Sports Commentary: Are the Buccos Back?

Some fans consider Pirates rising star Andrew McCutchen a top-five outfielder in the MLB. Even with his strong bat, Pittsburgh is at least a few years away from having a playoff-ready team. (credit: Courtesy of Matt Bandi on Flickr) Some fans consider Pirates rising star Andrew McCutchen a top-five outfielder in the MLB. Even with his strong bat, Pittsburgh is at least a few years away from having a playoff-ready team. (credit: Courtesy of Matt Bandi on Flickr)

During my time in Pittsburgh, there have always been just two sports: football and hockey. As you know, there is no NBA team that resides in Pittsburgh, but one other team is always forgotten. That would be the Pittsburgh Pirates. Whenever I ask a die-hard Pittsburgh fan about the Pirates, 90 percent of the time the person says back, “Who watches baseball anyways?” Considering baseball has a larger fan base than hockey in America, one has to wonder why every Pittsburgher responds like that. And of course, it is because their beloved Pirates, also known as the “Buccos,” have not won a World Series since 1979 and have not had a winning season since 1992. However, up until last week, the Buccos were vying for a spot in the playoffs with their NL Central rivals and giving some hope to Pittsburgh’s baseball fan base.

So, with a winning record for almost four months of the season, can we officially say that the Pirates can be contenders in the next year? I respond with an enthusiastic no. When you take a look at the Pirates’ success this season, it is easy to see that pitching has played a key role, as the team is ranked 10th in all of the MLB in ERA. One of the Pirates’ best performers all year has been starting pitcher Charlie Morton, who currently has nine wins and a 3.56 ERA.

However, with the rise of sabermetrics as the dominant way of analyzing statistics in baseball, wins and ERA are no longer the only way to judge a pitcher’s true performance. First of all, Morton has no history of being a decent pitcher, let alone a good one. His ERA last year was in the high 7s, he had a walks-plus-hits per inning pitched (WHIP) ratio of 1.73, and he gave up a whopping 15 home runs in only 17 starts. In the two years before that, he accumulated a 5+ ERA and was clearly a mediocre pitcher. One thing that Pirates fans often overlook is that Morton is still the same mediocre pitcher this year. In fact, his peripherals suggest that he should be around the same level as his 2009 season, where he was a fourth starter at best. In 2009 and this year, he has around a 1.50 strikeouts-to-walks ratio, hitters are hitting .277 against him, and in fact his strikeouts per nine innings ratio is down by 0.2 compared to 2008. The reason why he has a respectable ERA right now is purely luck, as hitters are hitting fewer home runs but the same number of fly balls against him. Not to mention that he only has a 20 percent Quality Start rating in his past 10 starts.

Another reason why the Pirates will not be any good for at least the next two years is their hitting. They arguably have a bottom-five lineup in the league, and until recently they had first baseman Lyle Overbay, who was signed in the off-season to a stupid contract, hitting in the heart of the order. With a few trades from general manager Neal Huntington, the Pirates were able to get some respectable hitters, but no one that is going to change the face of this franchise any time soon.

When we look at the offense, we cannot overlook Andrew McCutchen, who is one of the budding stars in the game today. I fully expect McCutchen to become a top-five outfielder in two or three years, and some can even make the argument that he deserves to be considered in the top five right now.

The problem with the Pirates is that they have no one else in the lineup to hit. Neil Walker, who is considered to be their second-best hitter at this point, should be the sixth-best hitter in a real lineup. Although Walker was fifth in the Rookie of the Year (ROY) voting last year, that is not enough to say that he is actually a top player. Guys like Angel Berroa and Khalil Greene have won ROY awards, and both of those guys are out of a starter’s position — if not the league — by now. Walker ranks ninth in on-base plus slugging among second basemen in the MLB, and second base is widely considered to be one of the weakest hitting positions in the league. The Pirates currently have the ninth-best second baseman as their second-best hitter. It is easy to see how that is a problem.

Will the Pirates be competitive eventually? I am sure they will. They have one of the top systems in the major leagues and a few players that they hope to have ready by 2012, such as outfielder Jose Tabata and third baseman Pedro Alvarez. However, with their low budget as well as high variance when it comes to the development of prospects, I doubt we will see the Pirates being a playoff team for at least two years. If their minor league staff is able to develop a guy like starting pitcher Jamison Taillon, who was the first overall pick in this year’s amateur draft, they should be able to compete sooner rather than later.

But, based on the history of the Pirates, is there any reason to be optimistic?