I suspect all Pirate fans are cursing Dame Fortune as all their competitors for playoff spots continue to win, and the Bucs slip further back in the Central. It might be a good time to consider where the team has been and how far it has come. Two years ago, the Pirates won 57 games. Last year, they won 72. This year, they are currently 15 games over .500, and are on a pace to win 88-89 games. Even if they should win only 87, it would represent the second consecutive 15 game improvement. To see what an accomplishment that is, I went back and looked for any team that had that kind of improvement over a two year period (strike years excluded). There are two; the 1912-1914 Braves who went from 52 wins to 94 wins, and the 1925-1927 Yankees, who went from 69 wins to 110 wins. Looking at how they did it, I list below the primary players and their WAR in parentheses. For catchers, I list only the primary player, but add in the WAR for the top 2, since, even then, most teams used two catchers. I also list only 5 or 6 pitchers, as in this era, this was the vast majority of innings pitched.
C Kling (0.8), 1B Houser (0.8), 2B Sweeney (5.1), SS O'Rourke (-2.8), 3B McDonald (1.0), OF Titus (2.2), OF Campbell (-1.6), OF Jackson (-0.2), P Tyler (1.4), P Hess (2.1), P Perdue (2.5), P Dickson (-0.1), P Brown (0.1), P Donnelly (-0.8)
C Gowdy (2.1), 1B Schmidt (1.5), 2B Evers (4.8), SS Maranville (4.8), 3B Deal 9-0.1), Of Gilbert (0.5), Mann (1.3), Connolly (3.8), P Rudolph (6.1), P James (7.7), P Tyler (1.4), P Hess (0.2), P(Crutcher (0.0)
A couple of notes on this transformation. First, the Braves were actually a little unlucky in 1912. Their Pythagorean record was about 10 wins better than their actual record. You can see by the turnover that they essentially remade the entire team over the 2 year period. Their only good player was Sweeney, and he was traded for Evers before the 1914 season. Given that Evers was at the end of his career and Sweeny should have been entering his prime, that was pretty gutsy. Maranville and Gowdy were yougsters who were on the 1912 team and were being given a shot. Rudolph and (Bill!) James were in the minors in 1912 and could be thought of as free talent. Both threw more than 330 innings, and this represents almost haf the total for the team. Shockingly, James hurt his arm and was never the same. Rudolph's arm was apparently made of rubber, and he threw over 300 innings the next several years.
C Bengough (-0.2), 1B Gehrig(2.9), 2B Ward (-0.6), SS Wanninger (-2.0), 3B Dugan (0.7), OF Meusel (3.2), OF Combs (3.5), Of Ruth (3.2), P Pennock (6.3), P Hoyt (4.0), P Shocker (5.3), P Jones (1.4), P Shawkey (1.7)
C Collins (2.4), 1B Gehrig (11.5), 2B Lazzeri (5.9), SS Koenig (2.0), 3B Dugan (0.3), OF Meusel (3.8), Combs (6.7), OF Ruth (12.1), P Pennock (2.8), P Hoyt (5.4), P Shocker (2.4), P Ruether (1.2), P Pipgras (1.1), P Moore (5.3)
The 1925 Yankees were not a bad team, but they had specific weaknesses. Ruth as suffering from some sort of illness (stomach, STD, or pay-me-more-money-itis, depending on who you believe). The five pitchers listed threw most of the innings, which was fortunate since the other pitchers were awful (-5 WAR combined). Gehrig was just breaking in. By 1927, he was a superstar, Ruth had returned to form, and the Yankee brass had replaced the weak spots. with better players. The pitching wasn't great, but it didn't have to be. This team outscored the opposition by a mind numbing 276 runs. Gehrig and Ruth both hit more home runs than this staff gave up combined (45). The one interesting pitcher is Wilcy Moore. He appeared in 50 games, starting 12, and threw 213 innings. His ERA was the best in the league. Even throwing away the starts, think how valuable a pitcher would could make 40 appearances and throw 150 innings with a league leading ERA would be. Shockingly, he hurt his arm, and was mediocre for most of the rest of his career.
How about our Pirates? I used the starting lineup and adjusted to 150 games for those who played only a partial season. I used Meek as the reliever, as he was probably the one who pitched the most high leverage innings. Remember this is who management though were our best players
C Doumit (-0.6), 1B Clement (-1.9), 2B Iwamura (-4.7), SS Cedeno (0.3), 3B LaRoche (-2.1), OF Jones (-0.5), OF McCutchen (3.6), OF Milledge (0.4), P Maholm (0,1), P Duke (-1.3), P Karstens (0.6), P Ohlendorf (1.6), P Morton (-2.4), Meek (2.3)
Yeesh. I had forgotten just how bad Iwamura was. Our bullpen wasn't terrible, but overall the pitchers were essentially replacement level. The hitters weren't even that. We are more like the 1912 Braves in that ther was one good player. Fortunately, unlike them, we haven't traded him. Rather he has blossomed into a superstar, much like Gehrig. Of course, these players did not play the entire season; they were cast off as viable replacements could be had. Iwamura and Clement were gone before midseason. Laroche was out before the end. All have been replaced by better players. For the 2012 Pirates, prorated for a full season we have:
C Barajas (1.5), 1B Jones (2.0), 2B Walker (4.2), SS Barmes (-0.5), 3B Alvarez (3.9), OF Presley (-0.5), OF McCutchen (9.1), OF Tabata (-0.2), P McDonald (2.5), P Burnett (2.9), P Correia (0.0), P Bedard (-0.6), P Karstens (0.9), P Hanrahan (1.2).
Overall, not too bad. Some of the lesser performers are already gone. Somehow, we have found someone worse than Ronny Cedeno at shortstop. The starting pitching is not great, but in this era, relief pitchers have become more valuable. In fact, Huntington has assembled a strong relief corps that will likely provide more than 7 wins over the course of a season.
So, hats off to NH for a thorough rebuilding. The Pirates might not make the playoffs, but they are much imporved. I would be happy with anything more than 81 wins, but if they get to 87, I will toast the team and thank them for a historic ride. For all you insane optimists out there, note that both the 1914 Braves and the 1927 Yankees swept the World Series in 4 straight.