The Waner brothers played in possibly the fifth-best outfield in team history, especially if you look at the three-year stretch from 1927-29, when the Pirate outfields averaged 14.8 WAR. One reason the Waner outfields weren’t stronger was that Lloyd really wasn’t a great player. He hit a lot of singles, but didn’t walk very much and had no power. His best seasons were his first three—that 1927-29 period—when he hit between .335 and .355 every year, but that was an era when averages well over .300 were common. The other problem for the Waner outfields was that they seldom had a good left fielder. They could have; we can only wonder what might have been if the Pirates hadn’t given away Hall-of-Famer Kiki Cuyler following a childish spat with manager Donie Bush in 1927. Instead, the Waners played with lesser lights after Cuyler’s mid-1927 benching, including Clyde Barnhart, Fred Brickell and Adam Comorosky. Particularly harmful in later years was a three-year period in which the Waners were saddled with an out machine named Woody Jensen, a singles hitter who almost never walked, as the “other” outfielder.
Kiner, of course, played on mostly very bad teams, but he also wasn’t without his own flaws. He didn’t put up quite the consistently huge WAR numbers of players like Honus Wagner and Barry Bonds because he was bad defensively. Kiner sometimes had fair to good outfield mates, the main ones being Wally Westlake and Jim Russell, but Kiner himself topped 6.0 WAR only three times, in alternating years: 1947, 1949 and 1951. The Pirates’ outfield in those three years totaled between 13.4 and 14.5, but in the even-numbered years it wasn’t nearly as strong.
Fourth Best: The Clarke/Beaumont Outfields. The Pirates were a powerhouse team from 1901-03 and the outfield was part of the reason. It featured Hall-of-Fame player-manager Fred Clarke in left and Ginger Beaumont, one of the top leadoff hitters of the time, in center. The right fielder varied. For about 40% of 1901 and 1902 it was none other than Honus Wagner, who moved to short full-time in 1903. Otherwise, it was either Lefty Davis or, in 1903, Jimmy Sebring, both solid players in their own right. Most of the production, though, came from Clarke and Beaumont. Clarke had an OBP between .395 and .414 in each of those seasons and hit for good power, which in the deadball era meant doubles and triples. He led the NL in OPS in 1903 at .946. Beaumont won the batting title in 1902 and hit .343 over the three years. The outfield averaged 15.17 WAR from 1901-03, peaking at 16.0 in 1901.
Third Best: The Mid-1970s Outfields. The Pirates had an amazing run of outfielders from 1965 to 1977. During those 13 years, their outfield WAR never fell below 13.8, with one exception. That was 1970, when Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell both missed a lot of time with injuries, and Matty Alou had his one off-year with the Pirates. Obviously, the makeup of the outfields changed during that time, but the two most readily identifiable outfields were the Clemente/Stargell/Alou outfits in the second half of the 1960s and the mid-1970s groups. From 1973-77, the Pirates’ outfields averaged 15.73 WAR, with a peak of 18.4 in 1974.
The mid-70s outfields started off with Stargell, Al Oliver and Richie Zisk. Stargell moved to first in 1975, replaced by Dave Parker, who’d been a luxury as a fourth outfielder prior to that. In 1977, the Pirates traded Zisk for Goose Gossage and put Omar Moreno in center. They traded Oliver after that season and the outfield wasn’t as strong thereafter. These were generally outfields that weren’t driven by huge individual performances, with the exception of Stargell in 1973 (299/392/646, 44 HRs, 119 RBIs) and Parker in 1977 (338/397/531, 25 defensive runs saved). It was also a bad defensive outfield, except in 1977, when it had Parker, who went downhill in the field rapidly after that year, and Moreno. What it did have was good to very good all-around hitting, including power, across the board, year after year. Apart from Moreno in 1977, the worst slugging average recorded by a Pirates’ outfield regular in that five-year period was Al Oliver’s .454 in 1975. As a reference point, the only starting outfielder on the team who’s reached that figure in the last three years was Andrew McCutchen, twice. In their best season, 1974, Stargell, Oliver and Zisk all hit over .300, slugged at least .475, and posted an OPS+ of 135 or better.
Second Best: The Bonds/Van Slyke Outfields. This outfield first came together in 1987, when the Pirates acquired Andy Van Slyke, who’d been trying to play third base for St. Louis, and moved him to center, with Barry Bonds shifting to left. The Pirates had a variety of mostly adequate right fielders the first few years, mainly R.J. Reynolds (who became a good fourth outfielder), Darnell Coles, Mike Diaz and Glenn Wilson, but Bonds and Van Slyke were so good, especially on defense, that the 1987-89 outfields were among the better ones in club history. Bobby Bonilla moving to right put them over the top in 1990, when they had their peak cumulative WAR of 19.2, one of the highest in team history. That outfield stayed strong for a year after Bonilla left, posting its second best WAR of 17.4 in 1992 due to huge years from Bonds and Van Slyke. Several players shared right field in 1992, with barely adequate performances from Lloyd McClendon and Alex Cole helping to overcome a -0.4 WAR from Cecil Espy. The average WAR from 1990-92, 17.7, was the highest three-year average in Pirate history. The average WAR from 1987-92 was 15.75. Bonds, of course, drove the numbers, with WAR figures of 10.1, 7.9 and 9.8 from 1990-92. He contributed so much defensively that, despite hitting only 248/351/426 in 1989 (he was out-hit by Wilson), he still posted a WAR of 7.3.
The Best: The Clemente/Stargell/Alou outfields. The Pirates had a very strong outfield in 1965, as Stargell had his first good year, but things fell into place when newly acquired Matty Alou replaced Bill Virdon in center in 1966 and won the batting title, hitting .342. Alou didn’t walk much or have much power, but he hit for such high averages—never lower than .331 in his first four years in Pittsburgh—that it didn’t matter too much. But a critical part of this outfield was Manny Mota. It’s not always remembered that he platooned with Alou until his departure via the expansion draft in 1969. He also frequently subbed for Stargell, who had knee problems, and Clemente, who had chronic back problems. From 1965-68, Mota batted .304 while playing about 60% of the time. His best season was 1966, when he hit 332/383/472 and piled up almost the same WAR total (3.2) as Alou (3.5). That same year, Clemente posted career highs in HRs (29) and RBIs (119), and Stargell had his best season until after the Pirates moved to the much friendlier (for him) confines of Three Rivers Stadium, with 33 HRs and 102 RBIs. That outfield compiled 20.2 WAR, the second best single season total in team history.
Although 1966 was their best season, from then until 1969 this unit never totaled less than 15.6 WAR and averaged 18.3. Their average of 17.7 from 1966-68 was the best three-year average in team history. This was in spite of Stargell being hampered by Forbes Field; his four highest WAR totals came in Three Rivers. Alou, however, twice reached 5 WAR and Clemente never fell below 7.2 from 1966-69, thanks in part to his large defensive contributions. They finally had a substandard 9.9 WAR in 1970, as Clemente missed a third of the season and Alou fell below .300 for the only time during his Pirate career. From 1965-69, though, this was the best Pirate outfield of all time.
The Single-Season Champ: The best single-season outfield in Pirate history was part of the transitional period from the Clemente/Stargell/Alou unit to the mid-70s outfields that included Zisk, Oliver and Parker. It’s not even close. In 1971, Stargell had one of his two best seasons, posting his career highs in HRs (48) and RBIs (125). Clemente had one of his better seasons, hitting 341/370/502 and continuing to play like Clemente in right. But Clemente missed 30 games and Stargell missed 21, and center fielder Oliver sometimes sat against LHPs. That left room for not one, but two outstanding backups. Gene Clines and Vic Davalillo both reached 300 plate appearances, with Clines hitting .308 and Davalillo .285. The two of them totaled 3.5 WAR, which combined with big seasons from Clemente and Stargell and a good one from Oliver left the total for the outfield at 23.0 WAR. The only other Pirate outfield to reach 20 WAR was the 1966 unit at 20.2, leaving the 1971 outfield as easily the best single-season outfield in team history.
The Worst: Several outfields competed for this distinction. Not surprisingly, the infamous “Joggin’ George” Hendrick outfield of 1985 was one. That team featured a trio of has-beens in Hendrick, Steve Kemp, and Sixto Lezcano, and a pair of never-wases in Marvel Wynne and Doug Frobel. The group was saved from infamy by late-season acquisitions R.J. Reynolds and Mike Brown, who combined in the last month with Joe Orsulak to lift the outfield’s WAR out of negative territory to its final 0.8. Only two Pirate outfields ever finished with a negative WAR and one of them actually featured Clemente. As a rookie in 1955, he probably should have spent one more year in the minors, but he’d been selected in the Rule 5 draft. He posted a -0.2 WAR, which combined with Eddie O’Brien’s miserable -1.1 figure and an unproductive season from Frank Thomas left the outfield at -0.2 WAR. The worst Pirate outfield ever, though, was the 1997 “Freak Show” crew. Veterans Mark Smith (1.4 WAR) and Turner Ward (1.5, thanks to a 1.007 OPS) gradually intruded on the other outfielders’ playing time, but it wasn’t enough. Ward in particular took time away from two hugely unproductive center fielders, Jermaine Allensworth (-1.1) and Adrian Brown (-1.2). In left, Al Martin hit well but was terrible defensively. The real anchor dragging the unit down, though, was right fielder Jose Guillen. Brought up prematurely from class A, Guillen made outs on offense like nobody’s business (he had a knack for grounding into double plays) and, despite a great arm, produced very few of them on defense, leading to a frightful -29 fielding runs and a -2.8 WAR. The outfield WAR for 1997 was -1.3, the worst in team history.