Everyone agrees that there are good stories in baseball. When it comes to deciding what counts as a good story, though, there are as many definitions as there are people who care to have one. Yet as far as the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates are concerned, the majority are on the same page. The last time the Pirates finished at least .500 was 1992, and they were eliminated from the playoffs on October 14. Two days later, Bryce Harper was born. Now, the Pirates are tied with the Cardinals for the best record in baseball right around the midpoint, and though the Pirates might not be baseball’s best team, they’re well on their way to finishing .500 and then some. One of the keys to enjoying baseball is freshness, and the Pirates’ success feels fresh. They’re a fun team to support and an easy team to bandwagon.
However, while on the surface everything’s peaches, the team success has hidden a team weakness of historical significance. And this doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that Clint Barmes just can’t hit, even though, yeah, he can’t hit. There’s something the Pirates have done worse than anyone else. And I don’t just mean anyone else this season. I mean anyone else at least since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. There’s something at which the Pirates have been historically dreadful.
Remember Gerrit Cole‘s big-league debut? You do if you root for the Pirates. Even if you don’t root for the Pirates, you probably read about it. Cole faced off against Tim Lincecum, and when Cole departed in the seventh, his team was up 5-1. But before that, in the bottom of the second, Cole batted with the bases loaded and singled home a pair of runs. That was incredible, given the Gerrit Cole context. And that was also incredible given the Pittsburgh Pirates context.
Because that was a hit for a Pirates pitcher. There haven’t been many of them. There have been 11, to be precise, and it’s almost July. Pirates pitchers have batted 159 times, and I’ll present to you some numbers:
- .077 batting average
- .097 on-base percentage
- .077 slugging percentage
- .081 wOBA
- -60 wRC+
I used the FanGraphs leaderboards to examine the window between 1947-2013, splitting up individual team seasons. I isolated pitchers hitting, then I set a plate-appearance minimum of 100 to eliminate more recent American League teams with little sample sizes. I was left with a pool totaling 1,043. Here’s where the 2013 Pirates pitchers rank in various statistical categories:
- Batting average: last
- On-base percentage: last
- Slugging percentage: last
- Isolated slugging: last
- wOBA: last
- wRC+: last
Out of all of the pitching staffs, only this year’s Pirates have an ISO of .000. Every other pitching staff had at least one extra-base hit, although it’s worth noting that the second-lowest ISO was posted by the 2012 Pirates. It’s also worth noting that the season is only half over, but the Pirates have been awful in this department, and it’s not even all that close.
Not only do these Pirates pitchers have the worst-ever wRC+; they’ve protected their position with walls and a moat and hot oil. Here are the worst staffs, at batting:
- 2013 Pirates, -60 wRC+
- 2006 Brewers, -49
- 2001 Mets, -44
- 1998 Reds, -43
- 2003 Reds, -42
That’s an 11-point lead, or anti-lead, depending. The Pirates have a 22-point lead over the next-worst team from this season. That team, as it happens, is the Cardinals, and while one could write about their pitchers hitting, too, it’s the Pirates who demand the most attention.
Pirates pitchers this year have hit worse than American League pitchers. They have, to their collective name, three walks and 66 strikeouts. Undoubtedly a contributing factor is that they’re simply opposed to swinging. We’ve only got plate-discipline data here going back to 2002, but since 2002, these Pirates pitchers have the lowest combined swing rate, at 38%. We find the 2008 Marlins pitchers just above 39%. Now, Brett Gardner has a career swing rate of 35%, so that’s not unprecedented, but Gardner has a good eye and a good swing, and the Pirates pitchers have neither. They’ve swung at just over 30% of balls, and they’ve swung at just over 40% of strikes. They don’t swing, because they can’t swing, but both approaches just lead them to outs.
It’s not all bad. James McDonald has reached four times out of 12. But it’s mostly bad. Jeff Locke is 1-for-26, with ten strikeouts. A.J. Burnett is 1-for-27, with 17 strikeouts. Pitcher hitting, of course, isn’t ever going to win or lose a pennant, and pitchers are selected on how well they can pitch, but Pirates pitchers have a -1.0 WAR as hitters. The Brewers and Cubs are at +0.7. It doesn’t not make any difference, which makes it worth observing, and when you observe these Pirates, your eyebrows shoot to your hairline.
I’ve prepared a few .gifs of what I consider to be “remarkable” Pirates pitcher hits. There weren’t many to choose from. Interestingly, FanGraphs credits them with 11 hits, while Baseball-Reference credits them with ten. This is because, one time, in the ninth inning with a short bench, Wandy Rodriguez pinch-hit and singled. Because Rodriguez didn’t do so as a pitcher, technically, he doesn’t count for BR’s purposes. But because Rodriguez is a pitcher normally, he counts for FG purposes. So there’s some disagreement over just how bad this group has been, and I could’ve made them look even worse had I wanted to.
Here, we see Cole picking up his two-run single against Lincecum:
Here’s James McDonald picking up two hits against Cliff Lee in the same game:
Here’s Wandy Rodriguez pinch-hitting:
And, finally, it’s A.J. Burnett’s one hit, which he couldn’t find off the bat:
A.J. Burnett has one hit this season. Had Jason Heyward been paying attention, he could’ve thrown Burnett out at first, because for a few seconds Burnett lost the baseball and assumed it was foul. When Burnett got to first, he wasn’t happy with himself, meaning his one success was ruined. Burnett, at least, has 12 extra-base hits and three homers at the plate in his career, all having come as a Marlin. Since those days ended he’s hit .057. Burnett does one thing well. It’s a good thing he does.
The Pirates, right now, don’t have sole possession of first place. Not that anyone can rightfully complain. Usually, when a team is just missing something, fans lament a particular blown save or something along those lines. “If Closer X didn’t blow Save Y, then this team would be in Position Z.” If Jason Grilli didn’t blow a save on June 19, maybe the Pirates right now would have the best record in baseball. And maybe the Pirates right now would have the best record in baseball if they didn’t have the worst-hitting pitchers in modern baseball history. If one of those arguments is valid, then so are they both.
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