The perception of the Pirates has long been massively different inside Pittsburgh than outside Pittsburgh.
For years, I’ve seen arguments in Pittsburgh about how the Pirates are incompetent. I’ve seen columnists calling for Neal Huntington to be fired before they started winning, during the winning, and after the winning ended. I’ve seen fans wonder why any player would want to play in this organization. And then there’s the massive “Nutting is cheap” movement.
Meanwhile, I’ve talked with people outside of Pittsburgh, and the perception has been much different. Huntington has been regarded as one of the better GMs in the game. The team gets a good reputation with their development and handling of players from scouts I’ve talked with.
I’ve talked with a lot of families of prospects who have said that the culture is like a big family, where the Pirates care about more than just baseball from the players, and where the players and their families are invested in the success and development of everyone else in the system.
As for the “Nutting is cheap” stuff, I don’t hear much about that from inside the game. Then again, 99% of my discussions are about how players are developing, and I’d imagine you’re not going to get much focus on the owner’s spending from scouts as you would from the fans of that franchise. I’ll just chalk this up to that topic not really being a focus of mine when I’m talking with people in the game.
I’ve always felt the current Pirates were a smart organization. Looking at it objectively, this is a group that inherited the worst team in the NL and one of the worst farm systems. After three seasons of losing and rebuilding, they were on the verge of contending. After falling short in 2011 and 2012, they finally got there in 2013, and had one of the best records in baseball over the next few years.
No, they didn’t win anything in the playoffs other than one Wild Card game. Yes, they should have taken a different approach in terms of trying to extend their window.
But that team was objectively a smart organization. They were one of the teams that was ahead of the rest of the league in analytics, which led to the defensive shifts, finding successful reclamation pitchers, and just the extremely difficult task of turning a horrible organization into a team that had one of the best records in baseball for a five year stretch.
I don’t think I’m wrong about the team during that time, and I think that if you were saying Huntington should have been fired during that time, or that they weren’t a well-run organization, you were wrong about that team.
But then there was a shift.
We all know about the bad offseason in 2015-16. The Pirates had a 98 win team in 2015. They added that offseason and boosted payroll to a level that they’ve never seen before. But their additions were bad — low upside guys aimed at bridging the gap to unproven prospects. It was a massive shift away from 2013-15, where they used prospects as a boost, not as the plan, and when they went for higher upside additions.
The Pirates were trying to win now and build for later. And that continued for a few years, and you could argue it’s still going on. It’s difficult to do either one of those things individually, and it’s extremely difficult to do both at the same time.
What made matters worse is that the league changed. When the Pirates started winning, we were still in an era where small market teams could have an extended window of success of more than a few years. Teams like the Athletics, Rays, and Twins showed that. But then the big market teams caught on, and we started seeing super teams — big market teams that tanked when they were bad in order to build themselves up, then added in a big way when they were ready to contend.
You’re even seeing small market teams taking the same approach on a smaller scale. The Milwaukee Brewers have maxed out in payroll at the same level as the Pirates. The Pirates have been over $100 M more times than the Brewers, at a 2-1 score. The Brewers had payrolls in the $60-70 M range the last two years, while the Pirates were around $110 M. The two teams started this year around the same payroll levels. But the Brewers did a better job of managing their resources while losing, and going big when it was time to win.
They went full-on rebuild the last two years. It didn’t matter that they were spending $60 M, because it really doesn’t matter how much you spend or how many wins you have if you’re not making the playoffs. So they kept payroll low, rebuilt, and when it was time to start contending, they added. Since payroll was low, they were able to make some big additions while still spending the same amount that the Pirates were spending after selling off some key pieces.
The Brewers are ahead of the rest of the small market teams here. They’re following the same model the Royals used to win a World Series, which is a good model to follow. And the Pirates are still operating as if a small market team can avoid a big rebuild, and just go for it every year.
Changes on the Field
There were other changes in the game, all seemingly happening around 2015-16. Hitters started focusing on launch angle, attacking fastballs and sinkers in the zone, and adjusting their swing to do more damage on those pitches. The Pirates didn’t have their hitters doing the same thing, believing that gap power was also power, and it was better to have well-rounded hitters who could hit to all fields.
That makes sense if you’re in the era of heavy shifting and balls in play. A guy who hits for 2013-15 era power, strikes out a lot, and hits to one side of the field can be limited. But when that guy figures out how to increase his power, the shifts start to become limited, because you can’t shift people over the wall.
Opposing pitchers started adjusting to this. They threw fewer fastballs and more breaking pitches. The Astros are an example of a team that has done this the best. When they throw fastballs, they are elevated four-seamers in the zone, as a direct counter to the new swings with upward lift.
The Pirates have started to make some adjustments like this. They started focusing more on actual power last year, focusing on adding leverage to swings. Guys in the minors like Kevin Kramer have started to see some results from this approach. They started throwing elevated four-seamers, and just recently have started to abandon the “fastball 60% of the time or more” approach to go with something more like what we’re seeing out of the Astros.
The problem is, they’re late. They were at least two years behind on each trend, and they’re still showing some disdain and reservation about how effective these trends can be.
It’s a New Game
The common trend here is that the Pirates are a few years behind on trends. They used to be ahead of the pack, and that led to their run from 2013-15. But they’re still operating as if it’s 2013-15, and that is a disappointing shift in their standing.
Neal Huntington, even to this day, refuses to use the word “rebuild”, saying that it reflects a five year process with little talent in the system. Yes, that was true of the Pirates’ first rebuild, but that one example doesn’t define the word. That would be like me saying that your first car is going to be your parents’ old Dodge Caravan with wood panels on the side and a sliding door that falls off if you open it too far. Yeah, that was my sad experience, but that doesn’t make it the standard.
The Brewers show that you can commit to a rebuild, you can call it a rebuild, and it won’t take five years or indicate that you have nothing in the system. I’m not saying the Brewers are the standard either, as every case is different. But they’re an easy example to point out how the Pirates can rebuild and be honest about what they’re doing without having to worry about a very limited definition of the word.
But the problem here isn’t that the Pirates are rebuilding and just refusing to use the word. The problem is that they’re still arguably stuck in No Man’s Land, trying to compete while also trying to rebuild. That will probably lead to trades later this month, followed by the team looking to add this offseason in a limited way, with the idea that they’re going for it. And that will probably lead us back to this same place next year, where their best hope is a Wild Card, but they’re just out of reach, and not nearly bad enough to add an impact guy in the draft like the Cubs got with Kris Bryant or the Astros got with Carlos Correa when they went full rebuild.
Making matters worse, they’ve been behind on industry trends on the field in terms of hitting and pitching. Up until recently, they were operating as a team that pitched with a lot of fastballs to generate ground balls that could be maximized with defensive shifts. That worked for them pre-2016, but hitters have figured out how to not hit ground balls on those pitches.
And then pitchers figured out how to counter those hitters with fewer fastballs, more breaking stuff, and largely throwing your best pitches the most.
The Pirates have only recently started to embrace that counter on the pitching side, but they don’t seem to be all-in on the approach like the Astros. And on the hitting side, they’re adding leverage to swings, but they’re definitely not to the point of the Astros where a prospect with power like Jason Martin can just be a fourth piece of a trade.
The team strategy to winning would be a good one if this was still 2013-15, but it isn’t. Their strategy to hitting and pitching was still stuck in pre-2016 until recently, and they haven’t fully embraced the new trends yet.
I believed the Pirates were a smart organization during and prior to their success. I don’t think I was wrong, as that opinion was shared widely outside of Pittsburgh and around the game.
I don’t think they suddenly became a stupid organization after 2015. I just think they didn’t adjust. The game changed, and they stubbornly kept to their old approach, which led to winning in the past, but which won’t lead to winning in the future. They believe that their approach will work, because it worked in the past. And it did. But there’s clear evidence right now — the Cubs, Royals, Astros, Brewers, and so on — that the new shifts in the game are what is working.
You don’t really need to see the success on the other side, though. All you need to see is that the Pirates have stuck to their old approach the last three years, and it definitely hasn’t worked. And it would be foolish to continue thinking that this approach is going to work again, when there’s so much evidence to the contrary, and so much evidence of success with other methods.
The Pirates aren’t a stupid organization. But they might be a stubborn one, or oblivious to the changes in the game right now, and that’s just as bad. And until they embrace those changes, they’re going to keep losing. Because as I’ve already noted, MLB isn’t really set up for small market teams to make mistakes like this.