Now that we’ve seen the other two 75-win teams, let’s take a look at the miserable year of the 75-87 Pittsburgh Pirates. Just two seasons removed from an appearance in the National League Wild Card Game, the Pirates failed to look competitive, despite a brief midseason push.
The season started on a sour note when outfielder Starling Marte was busted for PEDs and sentenced to an 80-game ban. Coming off an All-Star campaign in 2016 and an outstanding performance in the World Baseball Classic, Marte was expected to be a major contributor for the Pirates. Yes, Marte is just one man, but the effect of his absence was felt across the board.
Outfielder Andrew McCutchen got off to a slow start, but picked things up in July when the Pirates went on a run to win 12 of 14 games and put themselves within striking distance of the floundering (at the time) Chicago Cubs. But it wasn’t meant to be as Pittsburgh crashed back to Earth and immediately went on a six-game losing streak.
As a team, the Pirates were weak offensively. The only team in all of Major League Baseball they hit better for power than was the San Francisco Giants, with 151 homers and .386 slugging. They finished 14th in the NL in team batting average and 13th in doubles and runs scored. It’s tough to win if you can’t get on base or score.
The Pirates played 113 games with a a run differential of four runs or fewer, including 44 one-run games. With nearly no offensive output, the pitching staff was primarily responsible for keeping games close. Pittsburgh pitchers worked to a team ERA of 4.22, which was seventh in the NL. By holding opponents to an average of 4.51 runs per game put the Pirates at a run differential of just -0.39 runs per game. Not bad for a team with no offense.
When you play so many close games, the little things make a huge difference. The Pirates were relatively clean defensively and committed just 99 errors on the season (five more than the league average), but they struggled to convert batted balls into outs. The defense simply lacked the range to get to balls that were hit into play. This could mean a slow defense, incorrect shifts on hitters or pitchers made it too easy for hitters. The latter seems the least likely to me, because the pitching staff probably would have given up more than just 1.1 homers per game (tied for second fewest in MLB).
Bad defense can be fixed, but it takes time and/or money. McCutchen is past his prime and isn’t the elite center fielder he once was. It might be time for Pittsburgh to consider moving Marte to center full time and investing in another quality outfielder to fill left field. Acquiring free agent J.D. Martinez is a long shot, but his ability on defense, combined with his bat, would go a long way to fixing the Pirates and putting them back in the mix in the NL Central.
Photo by Brigham Berthold