Last week, on Tuesday morning, my dad and I drove to the airport talking about the Pirates/Astros debacle we'd witnessed at PNC Park on Labor Day afternoon. My dad had a simple question for me: "Why do you think this has happened two years in a row? Why have they gotten most of the way through a good season and collapsed twice now?"
I hedged. I said that I didn't think what happened last year was applicable to this year, that last year was a house of cards that had been teetering for weeks and that this year's team was dealing more with a flat-out decline in performance. We discussed reasons for that decline; I said that I suspect that Andrew McCutchen may be playing hurt riight now (think of all of the times that he crashes into the wall and comes up rotating his shoulder or the weird play where Jose Tabata failed to chase down a flyball and McCutchen turned his ankle cutting it off in the gap; think about how this happens maybe once or twice a week and how you never hear about it again), and I wondered about James McDonald's health. I vented that Neil Walker was missing time with back issues because I noticed in March that some of his struggles last year came with long strings of consecutive games that ended with him missing time with back problems (Walker had just two off days between April 28th and August 15, when he hurt his pinky; my dad and I both speculated that maybe after playing so much, then taking three days off and coming back caused his back to act up -- we are by no means experts in this field, just two guys in a car speculating).
My biggest concerns, I said, were that Andrew McCutchen might become a player that can't ever play a full season season without getting hurt and that his injuries might become more serious in the future, and that James McDonald is currently dealing with a serious elbow or shoulder problem that will shelve him for an extended period of time in 2013. I talked about all of the small things that we fans have focused on over the last month or so -- bullpen construction and Clint Barmes playing too much and even Barajas playing regularly over McKenry (this ... is it's own long post that needs written and probably won't be at this point until discussion of Barajas's option comes up this winter) along with the typical small-ball gripes and the like -- and how I thought that the biggest problems just had to do with the team's best players not performing. I pointed out that the Pirates weren't really collapsing like last year; that they sunk like a person in concrete shoes last year and this year they're more like a person slowly running out of energy over the course of a long swim.
All of this was last week. Today, the Pirates are 9-20 since peaking at 63-47 on August 8th. They're 1-5 against the Brewers and 1-5 against the Padres in that span. They went 2-4 against the Astros and Cubs last week. The Cubs and Astros only have ten more wins combined than the Nationals do in 2012. If we just take those 18 games and give the Pirates five more wins (one against the Brewers, one against the Padres, two against the Cubs), the Pirates would be 1 1/2 up on the Cardinals in the wild card race. Think about that: if they were just able to go 8-10 against the four worst teams on their schedule, they'd be in a playoff spot by more than a game. Instead, they went 4-14 and they're 2 1/2 games down with 23 games left.
Through all of it, it's easy to say that being 2 1/2 down with 23 games left isn't that bad. That if the Pirates can just draw a line in the sand RIGHT THIS VERY SECOND TODAY, if they can build a wall around this slide, they could still finish strong. Of course, this was true on August 16 when they'd lost five of six to the Dodgers and Padres and it was true on August 28th when they'd lost six of seven and it was true on September 4th when they'd lost four in a row to Milwaukee and Houston. So why are we all sitting around, pretending like the result will be different on September 10th? The Pirate team we've seen since August 8th is a bad baseball team. They're so far removed from the Pirates of June and early July that it feels like a farce to even pretend like they're capable of the same things.
On most mornings, I wake up, go to work, and check the morning update on the Pirates' playoff odds at Baseball Prospectus. This is how they've evolved since the morning of September 9th, which is the last time that they were 16 games over .500.
That's the story of a team that played itself out of the playoffs, not a team that couldn't keep up with it's more talented opposition. It's frustrating because it's a wasted opportunity, no matter what your pre-season expectations were. When will the Pirates (or any team) get a 49-game stretch like the one they got from Andrew McCutchen between May 26 and July 23? This is definitely a career year for Garrett Jones, what if is for Pedro Alvarez, too? His strikeout rate still isn't falling that much, and so it really might be. Seriously, where does this pitching staff go from here? McDonald is a huge question mark and Burnett is old and I don't know how much Locke or McPherson or Wilson really offer to a Major League rotation beyond what we've gotten used to seeing in Pittsburgh pre-2012. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are great pitching prospects but that doesn't keep them from being pitching prospects. The Reds are going to be good for a while and the Cubs are only going to get better going forward, and the Cardinals seem to be on the downswing given their age and health, but have a stocked minor league system. Outside of the division, the Nationals are about to embark on a rein of terror that will engulf the National League for the forseeable future and the Dodgers apparently have no limit on how much money they can spend.
I don't mean to sound like a surly talking head accusing the Pirates of blowing their last, best chance at contending during the Andrew McCutchen era. I fully expect that the Pirates will be able to make a run at a playoff spot in 2013 or 2014 or 2015 or 2016 or maybe even all of those years; what I'm saying is that despite low pre-season expectations, the window opened this year and the Pirates didn't get through it. That wasn't true in 2011, but I do think it's true in 2012. The August version of the Pittsburgh Pirates was a legitimate contender. The September version of the Pittsburgh Pirates is not. Why did this happen? It's certainly because the Pirates' key performers (McCutchen, McDonald, and Burnett) slipped back towards average in the last month, but why else? Is it because Neal Huntington botched the bullpen construction after trading Brad Lincoln? Is it because Clint Hurdle occasionally manages baseball games like he's literally wearing a box on his head and not watching the things happening on the field? Is it because the Pirates have steadfastly refused to hold baserunners on first base all year and now teams are finally eating them alive for it? (Who's fault is that, anyway? Was that Hurdle's decision or Searage's decision or is it something that came from Dan Fox and Neal Huntington? There's a great question for another day.) I don't have a good answer; it's obviously a combination of a ton of things. The difficulty of the question doesn't mean that it doesn't have to be answered, though. The Pirates need to figure out what went wrong here and why it went wrong, because honestly they're not going to be 16 games over .500 on August 8th every year.
In any case, that's what's so legitimately difficult for me to process about the current baseball apocalypse that's happening in front of us every night. After watching the Same Old Pirates every single year from 1993-2011, we had 110 games this year that told us that this Pirate team was something much different. Now, it's September, and it's the Same Old Pirates again. It's more than disheartening; it's crushing.
Please. Just get me to 82 wins. Preferably in that Mets series so I can be at the game when it happens. I'm 20 years old and I have died with this team every year of my life. I just want to see that winning record. I have accepted long ago that due to MLB's economic system I will l may never see my Buccos as world champs. But I need 82-80 now, I have waited too long.
@wkkortas Yes, I know, it's lame to root for mediocrity. But it's much lamer to have more than two decades of losing seasons. With the year Cutch has had, with the excitement around this team in the early summer, if the 2012 Pirates don't finish with a winning record....the losing will truly feel like an unshakable curse. If not this year, when?
So I'm with jedmiller71. At this point, as badly as they're playing, just get me to 82.
@wkkortas If we were in a bar talking about this over a beer we'd go around in circles for hours. Haha. Maybe the team will go on a hot streak and it will be a mute point.
I understand what you're saying, but I think the premise is flawed; the things that will make the Pirates a contender next year and in 2014--filling the gaping holes at short and catcher, getting Taillon and Cole into the rotation, having Marte be the player he can be--are neither connected to nor dependent on the Pirates finishing over .500.
@wkkortas I'd argue that it does matter. A pennant in 2014 would be built upon what happens in 2013 and 2012 and what happened in 2011 and so on. Multiple losing seasons, multiple collapsing seasons -- these things have a psychological effect on the fans, players and organization.
No, it's not the ultimate goal. But the Pirates (and the fans) need to go into the off-season feeling good about something. Breaking the losing streak would do that. Not breaking it would set the organization back even further. For starters, it sure as hell won't help with attendance next year.
I simply don't understand that reasoning--is the ultimate goal to finish over .500 at some point? If a team that has Cutch and Marte and Taillon and Cole wins the NL pennant in 2014, does it matter even one tiny quark-sized bit that this team was 82-80 instead of 79-83?
@wkkortas Unfortunately, I think it is a realistic goal to have based on where we are right now and what we have seen in the last 5 weeks. If we somehow tank this I am going to be so depressed.
Y'know what really sucks? I was thinking about making plans to see one of the last two series, not the Braves but either the Brewers next week or the Reds on the 30th. But now, it's not worth the trouble. I've traveled to see bad baseball before, and while I love seeing my home town I'm not interested in sitting in the sun watching a lackluster effort AGAIN, as I've done numerous times over the years. I was looking forward to watching REAL BASEBALL like I saw on TV earlier in the year, games that didn't feel like they were over at 2-0 in the bottom of the 4th.
Not worth it, not worth the travel time nor the expense any more.
Went to the game friday and sunday and watched satuday from an allotment of southside establishments(I made the trip from Erie where I reside with a friend of mine..stayed all weekend to watch because we thought this was the series to turn this around)..walking out of the stadium sunday not too long after soriano demolished his homerun over the center field fence I realized I have given up all hope, I almost shed a tear. Put soo much into this season...we have three...three guys that may hit 30 or close to 30 home runs and right now we are 45% on finishing over .500. Our defense has become some sort of a circus out there and our pitching get worse and worse with every call to the bullpen...the "turnaround" we all hoped for is gone with the wind....till next year
As far as Cutch goes, couldn't we just be seeing the "real" McCutchen? Maybe he's not a .370 - or even .340 - hitter. He was bad last year (by Cutch standards) and maybe this year was just the opposite reaction to that. His number were identical his first two years and his power - and K - numbers go up as he matures so maybe Cutch is just a .300/.370/.460, 25 HR, 90 RBI guy...I'm OK with being wrong on this though.
Totally agree with the J-Mac injury argument, but as far as Cutch goes, couldn't we just be seeing the "real" McCutchen? Maybe he's not a .370 - or even .340 - hitter. He was so bad last year (by Cutch standards) that maybe this year was just the opposite reaction to that. His number were identical his first two years and his power - and K - numbers go up as he matures so maybe Cutch is just a .300/.370/.460, 25 HR, 90 RBI guy...I'm OK with being wrong on this though.
Wow, I'm pretty sure that's the first time I've seen you definitively state you saw this year as a window. I struggled with that all season. If this was a window, NH deserves a lot more blame for failing to seize his chance. I know this is a pro-Huntington blog but he really didn't do what a GM in his position shoud have. When the Brewers sensed their window, they traded their top prospects for CC just to go over the top. If we lost Marte and/or Taillon so be it. Now maybe adding say Greinke and Victorino wouldn't have mattered, maybe we were doomed anyway but it discourages me that he worried more about 2014 than right now. I guess my biggest anger/sadness about this whole deal is I'm starting to wonder if RIGHT NOW will ever come. Or, like ass and the carrot, will they just keep moving the stick??
@Carnegie Chip Sixteen games over .500 in August = The Window. I don't really see how that's up for debate, even.
@Carnegie Chip And I'm not arguing that they mishandled the deadline. I wouldn't have done anything different there. I'm just saying; you're good enough to have that record in August, the window is open.
@Carnegie Chip I disagree that the Pirates and/or NH missed an opportunity in how the team handled the trade deadline. The biggest reason for this is that some of the other options you mentioned simply are not marked upgrades over what the Pirates wound up getting. Shane Victorino is certainly a bigger name than Travis Snider or Starling Marte but is he a better player at this point in his career? I really don't think he is, no. When you looked at his numbers and his batted ball rates, he looked like a player in decline. That trend has continued since going to LA. The Pirates wanted to upgrade their rotation as well. They did. They traded some solid pieces to get Wandy Rodriguez. Rodriguez has a track record and (at least based on his ERA, which I realize is not the best indicator of performance) he has outpitched Greinke since the deadline.
Sure they could have gone out and traded for Justin Upton. That would have been a big splashy move. But then again, Upton has a .761 OPS since the deadline. Hunter Pence has an OPS+ of just 85 for San Fran. Chase Headley...OK, Headley's 68 HR-226RBI pace since the AS break would have looked pretty nice in black and gold while Cutch has been slumping, but isn't that kinda the point. If Cutch were still dominating baseball like he did for two months or if James McDonald hadn't made 8 lousy to awful starts in 11 games since the break (and one that was mediocre in it's purest form) then we wouldn't be concerned with who the Pirates failed to add. Not catching lightning in a bottle from a trade acquisition isn't the reason for the team's struggles. The inability of the core guys-the players that any trade would have been designed to build around, not replace-to get the job done in the past month is what has crippled the team. Hopefully, they get right and quick. If they don't, it could be a really depressing next 3 weeks.
While I understand what you;re daying, I think the underlying premise is a bit off. In terms of the "window" I think that really opens when Cole and Marte and Taillon all get here (or if one of them--say, Taillon--is moved to bring in a long-term solution--say, Elvis Andrus--to fill one of the gaping holes). This season was a bit of a gift, in a sense, and some of the solutions to the Pirate problems were at least potentially internal (e.g., playing Mercer more at short, making McKenry the clear number one at catcher), and the failure to take advantage of those really lies at Hurdle's feet more than Huntington's. As far as adding Victorino and Greinke...I suppose there's an argument for that, but three years from now I'm guessing Marte will be head and shoulders more valuable than Victorino, and Cole and/or Taillon will be every bit the pitcher Greinke (who, incidentally, has not shown himself to be anything in the neighborhood of a difference maker in the pennant races he's been involved in) with the advantages of being cheaper and under club control for a longer time. Personally, I just don't see 2012 as being the year you go all-in if you're the Pirates.
After hoping and rooting for the Pirates to make the playoffs, I'm genuinely starting to worry about another sub .500 season. They're currently six games over with more than 20 left, but the way they're playing now it's entirely possible they won't hold on for a winning record. Not making the playoffs this year would be a bummer. Not finishing above .500 for yet another year would be absolutely demoralizing. Would love this topic to be addressed at some point.
I wonder if this team is more like, say, the '88 Pirates than they are the Same Old Pirates--that club was in first place in early August like this club, but eventually dropped into a sub-.500 muddle (though not as precipitously as this club). Like this team, the '88 Bucs had a lot of the core pieces of the great early '90s team in place, but also had some significant holes (for instance, a just-barely-better-than-replacement-level shortstop, and one-half of a catching solution.) This club has significant problems, but the core of this club has more promise than any of its recent predecessors.