The Historically Dreadful Pittsburgh Pirates

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 reliever Bryan Morris singling against Alfredo Simon to lead off a seventh inning for some reason:


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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

43 Responses to “The Historically Dreadful Pittsburgh Pirates”

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  1. Retirenutting says:

    Nit-picking par excellence!

    +10 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. Simon says:

    Hyun-Jin Ryu has 1.7 pitching WAR and 0.2 hitting WAR this year. (Rookie of the Year?)

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    • Simon says:

      Also of note, Ryu’s wRC+ is a full 85 points higher than Luis Cruz’s.
      (In case you don’t know who Luis Cruz is, he was the Dodgers’ Opening Day third baseman.)

      +7 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Bob says:

        Please tell us more about how a Dodgers pitcher’s wRC+ relates to a Dodgers backup third baseman in an article about Pirates starting pitchers.

        *leans in, rests chin on palms*

        +8 Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. Benzedrine says:

    AJ Burnett use to be an above-average hitting pitcher when he was in Florida. He also had Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie inscribed bats I believe.

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  4. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Has there ever been a correlation bewteen good pitcher hitting teams and winning?

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    • Ian R. says:

      I’m going to guess there’s SOME correlation because A) all other things being equal, a team with good hitting pitchers will probably win one or two more games than a team with bad hitting pitchers and B) good hitting pitchers may be better athletes, which could correlate somehow with better pitching.

      I’m also going to guess that the correlation is very, very weak. It may have been stronger a generation ago when pitchers stayed deeper in games and thus got more at-bats, but the rise of pinch-hitting and relief specialists has probably dampened the impact.

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    • Bill says:

      The Glavine-Maddux-Smoltz triumvirate could always hit well. Those teams won a lot. But, this is why I can’t stand NL baseball. Even good hitting pitchers are terrible. I want to see hitters hit and pitchers pitch. While it’s fun to see hitters pitch from time to time, I sure as hell don’t want to see it every day in key situations. Yet, the NL makes pitchers hit in these situations. It takes away from the game.

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      • Iron says:

        A sport with 9 defensive specialists and 9 DH’s might also be interesting, but that sport also is not baseball.

        +13 Vote -1 Vote +1

        • Devil's Advocate says:

          How come NL pitchers don’t have to catch? How come shortstops don’t have to pitch? If they were REAL baseball players, every player would be required to play every position. That’s true baseball, right?

          That’s how stupid the “why not have 9 DHs?!” argument sounds.

          In general: If your argument hinges on the “slippery slope” train of thought rather than the actual change that’s being discussed, you’ve already lost.

          -7 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Urban Shocker says:

        They #1 hitting team over the last 20 years in fact, with 2.1 WAR! (Second was the 2010 Brewers with 1.9).

        Jeff, how did you set Min. PA? The box is greyed out or something.

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  5. Scraps says:

    Funny, I remember Pittsburgh as a pretty good hitting-pitcher staff. Rick Rhoden, John Candelaria, especially Don Robinson. Course, you may notice that my memory is 1980 or so.

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  6. DirtWoman says:

    I see Dejan Kovacevic citing this article as yet another example of Neal Huntington’s gross incompetence and yet another omen that the Pirates are doomed to crash and burn.

    Bonus prediction: he’ll end said column with “Hoka Hey!”

    +12 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Leo Walter says:

      Very well said DirtWoman ! And 6 months later,after somewhat having to eat those words,he will admit that deep down he truly loves Bob Nutting,it is just the other two guys he thinks ought to be fored and he have dual responsibilities.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. gards710 says:

    “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.”

    That’s it! Bryce Harper must die (this is not an actual threat on Mr. Harper’s life).

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. Ryan D. says:

    Rhoden and Don Robinson could rake. Mike Hampton was probably the best hitting pitcher I’ve seen. Carlos Zambrano is probably second.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • chief00 says:

      Career triple slashes, because we must:
      Carlos Zambrano .238/.248/.388
      Mike Hampton .246/.294/.356
      Clint Barmes .247/.295/.384

      +8 Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. Dave (UK) says:

    James McDonald has a pretty nice swing in those GIFs

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Wobatus says:

      McDonald started his career in pro ball as a pitcher I but at 19 they tried him in the outfield in rookie ball. He was a pretty bad hitter but they must have seen something.

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      • matt w says:

        I think they were just trying to keep him on the field while he was recovering from tendinitis, although this is a pretty unusual rehab path.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. Gyre says:

    That is the most backassward way of climbing on the Pirates bandwagon I’ve ever seen. Where were you when AJ was still a year away? Well find a spot and hold on dearly!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  11. blwfish says:

    I remember being amazed that Hampton carried a BA over .300 in 2005 with the Braves (over half a season or so). I’m even more amazed that he had two full seasons over .300, including a .344 in Colorado and .311 the year he went 22-4 in Houston. What I didn’t know until I looked it up was how streaky he was: in ’97 he hit .137, and that wasn’t the only year he closely resembled a pitcher at the plate. Averaged out his wRC+ was still only 67!

    I’ve watched a few Pirates games this year and I hadn’t noticed just how historically bad their pitchers were at the plate.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. Terry Forster says:

    Pirate pitchers can’t hit their way out of a big fat tub of goo.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  13. pat rocket says:

    Rick Wise could hit. I used to have him hit sixth in my SI MLB game back in the 70s.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  14. Larry Kraus says:

    makes me long for the Pirates pitchers of the 70’s.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  15. Larry Kraus says:

    what is missing as a point of view in this article id the fact the Pirates are in first place in spite of their pitchers hitting. if their pitchers by some miracle start hitting enough to make their individual batting averages rise to the nose bleed heights of .100 who knows what they could do. go buco’s

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  16. Neal says:

    Gerrit Cole got another base hit last night, I think we could be seeing the rise of the savior of the Pirates pitching staff.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  17. 21inRight says:

    Maybe this explains a bit more why Hurdle insists on pulling pitchers after the fifth inning when they’re sailing. Although, it seems to me I’ve seen them starting the defensive half of the inning more often than not.

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  18. Antonio Bananas says:

    So what you’re saying is, they’ve under performed.

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  19. maguro says:

    Bucco hurlers have been mashing since this article was published. wOBA is all the way up to .110, wRC+ up to -39!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

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