The Pyramid Rating System’s All-Time Pittsburgh Pirates

Andrew McCutchen has been the face of the Pirates almost a decade. (via Keith Allison)

Paul Moehringer’s Pyramid Rating System & All-Time Teams

Aug. 27, 2015: The Pyramid Rating System: JAWS on a Career Scale

March 15, 2016: The Pyramid Rating System: The Results

Aug. 12, 2016: All-Time League and Baltimore Orioles

Sept. 2, 2016: Boston Red Sox

Sept. 28, 2016: Texas Rangers

Oct. 19, 2016: Brooklyn Dodgers

Nov. 30, 2016: Cincinnati Reds

Dec. 15, 2016: 2016 Season Update

Dec. 20, 2016: Seattle Mariners

Jan. 25, 2017: Milwaukee Brewers/Braves

Feb. 2, 2017: Cleveland Indians

Mar. 15, 2017: Los Angeles Dodgers

May 15, 2017: Houston Astros

June 30, 2017: Philadelphia Phillies

Aug. 2, 2017: Kansas City Royals

Up next in the Pyramid System’s All-Time team series is one of the true giants of the series, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

This is a team that has experienced decades of success throughout its history, which in this league is credited all the way back to 1891. As we will soon see, you could be a Hall of Fame player who spent his entire career with the Pirates or close to it and still have to battle for a bench spot on this team. The Pirates have eight MVPs in their trophy case along with 48 Gold Gloves, nine National League pennants, and five World Series titles.

Still, this team  isn’t bulletproof. Similar to division foe  Cincinnati, starting pitching remains elusive. But, like the Reds, the Pirates are able to make up a lot of ground with the quality of their bullpen. Along with the Dodgers and Astros, the Pirates present a solid case for having the best bullpen in the National League. This combination of solid hitting and bullpen depth would make it hard to count them out of any game where an opposing team had anything less than a five-run lead in the ninth inning.

Of any of the six divisions in either league, the NL Central, featuring the Reds, Cubs, Cardinals, Atlanta (only) Braves and Pirates, is the most open in terms of who could in the division title. As for the sixth team in the division, the Miami Marlins, it’s impossible to imagine them being anything better than a 100+ loss team for at least the next 30 years.

Franchises included: Pittsburg Pirates (1891-1911), Pittsburgh Pirates (1912-Present)*refers to common name.

Hall of Famers on 25-man roster: 6

Manager: Fred Clarke

A player/manager in all but one of his 16 seasons leading the Pirates from 1900-1915, Clarke led the team to four National League pennants and ae World Series title and is its all-time leader in club wins.

In terms of his quality as a manager, unfortunately I have very little to offer. It is known that Clarke was a major proponent of getting good “clubhouse guys,” which would help explain why the Pirates sold the great but eccentric Rube Waddell to the Chicago Cubs in the middle of the 1901 season. But beyond that,  information about the type of manager and person Clarke was remains largely elusive.

A more frequent and contemporary choice for this would be Danny Murtaugh, who led the club throughout most of the 1960s and ’70s and remains the only Pirates manager with more than one World Series victory.

Because so little is known about Clarke’s managerial abilities, it’s impossible to fairly compare the two on any basis other than record, so that’s the only criterion taken into account here. Murtaugh will be featured as the team’s bench coach, a job typically reserved for the person I believe was the second-best manager in team history. But if not for poor health, my guess is Murtaugh probably would have overtaken Clarke and perhaps would even have his name enshrined in Cooperstown.

Best Overall Player, Position Player and Hitter: Honus Wagner

While probably not the first, second or even third name that comes to mind when thinking of great shortstops or great players in Pirates history, Honus Wagner remains the greatest at both even 100 years after he last suited up.

At his peak, Wagner was the hands-down best position player in baseball. Wagner was the most feared hitter in the game, leading the National League in OPS eight times between 1900 and 1911, but that’s just one aspect of his offensive game. Wagner also led the National League in stolen bases five times and finished in the top five on four other occasions.

Wagner’s 1908 is rated as the greatest offensive season in major league history, according to the Pyramid Rating System. That year Wagner led the majors in virtually every major offensive category, including batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, total bases and stolen bases.

I question how some from the deadball era would fare in today’s game, but Honus Wagner is not one of them. In this league I would expect Wagner to be the overwhelming favorite to get a starting assignment in the All-Star Game, win the Silver Slugger and along with Mike Schmidt be on the short list of sure-fire NL MVP candidates.

Best Pitcher: Bob Friend

Tasked with being the staff ace is the man who pitched more innings for the Pirates than any other pitcher in team history, Bob Friend. He also is the first man to win an ERA title for a last-place team and  arguably the greatest sub-.500 starting pitcher in major league history.

Although largely forgotten today as one of the premier pitchers of the late ’50s and early ’60s, Friend is a former NL single season leader in wins, ERA, games started, innings pitched, walks per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio.

As great as Friend was, though, in a league such as this he rates as little more than a middle of the rotation starter for a good team and a back end one for a great team. Like their division counterparts in Cincinnati, the Pirates lack a true staff ace, but like the Reds, the Pirates will have one of the best bullpens in baseball.

Because of this it’s possible that Friend may see as much work out of the bullpen as he will a starter, similar to what he did in 1955 when he led the NL in ERA. That year Friend posted a very respectable 3.21 ERA over 20 starts, but a dominating 1.95 ERA in 60 innings of work out of the bullpen over 24 games.

Of Friend’s 568 pitching appearances with the Pirates, 91 came out of the bullpen. With that type of experience and a reputation for durability, Friend may himself in more of a spot starter role than as a full-time reliever or every fifth day starter.

Best Player Not on the Roster Due to the One-Team-Only Rule: Barry Bonds

One of the my favorites things about watching Ken Burns’ The Tenth Inning was seeing all the Barry Bonds Pirates highlights at the start of the documentary. So much has been made of Bonds’ time in San Francisco that his tenure in Pittsburgh has been largely forgotten. It was a nice reminder of how great a player he was even before he took the field as a member of his hometown team.

His name is rarely brought up when mentioning the all-time greats in Pirates history, and when it is, it’s frequently in a negative context. The most enduring clip of his time in Pittsburgh shows him in a heated argument with manager Jim Leyland during spring training.

Ongoing feuds with the media, fans and front office did Bonds very little favor in terms of fan support, but if you can get past his reputation, you will find what I feel to be the most talented player to ever wear a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform.

Much like Babe Ruth, Bonds didn’t establish himself as a superstar with his new club so much as he simply continued his previous success.

With the Pirates, Bonds was a two-time MVP and probably should have beaten out Terry Pendleton for a third MVP award in 1991. From 1990 through 1992, Bonds led the NL in OPS all three seasons and took  home three Silver sluggers and three Gold Gloves.

Because this system is geared to evaluating players at their peak, Bonds’ tenure with the Pirates is viewed as being on par as Joe DiMaggio’s tenure with the Yankees and he is the only multi-time MVP for a team that isn’t on the 40-man roster.

Even without Bonds, the Pirates have plenty of other outfield options with Hall of Famers and MVPs aplenty. But Bonds’ exclusion from the Pirates is one of the bitterest pills any team has to swallow due to the one-team-only rule.

My hope is that Bonds will be better remembered for the highlight reel plays he made in The Tenth Inning than his angry  quotes. Those plays became the backbone of what led the Pirates to three straight division titles, which wouldn’t have come about if not for Bonds.

Pittsburgh Pirates Coaching Staff
Manager Fred Clarke
Bench Coach Danny Murtaugh
First Base Coach Omar Moreno
Third Base Coach Lloyd Waner
Hitting Coach Smoky Burgess
Pitching Coach Jesse Tannehill
Bullpen Coach Bill Harris
Pittsburgh Pirates Starting Lineups
vs RHP vs LHP
Pos B T Name Pos B T Name
SS R R Honus Wagner SS R R Honus Wagner
1B L L Willie Stargell LF R R Ralph Kiner
RF R R Roberto Clemente  C R R Jason Kendall
LF R R Ralph Kiner CF R R Andrew McCutchen
CF R R Andrew McCutchen RF R R Roberto Clemente
2B S R Johnny Ray 2B R R Bill Mazeroski
 C R R Jason Kendall 3B R R Tommy Leach
3B S R Bobby Bonilla 1B L L Willie Stargell
 P R R Bob Friend  P R R Bob Friend
DH vs RHP DH vs LHP
Pos B T Name Pos B T Name
SS R R Arky Vaughan SS R R Honus Wagner
1B L L Willie Stargell LF R R Ralph Kiner
CF R R Andrew McCutchen  C R R Jason Kendall
LF R R Honus Wagner CF R R Andrew McCutchen
DH R R Ralph Kiner RF R R Roberto Clemente
RF R R Roberto Clemente 2B R R Bill Mazeroski
2B S R Johnny Ray DH R R Tony Peña
3B S R Bobby Bonilla 1B L L Willie Stargell
 C R R Jason Kendall 3B R R Tommy Leach
Pittsburgh Pirates Expanded Roster
Pos B T Name
    C R R Manny Sanguillén
   MI R R Gene Alley
   3B R R Pie Traynor
   OF S R Max Carey
OF/1B L L Al Oliver
   OF L L Brian Giles
   OF L R Dave Parker
   OF S R Paul Waner
   SP R R Doug Drabek
   SP L R Pink Hawley
   SP L R Rip Sewell
   SP S L Bob Veale
   RP S L Ramón Hernández
   RP R L Scott Sauerbeck
   RP L L Rod Scurry

Strengths

While they don’t have the deepest lineup in the all-time league, the one-through-five hitters in this Pirates lineup from either side of the plate are about as good as any.

Starting things off for Pittsburgh would be what I would consider the best leadoff hitter the National League has to offer. On top of being a legitimate batting title contender and one of the biggest stolen base threats in either league, Honus Wagner could be the one player capable of hitting more home runs in this league than he did at the height of his career. One look at a photo of him where his powerful arms are visible would indicate why I feel this way.  And, he led the National League in slugging percentage six times during his career.

Of any player from the deadball era, Wagner is the one I would have faith in being able to translate all-time great level ability into a more modern game.

After Wagner things don’t get any easier with either Willie Stargell or Ralph Kiner coming to bat. Both leave a little to be desired defensively, but offensively both were arguably the most fearsome sluggers in the game at their peak. Stargell is a little bit weaker against lefties, but the lefty/righty split for Kiner is all but non-existent. Both would be near the top of the league at their respective positions.

On most clubs, right fielder Roberto Clemente would be considered the best player in team history. With all 18 years of his career in a Pittsburgh uniform, Clemente is viewed in slightly higher regard in this league than he would all-time. Playing in this league I would expect results similar to what he displayed during his playing career, which is to say the favorite to win the Gold Glove and certain to make the All-Star team.

The other big bat in the lineup is still adding to his legacy as a Pirate. Former MVP Andrew McCutchen, while not the best center field option in the league, does offer a marked improvement over who the Pirates’ all-time starting center fielder would have been otherwise, Max Carey. Unlike Carey, McCutchen will provide the Pirates with offensive production that isn’t solely dependent on stealing bases.

The other main strength of this team comes from the bullpen. If I were to pick an area of this series that’s been the toughest to piece together, it’s far and away the bullpens. Most teams are lucky if they can find one reliever to have even five years pitched with the team, let alone a quality reliever who pitched five years.

In Kent Tekulve and Roy Face the Pirates have not one, but two all-star caliber relievers with 10-plus  years with the club. The closer is listed as Tekulve but this could  change over the course of the season, even with Tekulve pitching well. Whoever isn’t the closer would be a solid candidate for best eighth-inning setup man in either league.

The man who replaced Roy Face as the team’s stopper, Al McBean, along with Mark Melancon and Dave Giusti help round out one of the solidest back-end bullpens in the National League The one minor drawback is that all the pitchers I have just named are right-handers, which explains the inclusion of Tony Watson, whose only responsibility on this team will be getting lefties out.

Weaknesses

While some teams can go nearly five Hall of Famers deep with their starting rotation, the Pirates are unable to go even one deep. A strong bullpen and lineup would guarantee the Pirates wouldn’t be out of any game where a starter could give them at least a decent outing. But Bob Friend wouldn’t even be in the Phillies’ starting rotation. That should give you a sense of the deficit the Pirates would face against teams like Philadelphia, Los Angeles and even Houston.

The Pirates will struggle to take advantage of the all the riches this franchise possesses. On nearly every other team, Arky Vaughan would be an easy call for the starting shortstop. As three-time NL leader in on-base percentage, an argument could be made that Arky Vaughan is the second-best shortstop the National League has to offer.

Unfortunately, he happens to be on the team with the best shortstop. If this were a more realistic league,   either Vaughan or Wagner would be moved to third base full-time. Instead, that remains one of the weaker positions for the Pirates. The only two options for the team are Tommy Leach, a deadball era third baseman with a questionable ability to translate to a modern game and Bobby Bonilla, an all-bat, no glove player.

Many might be surprised by the platoon of Johnny Ray and Bill Mazeroski, but with a career OPS+ of just 84, I find it impossible to see Mazeroski as anything other than a major offensive liability. As strong a defender as Mazeroski may be, it’s simply too much to consider him anything more than a marginal player who would be lucky to bat .240.

Ray may be nowhere near the caliber of defensive player Mazeroski was, but he was a career .300 hitter against right-handed pitching, which is enough for him getting the nod over Maz when a righty is on the mound.

The other area where the Pirates’ riches largely go to waste is at the corner outfield positions. With two Hall of Famers already listed in starting roles and without a player capable of playing multiple positions due to the position qualifications of the league, it forces the Pirates to leave 3,000 hit-club member Paul Waner and former MVP Dave Parker off the 25-man roster.

If afforded the opportunity I would probably implement a platoon situation in right field between Paul Waner and Roberto Clemente. This would take an already good situation and make it downright frightening, but because the Pirates are allowed only four bench positions not including the backup catcher, it’s an opportunity they will rarely be able to fully utilize.

Conclusions

The Pirates and Reds made for some fun match-ups during the 1970s and I would expect much the same to be the case here. In a lot of ways, it would be like these two teams looking in the mirror. Both feature top-heavy lineups to go with a subpar starting rotation and dominating bullpen.

If the position rules of this league were relaxed a bit to allow players like Wagner and Vaughan to play other infield positions, it would leave a lot less of the depth to be squandered.

The silver lining in all this is that Pirates are one of the rare teams that could afford a serious injury to one of their key players such as Kiner, Clemente or even Wagner without missing a beat.

The Pirates are also the team that would probably stand to gain the most with the September roster expansion, both in terms of what they would pick up offensively and what it would add to their bullpen-heavy approach to pitching.

Overall I look at the Pirates as a team that probably won’t win the division, but could contend for a Wild Card spot. Both the offensive and bullpen are top five caliber in the National League, but the starting pitching remains average at best. How far the Pirates could go in making up for this weakness would determine how far they could get in both the standings and in the postseason.


Paul Moehringer is a data analyst, a SABR member and inventor of the Pyramid Rating System; originally from Mount Olive, NJ, now living in Westwood, MA. Follow him on Twitter @PMoehringer.
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LHPSU
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LHPSU

“The most enduring clip of his time in Pittsburgh shows him in a heated argument with manager Jim Leyland during spring training.

Eh, the most enduring clip of Barry Bonds’ time in Pittsburgh is obviously him not throwing out Sid Bream at home.

vi800
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vi800

I think that Ty Cobb has argument to be a better hitter than Wagner during his peak. Before Cobb, Nap Lajoie would also be in reasonable contention

bliksteen
Member
bliksteen

It seems to me that even the worst of the non-relocated original AL and NL teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, Indians, White Sox, Cubs, Reds, Cardinals, Phillies, Pirate) are going to be at a significant advantage in this league relative to other teams. What is the argument for not splitting these teams up into 2 pre and post expansion era squads?

lemur@libogroup.com
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lemur@libogroup.com

How is Pie Traynor not a valid option at 3B?

Brian Schwartz
Member
Brian Schwartz

Mazeroski should really be the starting second baseman. If this team is playing Bobby Bonilla at third base, they shouldn’t be sacrificing defense elsewhere in the infield.

If they do want to prioritize offense, Neil Walker was a significantly better hitter than Johnny Ray.

nickolai
Member
nickolai

“Wagner’s 1908 season also remains the only season in major league history in which a player posted an OPS+ of 200 or better and stole at least 50 bases.”

Ty Cobb accomplished this three times: 1910, 1912, 1917.

Paul G.
Member
Member
Paul G.

While probably not the first, second or even third name that comes to mind when thinking of great shortstops or great players in Pirates history, Honus Wagner remains the greatest at both even 100 years after he last suited up.

Actually, among this web site’s clientele he probably was the first name to come to mind.

It is rather shocking to see that Fred Clarke did not even make the 40-man.

Paul G.
Member
Member
Paul G.
As to second base, the name that came to my mind first was George “Boots” Grantham. He switched between first and second depending on what the Pirates needed. He was a very good hitter; however, the “Boots” nickname is not referencing his preferred footwear. He’s a left-handed batter as well. Being both a better hitter than Ray and arguably Elbie Fletcher, George becomes the platoon second baseman who gets replaced by Maz in the late innings (and perhaps shifts to first to replace the immobile Stargell), and he backs up first so you can put a better player than Fletcher… Read more »
KayEmCee
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KayEmCee

Pardon my ignorance, as this is the first in the series that I’ve read, but please explain the One-Team-Rule to me, as it relates to why Bonds isn’t on the team?

topper009
Member
topper009

Paul Waner has the 3rd most WAR in franchise history and doesn’t even make the cut as a 4th outfielder? Arkie Vaughan should be able to backup multiple IF spots to make room for Big Poison