First Pitch: What the Losing Streak Means to Me

When I was a kid, baseball was by far my favorite sport. I used to watch every game that was on TV, which usually consisted of the Braves on TBS, the Cubs on WGN, and the Pirates. I would keep score for every Pirates game, but at the same time I’d try to keep score for the other games by flipping back and forth. I’d check the box scores each morning in the paper. Ah, the pre-internet days.

We had a league in our neighborhood, with different stadiums for the different back yards. One house had a really tall tree in left field. That was the Green Monster. My house had a shed in the back with ivy running up the wall. You can guess which park that was.

Baseball was my favorite sport. I watched and played hockey. I played tennis, and loved watching Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras matchups. I barely watched football, and had zero interest in basketball, despite being tall and hearing “you must play basketball” assumptions all my life. Nothing compared to baseball.

That was until the strike. There was something about the strike that rubbed me the wrong way. Perhaps it was the greed of the players and the league. A big factor was that it would have put Cal Ripken’s consecutive games streak in jeopardy if they would have played with replacement players. Ripken was my favorite player growing up, and a big reason why I liked the Orioles more than the Pirates as a kid (my mom being from Baltimore was another reason).

After the strike, I started losing interest in baseball. I moved away from Pennsylvania to Virginia, where I could still follow the Orioles, but never saw the Pirates. I stopped playing baseball, focusing more on tournament play in tennis. And eventually I stopped watching the game entirely for about two to three years. The moment I remember the most was when Ripken stepped up to the plate in his final All-Star game, was greeted with a standing ovation, and proceeded to hit a home run. I remember this because this is a moment I would have never missed years earlier. But I missed it, because I didn’t care to watch the game.

I started college in the fall of 2002, and a few things got me back in to the game. First, it became possible to watch Pirates games thanks to MLB’s Extra Innings and online packages. I hadn’t been following the Pirates for quite some time leading up to the 2003 season, but somehow I always knew what was going on. It’s kind of like the NBA. I never watch the NBA, but somehow I know who all the big players are, who plays for what team, and other basic information that a casual fan would have. Despite not following the Pirates, I still knew what was going on, and picked back up in 2003.

I never really picked back up as a fan though. That part of me died with the strike and MLB’s continued move to favor big market teams and disregard teams like the Pirates. It sounds weird saying you’re not a fan when you make a living writing about one specific team. It also sounds weird when you reached that status by starting up a site following that team, with no intentions of it leading to a job. Chalk that up to my love for the game, and my fascination with the business and development side of the game.

I was thinking about all of this while watching a video today on the consecutive losing streak. The video can be found in the Links and Notes section below, and is worth a watch. The losing streak means different things to different people. Some people think it is the worst thing in the world and want to see it end by any means necessary. Some people don’t care at all. I’m in the latter category. The streak means nothing. The only thing that really matters is how the Pirates look today and in the future, and not how they’ve looked in the past 20 years. It’s a trivia question, and nothing else.

A big reason why I don’t care about the losing streak goes back to my feelings about the game in general. I find it hard to be a “fan” of the Pirates, because it’s so hopeless to be a fan of a small market team in Major League Baseball, regardless of whether they have a good or a bad management team in place. Just look at the World Series. Since the strike, only one team has won a World Series while being in the bottom half of the league in payroll. That team was the 2003 Florida Marlins. Putting that in perspective this year, you’re talking about a team with a payroll of around $90 M or more.

The Pirates would be maxing out around $70-80 M. Most small market teams see that as their ceilings. Small market teams can make the playoffs, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that the big market teams usually prevail in October. And it’s not easy to get in to the playoffs as a small market team. In the last five years, 55% of playoff teams have come from teams who finished the year with a top ten payroll. Only 20% of teams that made the playoffs during this stretch had a payroll in the bottom ten. Teams with a payroll in the top half of the league have taken up 67.5% of the playoff spots the last five years.

Those numbers seem to be carrying over to this year. Looking at the beginning of the year payroll numbers, five of the top ten spenders would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. The only team in the bottom 10 would be Oakland, who would have to win the Wild Card game to advance.

A big reason I don’t care about the streak is because I don’t think reaching 82 wins should be the goal. The goal should be a championship. But MLB isn’t set up for teams like the Pirates to win championships. Just look at the Rays. They’re the perfect example of how to run a franchise — not just for small market teams, but for all teams. They’ve been one of the best and smartest run franchises over the last several years. What do they have to show for it? One World Series appearance where they lost 4-1 to the Phillies. And that’s a team that might be the smartest run franchise in the league. You give them the Yankees payroll, or put them in a fair league which is designed for all teams to compete, and you’ve got a dynasty.

It’s hard to care about the streak, or be a fan for that matter, when the sport is stacked against the team you follow. I still consider baseball my favorite sport. But it’s my favorite sport in spite of MLB’s best efforts to alienate fans at almost every turn, and eliminate World Series hopes for a third of the league. I still love the sport mostly out of habit, because it’s what I’ve been doing since I first followed sports.

The losing streak means nothing to me. Truthfully, I always have to stop and count how many years it has been when I write about it (20 is a nice round number), since I never think or talk about it enough to commit it to memory. The only significance the losing streak has to me is to serve as another reminder of how MLB is stacked against certain teams. The losing isn’t unique to the Pirates. They are just the most notable of the perennial losers, because they’ve lost the most years in a row. That’s not all the fault of MLB’s unfavorable system. Bad management decisions along the way have prolonged the streak, and those decisions came over several owners, General Managers, and managers. But the losing isn’t unique to the Pirates. They’ve lost 20 in a row, but consider some of the other teams.

**The Baltimore Orioles had lost 14 years in a row before winning this year. They aren’t even a “small market” team, as their owner has the tendency to be a mini-George Steinbrenner at times on the free agent market.

**The Kansas City Royals have lost 17 out of 18 years. The lone exception was 2003 when they won 83 games.

**The Rays lost their first ten years in existence before putting up five winning years in a row.

**Miami might have two World Series titles, but they’ve lost 14 of their 20 years since coming in to the league.

**Cleveland was one of the better teams in baseball from 1995-2001. Since that point they’ve had eight losing seasons, two winning seasons, and one season at .500.

**The Rockies have four winning seasons in their last 15 years.

**The Montreal Expos had one of the best seasons in baseball in 1994. After that they won three out of the next 17 years, with one year at .500. They moved to Washington, and this year’s success will make four winning seasons in 18 years.

**Milwaukee went 14 years without a winning season, until posting a winning season in 2007. They have four winning seasons and one .500 season in their last 20 years.

It’s not all the fault of MLB’s flawed system. There’s a lot of fault to be placed on the Pirates along the way. But even if they had the best management group, and made the smartest decisions, we see the potential outcomes above. At best they can hope to be one of the better teams in the league for a window of time, similar to what Cleveland did in the late 90s, and what Tampa Bay is currently doing. Even with that, their chances of winning it all are still slim. And if they’re not one of the better small market teams, then what is the upside? Adding two or three winning seasons in the mix? That removes the losing streak, but there’s not much difference between a team that lost 18 out of 20 and a team that lost 20 out of 20.

The streak is a constant reminder of how baseball is flawed. The Pirates have been the worst of the worst, but they’re not the only team who is usually counted out before the season begins. If baseball was fair, and designed like the NFL where every team has an equal chance, then we wouldn’t be talking about this losing streak. In a fair and balanced league, even teams with bad management decisions can put up winning seasons. That’s not the case with baseball. The odds are already stacked against small market teams, which combined with some poor decisions over the years makes it much easier for a team to lose 20 years in a row.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates beat the Braves 2-1.

**Pirates Notebook: Locke Gets First Big League Win in Final Start.

**Pirates Have Three in NYPL Top 20 Prospects List.

**Here is the video on the losing streak, by @TheRealAlbrot.

**FanGraphs looks at the expected WAR for free agents, compared to the actual results this year. The Pirates were tied for 19th place with an average of -0.3 WAR per player (4 signed). Putting this in to perspective, the Pirates should have gotten an extra 1.2 wins if Clint Barmes, Rod Barajas, Erik Bedard, and Nate McLouth as a combined group had played up to expectations. I don’t think the impact here really matters. Teams who are on the same level, or below the Pirates on this list: San Francisco, St. Louis, Washington, LA Angels, Atlanta.

**I use WAR in a lot of articles on this site. There are two main variations of WAR — FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. The stat is often dismissed, usually by people who have no clue what goes in to the stat. Over at Baseball Reference, Sean Forman notes that zero media members have contacted him with questions about what goes in to WAR, despite media members writing articles bashing the stat.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Kevin_Creagh

    The Streak means more if you live in Pittsburgh. You are immersed in it by the media and talking with people on the street or at work, if you live in Pittsburgh. It’s much easier to be non-committal about it if you are far removed from the situation.
    The Pirates have been carrying this metaphorical bag around for 20 years. It’s time to put it down. This season was the equivalent of Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, only to have Lucy pull it away at the last second.
    The playoffs are the goal, but the Streak is a milestone to check off, too.

    • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

      Or if you are a fan of the team. I moved to Virginia in 1985, but I’ve never missed a season since before 1974 without attending at least ONE home game. This year, I got to see the Pirates no hit by a jobber like Homer Bailey, to the cheers of ‘Let’s go Reds’ in the ninth. It sucked.

      • whiteAngus

        better Bailey than perfection by Humber. just sayin.

        • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

          ? Why would I care what happened to another team?

        • TonyPenaforHOF

          Do you work for Neal Huntington?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I think Twitter removes some of what you’re talking about. I don’t live in Pittsburgh, but I still get a feel for what Pittsburgh is talking about by following every media member and getting input from fans in Pittsburgh. I hear about it all the time, but it’s still something I don’t care about, other than just wanting it to go away out of annoyance.

  • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

    Interesting. A couple of things, one, I didn’t know you were so young. You have no memory of the Pirates as a GREAT franchise, which I do. The Pirates were arguably the best team of the decade of the 1970’s. With that perspective, you might find the Pirates ineptitude differently. Also, not being a fan certainly makes it ‘impersonal’ to you, if that is the right word. But you are being supremely illogical. On the one hand, you say the system is set up so that the Pirates cannot win it all (unless a really fortunate string of luck occurs), but on the other constantly losing means nothing, except that baseball, as a whole, is set up to favor the Yankees and others like them. So why do this? If you don’t have a passion for the Pirates, why follow them, write about them, etc? If it’s just a living to be made, why not do this with a team that does have a chance every year, like the Yankees or Red Sox? And losing 20 years in a row IS unique to the Pirates. Supremely unique. This year’s collapse also a first in ML history. Saying how the system is against them, doesn’t excuse the crappy way this team has been run. Losing 20 years in a row is only explainable by one thing, and it isn’t bad luck or a tilted system. It’s bad management. There is a reason the Cubs haven’t been to a world series since 1945, same reason the Pirates have lost 20 years in a row.
    I care about the Pirates because I am a fan. It’s stupid, but it’s a reason.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I’m 29. I’ve seen enough baseball around the league to know what a great franchise looks like. As you’ve probably noticed, I tend to point to the Rays as the prime example of what a small market team should do.

      As for why I do this, I mentioned that above. I still love the game, in spite of MLB’s best efforts to alienate their fans. And the team I’ve followed all my life has been the Pirates (I stopped following the Orioles after Ripken retired). So there’s a little bit of “fan” involved. But I go in to every year knowing that MLB isn’t designed for small market teams to win.

      As for the 20 year streak being unique, that’s not what I said. I said that losing most of the time isn’t unique to the Pirates. A lot of small market teams have horrible records, which I outlined above. The Pirates have been the worst of them with the streak. But it’s not like the Pirates are far worse than any other team. For some, we’re talking about the difference of 1-2 winning seasons over a 20 year period. That’s what I was outlining, that for the most part small market teams are going to lose.

      • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

        It’s the Pirates record. Being the worst of a bad lot doesn’t feel any better than being the worst of a good lot, to me. Wow, 29 is young! For perspective, I was 29 the last time the Pirates HAD a winning season. Baseball in the time before Free Agency really got started was great. Of course I’m also nostalgic about the time of my life, but teams were stable, and farm systems were deep all over baseball. Once the reserve clause got tossed and teams couldn’t stockpile players, baseball changed for the worse, playing wise. The Pirates currently are notable for their lack of fundamentals, but it’s just part of a spectrum. MLB was such a cut above the minor leagues back then, you never SAW guys with absolute fundamental flaws, or not for very long. Darren Daulton was the first player I can remember who could be gotten out all day long on sliders off the plate. He hasn’t been the last, by a long shot. Rob Deer, another guy that would have never made the majors just a few years before. One more thing, you were 9 when the ‘streak’ started. It’s been your baseball reality for the Pirates. It hurts far more if you really knew them as a model franchise, which they were. A joker like Neil Huntington would never have said half the nonsense he’s said, he’d been gone. The Pirates can’t even do PR right, and that is the easiest thing in the world. They have a silly cheerleader in Greg Brown, and try to pass that off as acceptable. The only thing they’ve gotten right is the ballpark, and they need to put in a team worthy of it.

  • duckwoes

    Great article Tim. Even though I am a fan and have been for 40 years, I think I find the structure of MLB even more frustrating than the inveterate losing. Having said that, it is somewhat unfathomable that this streak has reached 20. Having grown up with a team that won 6 division titles and 2 world series makes this whole thing all the more painful. At least we can always count on the Yankees to be in the playoffs– Thank you MLB and MLBPA

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      I agree about 20. You’d think they’d have a situation like the Royals where they luck in to 83 wins one year.

      • http://twitter.com/BuccoMike Mike

        Tony Pena was the manager the year they won 83. He was the talk of baseball that year taking a team out of no where to win 83.

  • JohnDreker

    It should also be noted that MLB decided to make it even harder for small market teams by limiting the draft/Int’l spending, the one area where the Pirates decided to try to even things. Now with huge limits on that, it takes away the chance to have a continuous pipeline feeding the major league team. It also limits the amount of swing and misses they can have in the draft, and as we have seen with this group, there have been a lot.

    Years down the road, this 2012 draft class will look even worse than it already does and this is what fans have to look forward to now under the new system. The amount of prospects in the system has likely reached a peak at this point when two years ago this year would seem like a constant goal to keep the waters moving. I didn’t like that trade of the comp pick for Sanchez to begin with, now it looks even worse and will again handcuff their spending even more next year in the draft.

    • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

      It will be worse if they non-tender Sanchez. Which I think is a real possibility, unless they non-tender Garrett Jones. When one of the three best players on your team was picked up off the scrap heap, it doesn’t speak to great depth. Nor does picking up other teams 4th outfielders, who haven’t been materially better than your own guys.

  • TonyPenaforHOF

    Tim, really surprising article.
    First off, thank you for your honesty. It takes courage to write something so
    open. I wish more people had your strength in the media!

    Second, it explains why some of your
    posts conflict. We adopted a saying at work “Where you stand is based on
    where you sit”. This article made it clearer for the conflicts.

    It also explains why most Pirate
    fans continue to support the team. For the record I am one of them, but not
    nearly to the extent I could be. That is because my “seat” is from a
    different perspective.

    All of us have workplace obstacles
    to overcome. Some people have jobs that are highly stable – usually employees
    in the public sector or in institutions. I was one of those employees for over
    10 years. I left my position willingly because the public institution did not
    strive for excellence. It accepted the status quo, many times at the expense of
    the taxpayers and the people they were created to serve. That wasn’t good
    enough to me. I felt we had an obligation to be the best we could be –
    period.

    The same
    mindset has taken over Pirates fans. In a previous post I stated Pirate fans
    don’t know excellence because they don’t see it. I was mistaken. We can see
    excellence but we don’t know how to use our influence with the team to make it
    happen. When the organization can draw over 2 million fans while not performing
    at peak levels, we are enabling and incentivizing the PBC to do more of the
    same.

    This morning when I read Bob
    Smizik’s blog it made a lot more sense.

    http://communityvoices.sites.post-gazette.com/index.php/sports/bob-smiziks-blog

    His example of an excellent minor
    league system – the Gio Gonzalez trade – just shows what we are missing.

    “To acquire Gonzalez, the Nationals gave up
    two fourth-round draft choices, one tenth-round draft choice and one 41st-round
    draft choice.”

    I have stopped going to Pirate games
    at PNC Park, even though my family and I love the experience. I just can’t keep
    enabling this organization through financial incentives not to be excellent. I
    would encourage all Pirate fans to continue following the team, supporting the
    players and rooting our lungs out. But stop spending money at PNC. It will only
    lead to more of the same. Until we demand excellence, this is all we are going to get.

    • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

      I’ve seen that stated plenty of times, but I don’t agree. The Pirates continued ineptitude is dwindling any potential resurgence if they ever get good. It’s a death spiral for a franchise, and I love the Pirates too much to contribute to that. It’s not rational, or logical, but it is what it is.

      • TonyPenaforHOF

        Totally respect your decision. Smizik says the same thing all the time and he has been covering Pittsburgh sports longer than many of us have been alive. I just believe without a real incentive to do more we are left to the whims of the owner’s desire to win. If profits are tied to winning, it makes winning a priority for two reasons.

        • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

          I’d like them to make winning the MAIN priority. I’d say only, but that is never going to happen until they get an owner with Cuban money. The thing I worry about is that eventually the other owners will quit subsidizing failure, and the team will leave for a whole new group of suckers.

          • TonyPenaforHOF

            Me too, but this is a business. People like Cuban or Illich of the Tigers are few and far between. Got to find a way to be successful within the system as it’s built.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      Thanks for the comments.

      On the Gonzalez trade, the Pirates made a move where they dealt from depth. They traded Grossman (6th round), Cain (8th round), and Owens (28th round) for Wandy Rodriguez. I’d rather have Gio Gonzalez, but if the argument is that the Pirates can’t make a trade of later round picks for a major leaguer, then that argument is wrong.

      • TonyPenaforHOF

        The Wandy deal was one part baseball, one part salary dump from a rebuilding team. When we see a pure baseball trade – players for players – then I’ll be convinced.

  • realist001

    Apologism at it’s highest level. Wow!

  • gonfalon

    Great article, Tim. The 1994 strike likewise killed off my interest in baseball for several years, until the early ’00s when my favorite former player became manager of the Royals. Ironically, I ended up following the Pirates again, which worked out just as well when Pena quit a year or so after winning Manager of the Year for that 2003 season.

    I humbly disagree with your statement that “there’s not much difference between a
    team that lost 18 out of 20 and a team that lost 20 out of 20.” I don’t live anywhere near Pittsburgh, and thus always have to listen to the opposing team’s announcers when I do get to see a game on TV. And the Pirates’ losing streak means the other team’s announcers don’t have to do any research. I don’t expect the other team’s announcers to follow the Pirates closely, but ignorance along the lines of, “Every year they trade their best players, of course they keep losing” shouldn’t batter our ears in the year 2012. From this out-of-town fan’s point of view, ending the streak would at least STFU such lazy broadcasting.

    That said, MLB isn’t making it easy either, as you pointed out. The current management team’s utterly incompetent performance this year, squandering a 16-games over .500 record and an MVP season from McCutchen, is likewise doing its best to make me not be a fan of the Pirates.

  • piratemike

    If you are not a fan and have no emotional ties to the Bucs how can you talk about what is important to us.
    82 wins is important to me, the streak is important to me, playing good above average baseball is important to me, I know the uneven playing field they play on but I would rather watch the Pirates in the evening than some lousey movie or reality show.
    You provide a very good and important service to the Pirate fans maybe in the future you should not take sides on emotional issues and just print the facts.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      This was all my take on the streak. I wasn’t speaking for anyone else or telling anyone how they should feel about the streak.

      • piratemike

        Frankly I don’t care what you or anybody else’s take is on the streak. Everybody has a right to their on feelings.
        Because I understand the unequal position the Pirates are in including other small market teams I don’t even think about World Series and playoffs.
        Other fans will disagree with me but because of the disparity that Selig the national media

  • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

    I don’t like basketball because it’s a boring sport. There was one time when I liked it, and that’s when Jordan, Magic, and Bird played. Much different game then.

    • http://twitter.com/BuccoMike Mike

      I have the same feeling for hockey used to follow it big time until the strike happened now i just know some of the players who play.

    • piratemike

      .
      Really… what I hate is it takes 4 hrs and 20 min to play the last 2min. I mean how many gawd dam foul shots and time outs does it take to finish the game.
      It is the same reason I quit watching the NFL.
      They always talk about how slow baseball is . Between a penalty called on every play and coaches throwing out red flags and all the commercial time outs all the gawd dam confrences its like watching freaking court tv not a football game.

  • http://twitter.com/DXR2 DXR

    A lot of people blame Nutting for profitting on the Buccos but according to the leaked financials, the owners didn’t keep anything beyond the amount they needed to pay the taxes on the team and the interest payments that Nutting received after he gave the team a $20 million loan in 2003. For all the things we can blame on Nutting, him keeping the profits isn’t one.
    http://triblive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/s_696021.html#axzz288k07p5s

  • http://twitter.com/DXR2 DXR

    Just look at the Rays for how absurd this league has become. They do nearly everything right and they still wont be in the post season this year. Does anyone think that if they didn’t have an extra $50 million, they wouldn’t be in the post season?

  • http://twitter.com/jlease717 John Lease

    And an alternative view, from the Post-Gazette.
    http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sports/pirates/stats-geek-while-pirates-languish-most-others-thrive-655917/

    Why the excuses and hand wringing should be over.