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March 30, 2007

Hope and Faith

How the Pittsburgh Pirates Can Win the World Series

by John Perrotto

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Brad talks with Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield about the Pirates' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

The last time Bud Selig was in Pittsburgh, he used the words hope and faith and nearly got laughed out of the Steel City.

That was at the All-Star break in 2006 when the commissioner visited to give his spiel to a city that had zero tolerance for it. While the Pirates got to show off PNC Park, which many believe is the finest facility in baseball, there was nothing to celebrate when it came to baseball in Pittsburgh. The Pirates had stumbled and bumbled through a 30-60 first half and were easily on their way to a 14th straight losing season, two short of the major-league record of 16 by the Philadelphia Phillies from 1933-48.

Faith left town the night Sid Bream slid across home plate with the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series. Barry Bonds took hope with him two months later when he bolted Pittsburgh--the Pirates didn't even make the reigning National League Most Valuable Player an offer--to go back home to San Francisco and the six-year, $43.75 million free-agent deal from the Giants.

In the 14 summers since Bonds left, the Pirates had exactly one season that raised even the slightest bit of hope and faith. An overachieving band of kids stayed in the race in the weak National League Central until the final week of the season before finishing 79-83.

Yet Selig was back in Pittsburgh on the final Sunday in October, 2007.

On an autumn night so cold and damp that it make one wonder if hell had frozen over, Bob Nutting and Kevin McClatchy, a pair of owners long vilified by Pirates fans, accepted the World Series trophy after a stunning seven-game win over the New York Yankees that brought back memories of 1960 all over again.

So, how did it happen? How did the Pirates go from perennial doormat to world champions in one year?

Pitching, pitching and more pitching. From the time Dave Littlefield inherited a franchise bereft of talent at the major-league level and the upper tiers of the farm system when he took over as general manger for Cam Bonifay midway through the 2001 season, he stressed that the only the way the Pirates could build a championship team was through pitching.

And pitching is what carried the Pirates to their improbable world championship. Not only did the 25-and-under foursome of left-handers Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny and Paul Maholm and right-hander Ian Snell stay healthy but they took big steps forward. They combined to win an amazing 66 games.

Snell, once for all silencing those who felt lacked the size or maturity to be a quality major-league starting pitcher, led the way as he was the National League Cy Young Award winner by virtue of his 21 victories and league-leading 217 strikeouts.

The bullpen also proved to be a great asset after initially struggling as veteran Salomon Torres was unable to make the transition from set-up reliever to closer. Once he switched roles with second-year right-hander Matt Capps, though, the Pirates' relief corps was again as good as any in the league. Capps was a revelation. After going 9-1 as a rookie, he notched 29 saves in 2007 despite not getting his first opportunity until May 12. Torres again proved to be durable as he appeared in 91 games.

Another young righty, rookie Josh Sharpless, proved to also be a surprise as he posted a sparkling 1.68 ERA in 54 relief appearances as a middle man after foolishly being sent to Class AAA Indianapolis late in spring training.

The Pirates also got long-awaited payoffs from two right-handers that many in baseball had written off as busts, John Van Benschoten and Bryan Bullington. Van Benschoten, after missing most of the previous two seasons because of three shoulder operations, was called up in June when fifth starter Tony Armas proved ineffective. Van Benschoten went on to win nine games and show the kind of stuff that caused the Pirates to draft him as a pitcher in 2001 even though he led Division I in home runs that spring while starring at Kent State.

Bullington didn't become the top-of-the-rotation starter that his pedigree as the first overall pick in the 2002 draft suggested. After missing all of 2007 while recovering from shoulder surgery, Bullington was called up in midseason and proved to a valuable member of the bullpen during the stretch run whle pitching middle and long relief.

The Pirates weren't an offensive juggernaut, but they were better than the bunch that finished last in the National League in runs scored in 2007 as the one major move Littlefield made during the winter paid off. First baseman Adam LaRoche continued to improve upon the strides he made the Atlanta Braves in the second half of the 2006 season and bopped 41 home runs. LaRoche became the first Pirates player to hit 40 homers since Hall of Famer Willie Stargell went deep 44 times in 1973.

In a town starved for a loveable power hitter--Bonds didn't exactly fit that bill--the easygoing LaRoche became the king of the football-obsessed city. Sales of No. 25 LaRoche jerseys nearly equaled those of No. 7 Roethlisberger models. Another key contributor was center fielder Chris Duffy, who emerged into one of the most dangerous leadoff hitters in the league. While not a walk machine, Duffy improved his plate discipline to the point where he raised his on base percentage to .350 and that enabled to use his great base running instincts to steal 51 bases, the most since by a Pirate since a skinny guy named Bonds had one more in 1990.

Jason Bay quietly had another outstanding season, batting .304 with 34 home runs. While Freddy Sanchez didn't repeat as the NL batting champion, he did hit .324 with 65 extra-base hits after being slowed early by a knee injury.

Catcher Ronny Paulino's batting average fell 22 points from the .310 mark of his rookie year but he tripled his home run total to 18, while slimmed down Jose Castillo hit 22 home runs despite losing his starting second baseman's job in the spring then winning back a spot as the third baseman in May, Xavier Nady had a solid year with a .279 batting average and 20 homers and Jack Wilson finally won his first Gold Glove at shortstop.

Jim Tracy disproved the idea that nice guys finish last as he was the unanimous choice for NL Manager of the Year as a result of engineering the stunning reversal. Tracy responded by giving the longest acceptance speech in the history of the New York Baseball Writers' Dinner.

Once the magical season was over, it was still hard to fathom what had all transpired. It was if it all had been a dream, like when Pam Ewing woke up and found Bobby in the shower. After experiencing 14 nightmarish seasons in a row, Pirates' fans deserved to live this kind of dream.

Brad talks with Pirates GM Dave Littlefield about the Pirates' chances on Baseball Prospectus Radio.

Click to download mp3

John Perrotto is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus and covers Major League Baseball for the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. He can be reached by clicking here.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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