It All Comes Back To Spending, Pirates Fans

Andrew McCutchen

What follows is a list. Each line is where the Pittsburgh Pirates ranked in terms of Major League payroll, among the 30 teams.

The list begins with the year Bob Nutting took over as principal owner.

2007 – 27th
2008 – 27th
2009 – 28th
2010 – 30th
2011 – 28th
2012 – 26th
2013 – 27th
2014 – 27th
2015 – 25th
2016 – 21st
2017 – 23rd

More spending does not automatically equal more wins. However, in conducting the most rigorous and deepest analysis I have seen on the subject, Noah Davis and Michael Lopez found that “more money generally means more wins.”

Gerrit Cole Pirates

Credit: Jon Dawson/Creative Commons

The truly frustrating part? The Pirates were set up for more money to directly equal more wins.

In my debut of a (short-lived) sports analytics column for Pittsburgh Magazine in March 2015, I pointed out that the Pirates were in the perfect spot to spend. They had reached the playoffs the previous two seasons, seen attendance and revenue rise, and most importantly, saved enough money through their re-building process to make that splash.

It didn’t happen.

Those 2015 Pirates were two wins short of taking the division. In 2014, the Bucs were also two wins short of the division title. In 2013, three wins short.

All of those turned out to be years where a little bit of spending — on an extra pitcher, on an extra bat — would have had an outsized impact on where the team landed in October.

It’s what allowed the Cubs to jump from $89 million to $167 million in two years.


It’s what allowed the Astros to methodically work their way from $24 million to $45 million to $69 million to $97 million to $127 million.

Again, championship.

Andrew McCutchen Pirates

Credit: Keith Allison/Creative Commons

One other thing money allows you to do: make mistakes. You whiff on a six-figure contract? Eh. There’s more cash where that came from.

The Pirates don’t live in that world. And while I have grievances to air with Neal Huntington, in the grand scheme his bankroll is tighter than that of almost all of his fellow GMs.

And so, you get risk aversion.

You need young, cost-controlled players to compete. When a David Price or a Giancarlo Stanton hits the trade market, you can’t feel confident dealing multiple top prospects for him. They’re your currency.

You need that dreaded “financial flexibility.” Free agency? Pfft. The biggest free-agent contract your owner ever signed was 3 years, $39 million.

You get a No. 1 pick, and draft a state-of-the-art workhorse pitcher like Gerrit Cole. But you see his agent is Scott Boras. A long-term extension is a fairy tale.

You know how beloved Andrew McCutchen is, from the die-hards to the go-once-a-year-with-work-friends crowd. But on your budget, are you really going to spend on his age-32 season, his age-33 season, and so on?

Winning frugally? It can be done. But not for long. Not consistently. Not at a level that can realistically compete with the teams that, every year, are spending $50 million more than you. $70 million more. In the Dodgers’ case, $140 million more.

As for me, I’m on a word count budget. Gotta keep it under 500. Seems fitting.

Prospect Debut Day and Why Being a Pirates Fan Has Never Been Better

Jameson Taillon in his natural habitat (Scott Tidlund/Creative Commons)

Jameson Taillon in his natural habitat, a bullpen in Bradenton.

June is always a particularly fun month for baseball.

The weather is getting just about perfect. Kids are finishing up school for the year, so families start packing the ballpark every night. And as the NBA and NHL wrap up, more casual sports fans and media outlets start to notice, “Oh, right. Baseball.”

We hardcore fans? We get another treat too. Thanks to the particular silliness of the MLB collective bargaining agreement (have you ever tried explaining Super 2 to your dad?), June is usually the month teams twist the spigot marked PROSPECT PIPELINE and we all enjoy a new round of hotshot young ballplayers.

Screw off, Andy Williams. This is the most wonderful time of the year.

For many years as a Pirates fan, any Top Prospect Debut Day was actually one of the few fun events to which I could look forward.

Sure, we’re already 13 games under .500 and all is lost and baseball fandom is where your happiness is given concrete shoes and dumped in the river… but on the other hand, Jose Tabata!

Jose Tabata

Lips. Lips forever. (Scott Michaels/Creative Commons)

It was Opening Day 2.0 for the hopelessly devoted fan. If the Home Opener was the day you could dream, “Maybe this is the Buccos’ year,” then Top Prospect Debut Day was the day you could dream, “Maybe this is the baseball savior to lead us out of the wilderness.”

We got prospect crushes on new flames like Sean Burnett, Paul Maholm, Brad Lincoln and James McDonald. These were the Littlefield and Soon-After-Littlefield years in which any half-decent young player was labeled a TOP PROSPECT! and saddled with unfair savior-y expectations.

Then, baseballers of actual quality began to show up from the minor leagues to Pittsburgh. Neil Walker can actually hit and play second base! Pedro Alvarez can murder baseballs even if his strikeouts make you rip off your fingernails! Alex Presley had his moments, I think!

Beloved radio postgame host Rocco DeMaro called this crew The Cavalry, no doubt because these were the men on horses riding in to save us from defeat. But none of the above were superstars or saviors.

Only one player from The Cavalry actually came in, blew us away and never stopped.

When I found out Andrew McCutchen would be making his big-league introduction at PNC Park on a weekday afternoon, I begged my mom to spring me from school early (it had to have been, like, the 3rd-to-last day of the year). I got the go-ahead, because my mom is better than your mom, took the bus to the North Shore and saw a future worth cheering for.

YouTube highlights show it was your typical partly-cloudy Pittsburgh afternoon but my memory, sitting there in the center-field seats, will be that the sun never shone brighter.

A few days later, McCutchen clobbered two triples in back-to-back at-bats. Remember how exciting it was the first time we saw blur in dreadlocks stretch a double into a triple? I wrote on Facebook that “Usain Bolt has nothing on Cutch!” And I think I really believed it.

That was 7 years ago today.

Okay, 500 words to get to Jameson Taillon. It was 6 years ago today that Neal Huntington drafted the No. 8 prospect in the draft, high school pitcher Stetson Allie, to join the No. 2 prospect Taillon.

Stetson Allie and Jameson Taillon

Children were the future. (Matt Bandi/Creative Commons)

Their two paths since then show, if nothing else, the folly of counting on pitching prospects.

Allie had a 100-mph fastball but with the control of Wild Thing Ricky Vaughn soon after leaving the California Penal League. He gave up 37 walks in less than 27 minor-league innings before the Pirates handed him a bat and a first baseman’s glove.

Meanwhile, Taillon was developing as promised, flummoxing hitters with that drop-off-the-table curveball and getting to Double-A by the end of his second pro season. At age 20, he was just a couple steps from big-league dominance.

Then? Elbow injury. Tommy John surgery. Hernia surgery. I probably scrolled through thousands of tweets with some combination of the words “Taillon” and “rehab outing.”

But 6 years to the day he was drafted by the Pirates, Taillon arrived for his welcome press conference at PNC Park — all smiles. The injuries and the surgeries and the rehab? That was just the scenic route to Pittsburgh.

Tonight, he’ll go toe-to-toe toeing the same rubber as Noah Syndergaard, a pitcher almost a year younger than Taillon who nonetheless already has a full-season of Major League innings, a Marvel superhero nickname and talk-show hosts who ask IS HE BASEBALL’S BEST PITCHER QUESTION MARK.

There’s nowhere in the world Taillon would rather be tonight, and he and I have that in common.

Pirates fans seen some pretty exciting prospect premieres over the past few years: Starling Marte,  and Neal Huntington products Gerrit Cole and Gregory Polanco among them. But no longer do they, nor Taillon, need to pull a 100-loss roster out of ignominy and into the promised land.

Gregory Polanco

Gregory Polanco’s an All-Star candidate now, a prospect who’s meeting expectations (Daniel Decker/Creative Commons)

We’re in the promised land. Somehow playoff contention has become the norm, the expectation for your Pittsburgh Pirates instead of some Tim Burton-esque dreamland. We’re spoiled, and we’re well-served in reminding ourselves that we have, indeed, moved on up to the East Side.

As Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Josh Bell show up in Pittsburgh over this next year or so, they don’t have to be The Cavalry. They don’t even all have to be great, though I and Huntington would quite like that result.

Instead, Huntington and Co. have built a team that can only needs these youngins to complement what is already on the field.

This is a good baseball team, and it doesn’t need a Savior. Top Prospect Debut Day is just another game in June, though for those of us following Taillon’s odyssey to the Majors, an exciting one.

And I didn’t have to plead to get out of school to go to this game.

My Generation: Pirates Fans Deserve To Share A Playoff Contender

Could Pirates fans sell out, like in Boston? (Laura Padgett/Creative Commons)

They were applauding a strikeout in the 1st inning.

It was mid-August evening in Boston, the kind of hot muggy night mosquitoes dream about. The normal 2008 sellout crowd was packed into Fenway Park like a family road trip in a Camry.

But when the Red Sox fans applauded Jon Lester getting Rangers’ cleanup man Milton Bradley to swing and miss to end the Top of the 1st, I was applauding right along with them in my black-and-yellow Jason Bay jersey.

The best baseball atmosphere I have ever experienced was that game in Boston. With the Red Sox down a pair of games in the AL East but holding on to a wild card spot, the Fenway Faithful were an assembly of 37,876 with a purpose.They were all paying attention to the game, an alien concept to a 14-year-old Pirates fan. They were focused on each pitch; offering a standing ovation to more than just home runs.

Long before the Boston fans celebrated another win by singing along to “Dirty Water,” I was hooked. It was a contact high of sharing winning baseball with thousands of others.

Cause a big sensation

The ballpark is a different place when it is packed. (Jon Dawson/Creative Commons)

That is exactly what I want to see in Pittsburgh this weekend. The noise and focus may not be to the same extent as Fenway in the heart of a pennant race. It is still June, the Pirates are coming off 19 losing seasons instead of a World Series, and the Bucs probably won’t send seven All-Stars to the Midsummer Classic.

But the team is winning. They are two games out of a playoff spot, putting aside how early that kind of standings-watching may be. Pittsburghers are great baseball fans, just waiting to see a team worthy of their passion and applause. I expect some high attendance in cozy PNC Park, as told to me by the employee at the box office. More importantly, I expect to see folks that are there almost solely to cheer on the Pirates to victory (putting aside Boys II Men fans on Saturday). That’s something that hasn’t been seen too often around here.

Believe me, I love walking up to the ballpark, buying a $20 for $10 from a scalper, then sneaking me the one of the many empty seats behind home plate, where the ushers are as apathetic as the businessmen on their Blackberries. But being surrounded by a huge crowd that is locked in to the game at hand is an experience that can not be beat.

The question now is, can the Pirates maintain that atmosphere longer than they did last year? Can they turn people lining up at the box office on a Friday morning in June into fans cheering on a division leader instead of a playoff long-shot?

Trying to find the key / to fifty million fables

James McDonald is becoming a Cy Young candidate before our eyes. (Alan Kotok/Creative Commons)

They have the opportunity. The great pitching is more sustainable than last year’s model, thanks in no small part to offseason additions Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett racking up high strikeout totals, and James McDonald transforming into a bat-missing All-Star candidate. Even the rotation’s weak link, Kevin Correia, could be swapped out for Brad Lincoln or the efficient Rudy Owens at some point soon. And while the bullpen is due for a regression from their 2.56 ERA, the peripheral stats and an NL-average FIP (3.79) will likely keep the reliable relief coming.

But we all know it’s the offense that needs improvement. Much grumbling has been expressed over the troubling first two months for winter acquisitions Clint Barmes and Casey McGehee. But even if those two rebound and approach career norms, it won’t be enough to light a true fire under an ice-cold Pirates lineup.

No, the offensive turnaround still lies in the potential of one man in particular, and I think you know who I am talking about:

Meet the new boss / same as the old boss

Alvarez is 5th in the Pirates lineup Friday night. (Matt Bandi/Creative Commons)

It has been written time and time again as to become a cliché: the key to the 2012 Pirates season lies in Pedro Alvarez. And yet all clichés have in them a hint of truth. For the Pirates to keep a steady pace with the Reds and Cardinals, they need El Toro to unleash his bullish power.

So far, as center fielder Andrew McCutchen goes, so goes the offensive production. Using Bill James’ “runs created” stat, Andrew McCutchen has created 23.1 percent of the Pirates offense, with Neil Walker (12.9 percent) a distant second. That’s the largest share of any MLB team’s run production this side of Joey Votto (23.4 percent).

That is a testament to Andrew McCutchen’s rising star, but also deeply troubling if McCutchen were to slump or suffer an… well, let’s not even say the “I” word.

We are well aware of what Pedro Alvarez can do. Pirates fans have had visions of him regularly smacking baseballs into the Allegheny River from the time he was chosen out of Vanderbilt with the number two overall pick in 2008. There is no need to rehash the odyssey of Alvarez’s last four years.

Don’t get fooled again?

But we have seen the flashes. Just remember that two-week hitting binge from April 18 to May 4. In 54 plate appearances, he smashed six homers, four doubles, and compiled a .367 average and 1.224 OPS. The strikeouts were there too, but Alvarez didn’t look like he was flailing.

Now for more numbers: The good news is that Pedro Alvarez is swinging at substantially more pitches in the zone this season compared to last year (63.5% in 2011 up to 70%) and making contact with more those pitches (84% up to 85.5%). His line drive rate is down, but he is cutting down on ground balls and infield flies. It’s easy to envision more balls in play dropping for hits moving forward, as his .253 BABIP is far below his .300 career BABIP.

If Alvarez can adjust to the higher number of sliders and curveballs he is seeing this season, he could be in business. With his high strikeout totals, Neal Huntington may never get the star slugger desired. But he might just get an above-average third baseman that is still just 25 years old, and that is an asset.

Then Huntington could stand to add a productive 30-something piece to the lineup like Josh Willingham or Carlos Quentin, giving manager Clint Hurdle the opportunity to put together a lineup that is a legitimate threat to opposing pitchers instead of a Major League laughingstock.

The happy ones are near

PNC Park can be more than just a bastion of losing baseball. (Will Reynolds Young/Creative Commons)

Pittsburghers are longing for a contender, especially those my age that only know a pennant race as something fans of other teams get to feel. They are longing to look at the standings in August and see “PITTSBURGH” at the top. They are longing to watch the Pirates highlights lead off SportsCenter. And most of all, they are longing for a winning team to cheer on like they mean it.

Places like Boston, New York, St. Louis and Philadelphia may take most of the playoff spots and the World Series, but they don’t have a monopoly on loud crowds and excitement at the ballpark. They don’t have to be the only ones who get to applaud their pitcher striking out a guy in the 1st inning.

And now, let’s finish it off with a video cut together by the phenomenal Kurt Gingrich: