The Pittsburgh Pirates spent the last two decades as one of the most miserable stories in baseball, a franchise that left us wondering not if they’d win but how — and how much — they’d lose. The Pirates didn’t have a winning season in that span, the longest such stretch in the history of North American professional sports, and they weren’t just losing. They were losing a lot, 1,796 times in fact, more than the New York Yankees lost in the last 26 years, a span in which the Yanks played 1,000 more games. Over that span, they did things no team has ever done, like losing 37 of their final 54 games in 2012 to turn a potential playoff run into yet another failed season.
But Monday night, the Pirates beat the Texas Rangers to win their 82nd game, bringing that 20-year losing streak to an end. And a streak that had been prolonged by horrendous management, strings of bad luck, and under-performing draft picks and veterans was ultimately reversed by the exact opposite of all of those factors. These Pirates are young and fun, but they’re also the next in the line of baseball’s shift away from the era in which spending the most money automatically made a team the game’s best.
In truth, it might not have mattered if the Pirates had money to spend over those two decades, because they seemed destined to fail and sometimes like they might have been trying to. Things were so bad that Pirates fans didn’t even invent a curse on which to blame their misfortunes — they didn’t have even enough hope for that, and management was so bad it would have been the only curse anyone could find anyway. Fans spent those years, as long time Pirates blogger Charlie Wilmoth wrote upon the end of the streak, “watching baseball through the cracks between my fingers.”
But now here they are, six years after general manager Neal Huntington took over and began overhauling the organization, a fun team that won the way so many baseball fans consider the “right way,” the way so many teams without the resources of New York and Los Angeles and Boston and Philadelphia are using to compete. If they can’t outspend the competition, they’ll outsmart it, and outsmart and out-scout is exactly what the Pirates have done. They drafted young players like Andrew McCutchen, now in his fifth year as a Pirate and his second as a legitimate star, who is now among the National League’s Most Valuable Player award leaders. They also drafted Starling Marte, a dynamic second-year left fielder who leads the NL in triples and has 36 stolen bases, Pedro Alvarez, who leads the NL in home runs, and Gerrit Cole, who has emerged as a solid third starter in his rookie season. They took chances on veterans everyone else seemed through with, guys like pitchers A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano, who is pitching like its 2006 again in his first year in Pittsburgh, and catcher Russell Martin. They used sabermetrics to settle on veteran shortstop Clint Barmes. Instead of letting talent slip away to bigger markets as they have in years past, they locked up McCutchen to a long-term deal early in his career, and they made a savvy trade for Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau late in August, a sign that they weren’t just gunning for a winning season but success in the playoffs.
They did it all on the fifth-smallest payroll in Major League Baseball, and they did it by out-performing even themselves. The most remarkable thing about the Pirates is that they really aren’t all that remarkable — ESPN’s Dave Schoenfield ranked their pitching staff sixth among the top-eight World Series contenders, and they’re last among NL playoff contenders in run differential, a key indicator of postseason success. Still, they spent the first three months of the season playing better than stats show they should have and the next two months doing the same thing, as FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron noted in August. Even though they’ve regressed slightly since then, the Pirates still have a 99.9 percent chance of making the playoffs and are only a game back in the race to win the NL Central division.
Like Tampa Bay and Oakland before them, the Pirates have seemingly figured out that they didn’t necessarily need the Yankees’ money to compete (though baseball’s revenue-sharing model has certainly helped). Instead, they just needed to be smarter, savvier, and maybe a little willing to take chances on veterans and young players than their more well-heeled counterparts. Whether they can sustain success like Tampa and Oakland, both teams that spend even less than the Pirates, remains to be seen. It’s still unclear too if they’ll follow the path of the Rays, a team that put years of failure behind it by reaching the World Series in 2008, or the A’s, who haven’t been able to translate Moneyball success from the regular season to the playoffs.
But the Pirates aren’t a team only Pittsburgh should enjoy, even as much as Pittsburgh needs to enjoy them. They are fun to watch, fun to root for, and most of all, evidence that baseball is as competitive as ever. If Pittsburgh can win, so too can your team. Even you, Kansas City.