During today’s postgame show, a caller brought up the 1997 “Freak Show” team that went 79-83 and was in postseason contention entering the final week of the season. He was upset that management was unable to build around that team and turn it into a contender, citing some of the solid pitchers in the 1997 starting rotation. I immediately thought of the 2008 team and many fans’ complaints that the Pirates did not build around the so-called “best outfield in baseball.” Greg Brown joined the show just after this call, and correctly pointed out that the Pirates attempted to build around the 1997 team. This hurt the future of the franchise, as the team gave up on its only true rebuilding effort of the past 17 years. It was a classic case of management overvaluing what it had on the roster.
Let’s take a look back at the ’97 team. Since the caller brought up the starting rotation, let’s start there.
This was the strength of the team. Five youngish guys that had pretty solid seasons, with Cordova being the closest thing to an ace. But look at the number of starts each made. Of the 162 total games in 1997, these five pitchers started 157 of them. That is very unusual, and a clear sign of unsustainable good fortune. This is the first ingredient of a fluke season.
Now, the position players. Here are the eight that played the most games at each position.
Four of these eight players had an above average OPS. Kendall was the only real impact talent, a 23-year-old catcher that was already putting up some good offensive numbers. Young had been mediocre most of his career, and finally figured something out at age 28. Womack looked like a good player because of his speed, but he simply couldn’t hit. Polcovich had a fluke season and still posted below average numbers. Randa had a career year at the plate, as did Martin. Outside of some decent on-base ability, Allensworth was mostly useless at the plate. Guillen, probably too young to be at the major league level, provided some decent pop but rarely reached base.
The Pirates also received some fluke performances from supporting players. Turner Ward had an OPS over 1.000 in 191 plate appearances. Mark Smith hit .285/.374/.503 in 222 plate appearances, and added several late-game heroics. Shawon Dunston, a 34-year-old shortstop, came in a trade after Polcovich was lost for the season and hit .394/.389/.690 down the stretch. (If you want an example of a BABIP-driven fluke hot streak, look for the guy with the batting average that is higher than his on-base percentage.) Also, the bullpen, led by closer Rich Loiselle, was very good.
So what’s the point? Relying on unsustainable performances is not a good idea. In 1998, the Pirates were back in last place with a 69-93 record. What went wrong? Kendall continued to rake and Young fell off only slightly. Womack continued to be a lousy hitter. Polcovich went back to being a career minor leaguer, leaving shortstop open for the equally bad Lou Collier. Randa ended up in Detroit after being lost in the expansion draft, leaving an opening at third. The Pirates signed free agent Doug Strange, realized he couldn’t hit, and brought up 20-year-old Aramis Ramirez much sooner than they should have. He was understandably overmatched at the plate. Martin, who had been just a decent player throughout his career, was terrible at the age of 30. (Note: That’s what often happens to decent players around the age of 30; they disappear. See: Nady, Xavier) Allensworth actually improved a bit, while Guillen maintained his underwhelming 1997 numbers. The bench was mostly useless, as Ward and Smith came back to earth.
The pitching remained solid in 1998, but the offense simply fell off a cliff. Still thinking they were close to competing, the Pirates began signing free agents and making trades to fill holes. From free agency came Ed Sprague, Pat Meares, Mike Benjamin, Todd Ritchie and Pete Schourek. Brant Brown and Warren Morris came via trade. The Pirates focused on handing out extensions to aging veterans (Young, Meares) and bringing in mediocre veterans (Wil Cordero, Derek Bell).
After initiating a dramatic rebuilding process following the 1996 season, the Pirates got caught up in short-term competition and gave up on their long-term plans. They began ignoring the farm system, and mishandled much of the young talent they had. Guillen and Ramirez were rushed to Pittsburgh and struggled. Instead of sticking with Ramirez through his growing pains, the Pirates blocked him by signing Sprague. Of course, they gave him away in 2003. When Kendall suffered his season-ending ankle injury in July 1999, the Pirates dealt Guillen for veteran catcher Joe Oliver in an attempt to maintain a .500 season.
Essentially, the Pirates began doing almost everything wrong, because they were scared to death of losing in the short-term. They dramatically overvalued their own talent, and made poor decisions because of it. Decisions that hurt the team for years. The same thing would have happened if the Pirates kept intact the roster from April 2008, adding to it via free agency. We would be much farther away from competing if management had followed that route.