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.
**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.