First Pitch: The Next Big Challenge For the Pirates to Keep Winning

Since the start of the 2013 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates have won the third most regular season games in all of baseball, falling behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals. They will make the playoffs for the third year in a row this year, and with the way the current standing are going, they will also join the Dodgers and Cardinals as the only teams to make the playoffs every year for the last three seasons.

The Pirates haven’t reached the highest level of success yet — winning the World Series — but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been successful. Aside from the regular season numbers and the playoff appearances, there have been a lot of things that have gone right for the Pirates.

On the amateur side of things they have built one of the best farm systems in baseball. Even after graduating Gregory Polanco, Gerrit Cole, and Starling Marte the last few years, they still have one of the top ten systems in the game. And next year the system will pay off in a big way, as Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon, and Alen Hanson are projected to make the jump to the big leagues (you could add Elias Diaz to that list as well if you’re talking about a bigger role than his current September call-up status).

The Pirates have built this top system on value. They don’t spend big on the international side, instead relying on a lot of very good scouts, led by Rene Gayo in Latin America, to find talented players where not many teams are looking. On the draft side they have been stocking up on young, projectable arms for years, and now the upper levels are starting to get flooded with pitching talent. They’ve recently been focusing on athletic position players who can play premium positions, and the early results have been encouraging. JaCoby Jones had enough value to be traded for Joakim Soria at a time when relievers were going for a high value on the trade market. And Jordan Luplow had a breakout second half with the West Virginia Power, and will be a guy to watch next year.

A lot of things have brought on the success at the Major League level, and most of them have been influenced by value. That’s not surprising, since the Pirates have recorded the third most wins over the last three years all while having payrolls in the bottom-third in baseball.

They’ve added some of the worst statistical pitchers in baseball and have turned them into some of the best statistical pitchers just a year later. This growing list includes A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, and now J.A. Happ. They’ve had success on the reliever side with guys like Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, and Joel Hanrahan all giving them discount closers. The process involves great scouting, combined with mechanical adjustments from Ray Searage and Jim Benedict, all supported by a focus on pitch framing and defensive shifts to maximize a pitcher’s impact.

Speaking of that last part, the Pirates have also been one of the leaders in targeting pitch framing catchers, not just at the MLB level, but all throughout their minor league system. Their focus on defense has led to gems such as Russell Martin and Francisco Cervelli. They also got a good backup catcher in Chris Stewart for a very low price.

As for the defense, in terms of Defensive Runs Saved and UZR/150, they’ve been slightly below average this year. There are a few possible reasons for that, such as focusing a bit more on offense, and Pedro Alvarez doing a poor job of learning first base. But the last two years they ranked third in baseball in DRS, despite having low ratings in UZR/150 (which throws out any play involving a shift). This gives a lot of credit to their shifting work, which has been picked up by a lot more teams (the Pirates weren’t the first or only team doing this, but they were one of the leaders).

They’ve also managed to find value in all areas to build their MLB team. Most of the offense came from the farm system, although they added Jung Ho Kang out of Korea to a four-year, $11 M deal after a $5 M posting fee, and he looks like the biggest steal of the off-season. Francisco Cervelli was added in a trade for Justin Wilson (drafted in the fifth round of 2008), and costs less than $1 M this year. And the pitching value has been highlighted above.

It appears the Pirates are now starting to get poached for talent from their front office and coaching staff. Last year, MLB Bench Coach Jeff Banister was hired away by the Texas Rangers to be their new manager. Today, the Miami Marlins announced that former Special Assistant to the GM Marc DelPiano was hired to be their new Vice President of Player Development. There was also news that current Pirates Director of Player Personnel Tyrone Brooks would interview for the vacant Milwaukee Brewers GM position.

It’s no surprise that this is happening. Look at what the Pirates have been doing the last few years. Look at how they’ve done this. They’re not just throwing money at players and buying success. They’re finding smart, creative ways to win that not many teams are utilizing. The Pirates are on the forefront of the newest trend in baseball: smart spending. This trend is why the Dodgers — a team with more money than any other team, and probably most pairs of two teams combined — hired Andrew Friedman to run their operations, looking to make the best use of their money.

When the Rangers hired Banister this year, their General Manager mentioned that Banister made them realize that they were below-average in the analytics department. Banister brought the practice of defensive shifts to Texas, and that could be why the Rangers went from 26th in DRS last year (-43) to 11th this year (10). Most of their infield is the same, with Elvis Andrus at shortstop, Roughned Odor at second, and Adrian Beltre at third. Andrus has gone from -13 DRS to -3. Odor has gone from -11 to -5. Beltre has gone from 9 to 19. And their primary first baseman this year has been Mitch Moreland, who has a 3 DRS, after zero last year and much less playing time at the position. That’s almost a +30 DRS gain from their primary infielders, which would amount to three extra wins.

So you can only imagine what the Marlins are thinking when they hire DelPiano to oversee player development after watching the Pirates churn out top 25 prospects the last few years and still maintain a top farm system. You can also only imagine what Milwaukee might be interested in with Brooks after seeing the Pirates soar past them in the standings, and project to be at the top of the NL Central for the foreseeable future, while seeing their own short and long-term chances take a huge dive.

I don’t even think DelPiano and Brooks (assuming he’s hired away, and eventually I think he will be, even if it’s not by the Brewers) will be the only guys to go. The Pirates have opened some eyes. They proved what they’ve done isn’t a fluke. And now we’re going to see a lot of teams hiring Pittsburgh personnel away, hoping to copy aspects of the Pirates’ success in order to try and have the same success for their own teams.

The Pirates have proven to be successful time and time again when it comes to finding talented prospects, or finding reclamation project pitchers, or finding steals in free agency and in the trade market. They’re now going to need to show that they can continue finding talented personnel to continue making all of this happen.

**Brewers to Interview Pirates Director of Player Personnel Tyrone Brooks. As I said above, I can see Brooks eventually being hired away.

**Giles: How Did the Pirates End Up Destined For Another Wild Card Game? Ed Giles makes his debut on the site, looking at how the Pirates ended up in their current position, heading to their third straight Wild Card game.

**Could Steven Brault Be the Exception For a 2016 Promotion to Indianapolis? He’s been one of the breakout pitchers this year, and could be the exception to the “150 inning” trend when it comes to a promotion to Triple-A.

**Pirates Release 2016 Schedule. A breakdown of the schedule, which starts and ends with St. Louis.

**Morning Report: Pirates’ Farm System Produces Four Playoff Teams. The playoffs start today. We’ll have live coverage from Indianapolis and Altoona, while John Dreker and I will be following all of the action and listening to the two West Virginia teams.

  • Tim – The Pirates have 4 teams in the minor league playoffs with top prospects like Bell, Glasnow, Meadows, Garcia, etc. How does that compare with other franchises? Anybody else have 4 or more? Any top prospects on other minor league playoff teams?

  • Tim,
    Do you have any insight into how instrumental DelPiano and Brooks are to the success that the Pirates have seen. Not long ago the Pirates considered Dave Littlefield to be a wizard because he worked for the Marlins who had seen recent success. Obviously success by association didn’t flow from Littlefield. Who are the real contributors on the Pirates front office and organizational staff? Can you rank them in order of importance and influence, kind of like you do for the top 30 prospects? There are no statistics generated to be able to judge them obviously. But surely some men contribute more than others and it would be interesting to know who the very key losses would be. For instance I think that Hurdle misses Banister badly and the combination of assistant coaches that replaced Banister, hasn’t worked particularly well. Should be interesting to see if the Pirates promote from within or replace from outside the losses in their managerial ranks.

    • Looking forward to hearing Tim’s thoughts, but I personally think individual personnel moves aren’t terribly important when it comes to something as inexact as scouting and player development. One person just simply doesn’t make *that* much of a difference.

      Remember when this was a big f’ng deal?

      If the sky is actually falling, it sure is taking it’s good ol time.

      • NMR : not only when Leuzinger left, but do you remember when Perry Hill left and it also was going to bring the sky down around the organization ? At least according to some geniuses in the Pitts. media…..initials only would probably give him away.

      • Interesting step back into time. You have a great memory, I had completely forgotten that! Obviously the ship didn’t stop sailing when he left. But maybe he wasn’t as key as he thought he was.

        The baseball operations and coaches have maybe 80+ people who might make significant contributions. So it’s a complex question that I asked. But in any group of people meeting in a room there is always a minority that has the most quality input to the discussion. That’s what I was looking for, who are the management stars?

        Obviously Neil H. will garner opportunities when his contract is up, if he hasn’t already. To my mind he’ll be a key re-signing priority.

    • Hilarious comment. One of the top 4 teams in all of baseball and you think Hurdle ” misses Bannister badly ” ? Wow !

      • Glad you had a good laugh. Top 4 team status doesn’t mean all parts are operating with equal efficiency. I love Clint’s leadership of the clubhouse, I’m not as enthralled with his game time decisions. Last year, when watching games on TV, it was common to see Clint consulting Bannister. Who does Clint consult with now? Not much of anyone except Searage for pitching issues.

        Actually the Pirates could be Top 1 status if they could ever get all their parts and pieces clicking at top efficiency at the same time for an extended period, Clint included.

        • If you seriously think Clint doesnt talk to anyone much but Searage now, you arent watching the game very closely. I’ve seen him discussing something in a passing shot of the dugout with nearly every bench coach.

          Seems like we are remembering history to be him always in the ear of Banny asking what to do.

          • Yeah, looks like we are seeing different things. Not that it matters much.

            • Mercer can't hit RHP
              September 10, 2015 6:59 am

              It matters a lot to the Three Stooges, Leo, NMR and Lukie. Their opinions and observations are the only ones that matter because they’re soooo much smarter than anyone else. Just ask ’em.

              • Poor Leo is a tier below the other two. He finds it difficult to express an original thought, and has to content himself by playing the adoring wingman.

                • Mercer can't hit RHP
                  September 10, 2015 10:27 am

                  Lol. Man that’s the truth. He’s AA material alright. I think they bring him along just to buy the drinks and then drive them home.

  • The second wild card was added in 2012. The Pirates weren’t in the playoffs that year.

  • Not long ago, I KNEW that only a salary cap would solve the dilemma facing this franchise. Now I know differently.

    I know now that all this franchise needed was Bob Nutting.

    • Let’s not forget there was a time when the media talking heads were loudly calling for Nutting to clean house after the consecutive second half collapses. We are all fortunate Nutting did his review and stayed the course.

      • But michael, if you reeeaaallly knew what you’re talking about you’d know it was the media who forced Nutting into that review resulting in massive changes to organizational culture and thus the success you’re currently seeing.

        -says the self-congratulatory media looking for a way not to look like they were completely, utterly wrong.

        This topic deserves a Friday Insider.

        • With a few exceptions the talking heads are incredibly shallow and quick to forget any of their bizarre positions. It is a different game they play.

        • Ha ha…++++ NMR. And if you watch and read closely, you will see that many in the Pitts area media STILL think they know more than the Manager and the GM. Like some of the commenters I see here and on other sites.

    • If one can make money in the newspaper business in the age of the interwebs and operate a ski resort in an age of global warming, one must be a particularly astute businessperson. For all the complaints about his stinginess, Nutting – in his other business ventures – has continually found high value in his acquisitions. While he’ll never run the Pirates at a loss, it appears that his long-term vision ain’t so bad after all.

    • Fixed salaries, don’t fix stupid leadership. Never has, never will.

  • Pirates have created a culture of winning while having fun. Sure they have supremely talented players on the roster, but they also have many guys who are exceeding what most thought possible, too.

    This team is a joy to watch night in and night out. They’re not perfect, no team is, but they do have a perfect outlook on the game.

    Thanks for yet another fun ride this year Pirates!

    • Scott: Good comments, and you only have to look at the team they are facing right now – the Reds – to realize the truth of it all. They are paying McCutchen money to Bruce, they have a big contract with Phillips, and next year Votto jumps from $14 mil to $20 mil. With the team they fielded to start 2015, the Cards, Cubs, and Pirates should all be chasing the Reds.

      • Votto is currently a bargain a $14MM. Can you imagine him batting in the middle of the Pirates lineup?

        • 14 mil for this yr…sure. But how would you like to pay him 25 mil/yr from 2018-2023 when he’s 39? Regardless of salary inflation, that is insane. His contract is basically considered untradable in the industry from everything I’ve heard.

          • I’d rather take my chances on his contract at that level at that age than just about any other player with a massive contract making that amount at that age. I do agree with you for the most part though I don’t think it’s untradeable.

            • CIN better put a contender of the field quick or that mega deal to Votto is gonna have some wasted years during the prime and pray he doesnt regress due to age around age 36+.

            • Til he gets banned for life for murdering an ump. Wtf is with that guy? And this is the third time this yr I’ve had to listen to the reds announcers go on and on about how he never loses his cool. Ummm they might wanna go to the tape on that thought…

  • BallHeadWonder
    September 9, 2015 4:26 am

    Awesome Article!!! I’m cool with the Front Office folks leaving!! I think there are enough qualified suits that can move up and fill in from the bottom to keep us tight!! Baseball is all about the pitching!!! And if ANYONE even thinks about messing with Uncle Ray, it’s about to be a problem!!! We have to Back the Brinks Truck up to keep him and Jimmy B!!! Unless they have some Hot Shot Pitching coach that is equal or better than Uncle Ray, we need to do all we can to keep him HAPPY!!! Real Talk!!!