First Pitch: Pirates Stack Up Well Against the League with Their First Round Picks

I had some extra time by getting ahead with articles, so I decided to answer a question posed about a week ago now. Six days ago we saw the results from all of the first round picks made by the Pittsburgh Pirates since 1965. The quick summary is that 64% of qualified picks (I’ll explain below) made the majors and they averaged 7.1 WAR each. Someone wanted to know how they ranked compared to other teams.

Major League Baseball consisted of 20 teams in 1965. So to get a comparable sample size, I’m going to stick to those 20 teams. The qualified draft picks for this exercise are only the picks that signed and it doesn’t include guys who are still working their way through the minors.

I don’t know the players in other systems as well, so to make this a bit easier for me to do, I’m not going to include any picks made in the last five years, whether they made the majors or not. Five years is a decent amount of time for a first round pick to make the majors, so since I’m doing this for every team, it levels the playing field. Readjusting the Pirates results to make it fair, the success rate drops from 64% to 63%. The 7.1 WAR average per qualified picks now rounds up to 7.2.

With that in mind, here are the other 19 teams, which I listed in order by WAR per qualified pick. I also included the success rate of getting those picks to the majors, which is in parenthesis.

Athletics, 10.6 (74%)

Pirates, 7.2 (63%)

Orioles, 7.1 (60%)

Angels, 6.7 (78%)

Red Sox 6.7 (66%)

Mets, 6.5 (77%)

Phillies, 6.3 (69%)

Cardinals, 6.3 (64%)

White Sox, 5.9 (66%)

Braves, 5.9 (65%)

Astros, 5.9 (60%)

Dodgers, 5.6 (56%)

Rangers, 5.4 (76%)

Twins, 5.4 (63%)

Tigers, 5.3 (65%)

Yankees, 5.3 (56%)

Giants, 5.2 (79%)

Indians, 5.1 (60%)

Reds, 5.1 (59%)

Cubs, 4.8 (66%)

As you can see, the Pirates do an average job of getting qualified picks to the majors, but they have the second best overall results for the original 20 draft teams from 1965. They’re a wide margin behind the Oakland A’s, but it’s still second place. I’m probably as surprised as you are after seeing those figures because I lived through Dave Littlefield, who had to be begged to draft Andrew McCutchen. Drafting Bonds really helped, but every other team had 50 years to compile good players, so that’s a big sample size and every team looks a lot worse when you overlook their best pick…except the A’s, they own the first round.

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THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY

By John Dreker

Five former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, including a first baseman for the 1925 World Series champs.

Hal Smith, catcher for the 1965 Pirates. When he played for the Pirates in 1965, it was the first time he played pro ball since 1961 with the Cardinals. After signing with the Cardinals in 1949 as an amateur free agent, Smith spent six seasons in the majors with St Louis (1956-61). He was a two-time All-Star, playing a total of 566 games, hitting .258 with 23 homers and 172 RBIs. In both, 1959 and 1960, he threw out more runners than any other catcher in the NL and he had the highest caught stealing percentage (51.5%) during the 1960 season. After hitting .248 with ten RBIs in 45 games in 1961, Smith became a coach for the Cardinals. He then worked two years in their minor league system before joining the Pirates in 1965 as a coach. When injuries behind the plate struck Pittsburgh, Smith was put on the active roster. He started a game on July 1st, going 0-for-3 at the plate, then came in as a defensive replacement in three other games before moving back to full-time coaching. He was with the Pirates organization through the 1967 season and was playing for the team during that last Spring Training, with word that he might be activated as a player if the other catchers weren’t up to the task. He was never activated though and the following year he moved on to a coaching job with the Reds.

Lou Tost, pitcher for the Pirates on April 24, 1947. He first played minor league ball in 1934, but didn’t make his Major League debut until eight years later for the Boston Braves. In 1941, at age 30, Tost went 13-10, 3.85 in 47 games for the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League. He was traded to the Braves in late September of 1941 and saw plenty of action during his rookie season the next year. In 35 games, 22 as a starter, he went 10-10, 3.53 in 147.2 innings. The next season he pitched just three games for the Braves before the military came calling. Tost missed all of 1944-45, then returned to the minors during the 1946 season. While playing for Seattle of the PCL, he went 16-13, 2.70 in 240 innings. He was in camp with the Braves in 1947 until the Pirates purchased his contract in late March. It came as a surprise to the people in Boston, who thought they were giving up a good pitcher for nothing more than cash. His Pirates career didn’t turn out so well though. On April 24th, he came in to pitch the 8th inning against the Cubs, with the Pirates down 5-4. Tost faced six batters, allowing one run on three hits in his only inning of work. Shortly after that game, he was sent to Indianapolis, where he finished out the year. He played another five seasons in the minors before retiring in 1952, ending a 16-year pro career.

Al Niehaus, first baseman for the 1925 Pirates. He has a breakout season in the minors in 1924, hitting .366 with 53 extra base hits for the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern League. Prior to that he had played three years in the Florida State League, a lower level of the minors. Niehaus batted .332 for Jacksonville in 1922 and .364 for Bradenton the following season. He was signed by the Chicago Cubs after that breakout season in 1924, but he never played for them. Pittsburgh acquired him from the Cubs on October 27, 1924 in a six-player deal (three going each way) that included Wilbur Cooper, Hall of Famer Rabbit Maranville, Vic Aldridge, Charlie Grimm and George Grantham, all much bigger name players than Niehaus. He became the Pirates everyday first baseman just over a week into the season, then lost the job after three weeks once his batting average fell to .205 on May 12th. Pittsburgh signed star veteran first baseman Stuffy McInnis on May 29th, signaling the end with the Pirates for Niehaus. The Pirates traded him to the Cincinnati Reds on May 30,1925 in exchange for pitcher Tom Sheehan. Niehaus hit .299 in 51 games for the Reds, then returned to the minors to play his last four years of pro ball before retiring. Barely two years after his career ended, he passed away from pneumonia at 32 years old.

Harry Gardner, pitcher for the 1911-12 Pirates. He made his debut with the Pirates on April 17th, pitching in relief of Babe Adams, who gave up six runs in the first four innings. Gardner was said to look nervous and hesitant. At one point his slow delivery allowed a runner to steal home, but he settled down and allowed just that one run over his four innings of work. The team was impressed with how hard he threw, but he wasn’t ready for a full-time Major League job. He would end up being used 13 times during that season by the Pirates, three times as a starter, going 1-1, 4.50 in 42 innings. In 1912, he was again a bullpen pitcher for the Pirates, though he didn’t last long. After one unimpressive outing in which he came in with the Pirates up 7-5 in the 7th inning and pitched one inning, allowing three inherited runners to score, as well as three runs of his own, Gardner was sent to the minors. Including that 1912 season, he pitched another 13 years in the minors without ever making it back to the big leagues. He was a 206-game winner in the minors, eight times amassing 17 or more victories in a season.

As a side note for Gardner, his career stats are listed wrong everywhere you look. During his one outing in 1912, he’s credited with six unearned runs while recording just one out. My own research found that he recorded three outs and allowed three runs, while the other three runs charged to him were actually inherited runners.

Bill Eagan, second baseman for the 1898 Pirates. He spent most of his 14-year pro career in the minors, getting three different shots at the majors with three different teams over a seven-year period. In 1891, he played for the St Louis Browns of the American Association. As their everyday second baseman, he played well defensively, but wasn’t much of a hitter. Eagan then played six games for the 1893 Chicago Colts (Cubs) before returning to the minors for all of the next four years. He was the second baseman for Pittsburgh early in the 1898 season and he would hit .328 with 14 runs scored in 19 games, but on June 3rd he was replaced by newly acquired Tom O’Brien. Eagan never played in the majors again. Five days after the O’Brien trade, he was sold to Louisville, a team managed by Fred Clarke, who would go on to have a Hall of Fame career for the Pirates as a player and manager. Clarke denied the deal once he found out Eagan was injured during his last game, so he was sent home. He ended up signing with Syracuse of the Eastern League ten days later and was back on the field by June 19th. He played two more years in the minors before he retired from baseball.

John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.

When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.

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