We’ll have plenty to write about later today, with Ben Cherington being named the new GM of the Pirates. First, I want to point out an interesting article that went up this morning.
Craig Edwards at FanGraphs studied baseball’s competitive balance problem, looking at the impact of “superteams” and the impact of tanking on the other end of the spectrum.
The article showed that competitive balance was cyclical, but that the recent years have seen some of the fastest rise in imbalance and the biggest imbalance differences since the league started expanding in the early 60s.
The article focuses on the top and bottom, but leaves out the middle. I’ve been writing about these “superteams” for a few years now, and first started using that term in early 2018 when asking Bob Nutting how the Pirates could contend against superteams going forward. The biggest problem with this trend comes if you’re in the middle. I’m not talking about the Wild Card contenders who could also contend for a division. I’m talking about the Wild Card contenders who could also contend for a below .500 record. I’m talking about teams like the Pirates from 2016-19.
The Wild Card needs to be a near-guarantee if you’re going to try to contend, because the divisions are even more difficult to win now. The NL Central was the easiest division this year, with 91 wins taking it. However, four of the other five divisions were won by 100+ game winners, and the other one was led by 97 wins.
Unless you’re one of the teams that can shoot for around 100 wins, you’re going to be one of the many teams shooting for a Wild Card spot. And even that is more difficult. The lowest Wild Card team this year was Milwaukee, at 89 wins. The Nationals were next at 93, followed by the Athletics and Rays at 96 and 97.
This means you needed at least 89 wins to make it to the playoffs in the NL. If you were in the American League, you needed at least 96 wins. That led to a situation where the Nationals won the World Series as a Wild Card team with 93 wins, while the Indians missed the playoffs entirely with the same record in the AL.
It was similar the year before. The lowest win total among playoff teams was 90 wins. That has gone up a few wins from when the Pirates were last contending, where 87-88 wins could get you in the playoffs as a Wild Card team, and didn’t put you far off from most division winners.
Simply put, the days of shooting for .500, and hoping you go a few games over and sneak into the playoffs are long gone. If you’re trying to contend, you need to aim for around 90 wins, and your hope needs to be that you go a few games over and potentially sneak into a division title. That’s the challenge Ben Cherington will have going forward.
SONG OF THE DAY
By John Dreker
Seven former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, plus two trades of note.
On this date in 1998 the Pittsburgh Pirates traded pitcher Ricardo Rincon to the Cleveland Indians for outfielder Brian Giles. The trade was a one-sided win for the Pirates as Giles was an all-star outfielder and Rincon was a lefty reliever, who pitched 207 games for the Indians but only amassed 154.1 innings over four seasons. Giles hit .308 with 501 runs scored and 506 RBIs in 715 games with the Pirates. His 1.018 OPS is the highest in team history.
Also on this date in 1947 the Pirates traded pitcher Al Lyons, outfielder Jim Russell and catcher Bill Salkeld to the Boston Braves in exchange for outfielder Johnny Hopp and infielder Danny Murtaugh. The Pirates had an edge in the production each team received after the trade, but it get a little more one-sided when you consider what Murtaugh did after the trade as a manager of the Pirates, which may not have happened if he wasn’t acquired in this deal.
Rocky Nelson, outfielder who had two stints with the Pirates, first in 1951 and then again from 1959-61. He was a .270 hitter in 337 games with the Pirates. During the 1960 season, he posted a .300 batting average and in the World Series, he went 3-for-9, including a two-run homer in game seven.
Mark Petkovsek, relief pitcher for the 1993 Pirates. Had a 3-0 record in 26 appearances, despite posting a 6.96 record. He played nine years in the majors, starting and ending his career with the Texas Rangers.
Jim Shellenback, pitcher for the 1966-67 and 1969 Pirates. In his three partial seasons in Pittsburgh, he went 1-1, 3.35 in two starts and 14 relief outings. He played nine years in the majors, going 16-30, 3.81 in 454 innings. His uncle pitched for the 1919 Chicago White Sox team known as the Black Sox.
Curt Raydon, right-handed pitcher for the 1958 Pirates. Played just one season in the majors, going 8-4, 3.62 in 20 starts and 11 relief appearances. He came to the Pirates organization from the Milwaukee Braves as part of a six-player and cash deal for Danny O’Connell following the 1953 season. Raydon spent a total of eight seasons in the minors, the last seven in the Pirates organization. In his first year of pro ball while still with the Milwaukee organization, he went 11-7, 3.50 in 20 starts and 12 relief appearances for Jacksonville of the South Atlantic League. In 1955, he won 14 games for New Orleans of the Southern Association, and in 1959 Raydon went 7-4, 2.92 for Columbus of the International League.
Gene Mauch, middle infielder for the 1947 Pirates. He hit .300 in 16 games for the Pirates. Mauch was involved in two big trades with the Pirates and Dodgers. The first one in mid-May of 1947 and then again in December that year. Hit .239 in 304 games over nine seasons in the majors. Managed for 26 seasons in the majors, winning 1902 games and twice finishing in first place.
Roy Wise, pitcher for the 1944 Pirates. He made just two appearances in the majors, coming on back-to-back days in mid-May of 1944 for the Pirates. Wise allowed three runs over three innings and was released by Pittsburgh at the end of June. That season was also his only year of pro baseball.
Bill Hughes, pitcher for the Pirates on September 15, 1921. Not too many men could claim to be a 300 game winner by 1939 and none could do it with as little fanfare as Hughes. He won 302 career games, all of them in minor league ball. He played 20 seasons and had two 20-win seasons during that time. His big league career consisted of his one late-season appearance for the Pirates.