Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Looking at 20-year results over the past forty years of baseball history (1973-2012) shows us that certain teams have been masters of their fate while others have taken it on the hoof, so to speak. The movement toward greater separation between winners and losers--a feature that was dominant in pre-expansion baseball--is captured in the chart of selected teams at right.

In 1992, the twenty-year trends showed only one team (the very late-blooming expansion team in Seattle) playing below .450, and only two teams (out of 28) playing under .460. The top team over the previous twenty years (the Dodgers) had just a .539 WPCT over that span.

In 2012, there were two teams playing well under .450, and four teams playing under .460. The short-term good news was that several of the teams near the bottom of the twenty-year standings (the Orioles, the Tigers, the Rays) were bouncing back from lean times.

Those two twenty-year doormat teams, however, were franchises that had been in the top fourth of performance in the 1973-92 time frame, a period that straddled the first decade and a half of free agency--a period that was remarkably free from dynasties. While the 80s had many problems (labor strife, collusion, etc.), the decade produced a more competitive brand of baseball than at any other point in the game's history.

But two of these teams, at the opposite edges of the Midwest, the Royals and Pirates, became the poster children for the next wave of baseball's squeeze play, becoming the doormats, the teams that wouldn't innovate, who couldn't manufacture a balanced crop of talent to compete and by the beginning of the new century seemed to exist solely to collect revenue sharing income.

(The teams that rose up to become consistent winners in this time frame, the Braves and the Giants, weren't known for "innovation" as it's been defined by the little world of neo-sabermetrics--they simply built around existing top talent and emphasized pitching. Which is something that neither the Royals nor the Pirates did.)

So here we are, with the 2013 season looming, and we see most folks in the field remaining obsessed with the Royals. (Recall how much of the "movement" hails from the region.) People are still living and dying--mostly the latter--with those powder-blue buffoons with the fruitlessly fruitful farm system.

Why not obsess about the Pirates instead? Crissakes, here's a team with just as much "Wallow Quotient." (We'll have to quantify that someday. Someday...) We look at the Pirates and say, "Ar-r-r-r-r...", but that's only because some impish person gave us a "Pirate Encyclopedia" T-shirt and we have been unable to see straight ever since.

Percentage of innings given to pitchers
age 25 or younger, NL, 2010-12
Let's try that again. We see a Pirate team that has stockpiled a group of young pitchers with significant potential (Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Kyle McPherson, Justin Wilson, Jeff Locke, Phil Irwin) and spent much of last year with a series of veterans in their starting rotation. Over the past three seasons, the Pirates have been exceptionally loath to give a young pitcher (age 25 or younger) a chance in their rotation, while teams like the Braves, D-backs, A's, Rays, and Reds have pushed hard in that direction with significant success.

So, in 2013, we can say that the Pirates really need to sift through this solid corps of pitching prospects and bring them along. Three of these guys should be part of their rotation this year--we're figuring on Cole, McPherson and Irwin--and only by aggressively implementing such an approach are they going to be able to determine which of these guys will be making the type of contribution to their success that will have a sustained payoff.

Unlike the Royals, whose development strategies have focused on pitchers with high-risk profiles (read: marginal control), Pittsburgh's current crop is for the most part built around hurlers with excellent control. They have that rare situation where an entire group has managed to advance into the high minors without shedding that characteristic, as is so often the case with pitching prospects.

The Pirates are on the brink of something, but they need to risk walking that plank, and they need to do it now. They need to develop an ace (maybe two) out of this crop and move our pal Wandy Rodriguez down the depth chart (we love the guy, as you know, but he's a #3 guy on a winning team).

Sometimes you have to be bold. The Pirates proved last year that a sidelong, sideways approach to sneaking up on the league had too many leaks in the bottom of the boat.

This is the year of living dangerously for them. Here. Right now.