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June 13, 2010

One-Hoppers

Keelhauled

by Ben Lindbergh

When Carlos Guillen and the Tigers walked off with a win last night, they handed the plummeting Pirates their seventh straight defeat, sending their record to 23-39. At some point, one would expect the Pirates’ annual game of low-winning-percentage limbo to reach a point of diminishing returns, but this year’s club hasn’t been content to fail unspectacularly; even mired in the midst of their 18th consecutive sub-.500 season, the Pirates are pushing the limits of how early mathematical elimination can arrive.

Here are the Pirates’ seasonal winning percentages during what can be defined very, very loosely as the Neal Huntington Era (Huntington was hired in September of 2007; sources differ on how long we should wait before holding a GM responsible for his team’s actions, but I think we can all agree that the Pirates’ 9-19 record that month should fall squarely on outgoing GM Dave Littlefield’s shoulders):

The labels on the right are a little jumbled, but, as if there were any doubt, yeah, downward trend is what it’s indicating there. All four of these teams started their seasons at 1.000% after winning their first games, making the graph of their seasonal trajectories look that much more depressing.

Would you believe that the 2010 squad's expected record is even worse? As in, a lot worse? Believe it or not, the Pirates are extremely fortunate to have 23 wins to their credit. They’ve scored scored 201 runs and allowed 346, giving them a Pythagenpat record of 17-45 (and it took them several decimal places to secure that 17th expected win). That 6-win gap between their actual and expected records is the largest of any team in baseball. If the Rays are renaissance men, excelling in all aspects of the game, the Pirates can only be called medieval men: they rank 27th in team TAv (.244), 26th in team SIERA (4.54), 29th in PADE (-4.72), and, just for good measure, 28th in eqBRR (-6.6). That’s an impressive degree of ineptitude.

Maybe it’s time for a subtle name change, like the one that preceded the Rays’ reversal; nothing drastic, just something different enough to sell a few jerseys and distance the current club from its recent legacy of losing (the Pittsburgh Picaroons, perhaps). Of course, what the Pirates could really use is another approach borrowed from the Rays that would prove more difficult to implement: a series of adept trades, accompanied by an infusion of young talent. The Pirates have certainly had their trading shoes on in recent years, but the returns have been mixed; buying low on Jose Tabata seems to have been an inspired move, but Andy LaRoche, the centerpiece of the Jason Bay divestiture, has mysteriously lost his mojo. Most of the other major-league products of recent Pittsburgh player swaps have done little but keep their roster spots warm.

Is there any hope on the horizon? The Pirates’ motley crew of position players is tied for 4th-youngest in the majors this season, but there’s not a whole lot in that group to get excited about, aside from Andrew McCutchen, newly minted major leaguer Tabata, and the impending arrival of Pedro Alvarez. The Pirates’ pitching is on the old side, at 29.3, and unless Brad Lincoln makes you weak at the knees, you’d be wise to avert your eyes.

A few months ago, Kevin Goldstein ranked the Pirates 21st in his annual organization report, adding that, “While unquestionably a better system than it was a year ago, the transformation of the Pirates from perennial laughingstock to a consistent competitor is still in the very early stages.” Kevin cited the organization’s “need to remain aggressive in the draft,” and to their credit, the Pirates seem to have recognized and addressed that need, taking high-upside arms in Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie with their first and second picks, respectively. The Pirates went pitching-heavy in subsequent rounds, as well, selecting hurlers with 32 of their 50 picks. However, 20 of those 32 are high schoolers, meaning that their impact likely won’t be felt for several years (assuming that it’s ever felt at all). Credit Huntington for not drafting to save his job; according to Kevin, “If [Taillon and Allie] sign, it’s a massive haul.” Unfortunately, it’s also unlikely to be reflected in the Pirates’ major-league record before their consecutive losing season streak turns 20.

Edit: In the time it took me to write this, the Pirates lost again. You leave them alone for one second...

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Related Content:  Pittsburgh Pirates,  Pirates

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