I would like to conduct that age old experiment that we all were forced to do in our high school classes: take the opposing, unpopular opinion that is most likely different than our own. I have found myself doing this over the last couple years as Mr. Nutting has found himself on lists throughout Pittsburgh and the country as one of the worst owners of a professional sports franchise. This has been difficult as a fan to reconcile with, especially as a distance fan (I now live in the lovely metropolis known as Baltimore) because I have mostly been privy to positive information and recent playoff runs. However, after the McCutchen and Cole trades and the lack of serious action this off season; I was forced into an internal debate over "Bottom-line Bob" and the "Spend Nutting, Win Nutting" culture.
Below is my three-part defense of Mr. Nutting, a list of items we really shouldn't blame him for, and how we as fans should appreciate what this team and fan base has been provided through his ownership.
1) Winning: the very basic measurement of success. Nutting has been owner since 2007. Since 2007 the Pirates record is 920-1,021. 920 wins in 12 seasons. That averages 77 wins a season, and has included four winning seasons with three playoff appearances. Let's take those numbers and compare them to the previous 12 seasons.
1995-2006 baseball seasons record: 841-1,082. Additionally, there were no winning seasons or playoff appearances in these 12 years. Therefore in the 12 year comparison, Nutting ownership produced 59 more wins or an added 5 wins a season. For lack of a better phrase or stat line: Bob Nutting's WAR is 4.9. Any player that produces that statistic is normally celebrated.
Now Nutting did not take at-bats or pitch an inning himself, but what can we hold him responsible for in this time frame that contributes to wins? Hirings and firings. Nutting brought in Frank Coonelly, who would hire Neal Huntingdon, who would hire Clint Hurdle. These three men arguably have adjusted the culture of the Pirates organization as a front office and have brought the city there first winning seasons since '92. They draft much better, have produced more quality players through the minor league system, and have consistently outperformed on-field seasonal expectations by most MLB "experts".
2) Money: The most common complaint against Bob Nutting has been his closed wallet. This is simply not true. In 2007, the opening day payroll salaries were approximately $38,000,000. Adjusted for inflation, today that dollar amount would be approximately $46,000,000. The opening day payroll this past season was $87,000,000 and in 2017 the organization had its first ever season over the 100 million dollar threshold. Now the Pirates still spend in the bottom third of teams in baseball, but, the overall money spent has approximately doubled since he has taken over primary ownership of the team.
It has recently been released by MLB and Forbes that when the Pirates play on national television broadcasts, 5% of the country watches the Pirates (because Black and Gold Nation roles deep!). This ranking is actually higher than clubs like the Yankees and Cubs. What this is allowing Mr. Nutting to do is re-negotiate our television contracts from one of the worst in baseball (25 million/year) to one of the best (80 million/year is the goal). This process has not been finalized yet (contract is good through this season), but appears that it will be successful. This will give the Pirates the chance to further expand their payroll, upgrade training facilities, and yes; line the pockets of ownership.
3) Attendance: This statistic is down all over MLB. It is a cultural problem with the sport that all teams need to take time and address individually and as a whole. There are good numbers coming from the Pirates though...
Let me preface these numbers by saying the Pirates have the 3rd lowest attendance, and have the most skewed wins to attendance ratio outside of Oakland. However, subtracting the inaugural season of PNC park, it is Nutting's leadership group that for the first time since 1991 has put 2 million butts in home Pirate game seats. Additionally from the 2012 to 2016 season, it is the first time ever that the Pirates had over 2 million butts in seats for five consecutive seasons. This is especially impressive for the 2012 season as they had not yet been to the playoffs and earned their 20th consecutive losing season.
Attendance is normally most correlated to wins, and I've already presented my argument into how Nutting contributes to team success on the field. However, there is much more than that. Fan experience matters. Vendors matter. Youth programs matter. Community outreach matters. PNC is a beautiful park and has been since its creation. New stadiums come and go all the time though. To raise or keep high attendance you have to create a joyful experience and atmosphere, and address all of the components of a professional sports organization. These are all issues handled by ownership.
Bob Nutting cannot be blamed for or accused of:
1) Taking ownership of a ball club that had poor front office culture problems and losing in those first few seasons. Like hiring a new coach, it takes time for the players and staff you want to be at the helm of a major league ball club. All processes, beliefs, and ideas surrounding the organization had to change to stop a 20 year losing streak. It started with ownership.
2) Not spending money. He has and is negotiating ways to add more payroll options to the Pirates roster. These are simply baseless accusations.
3) Huntingdon not signing elite free agents because they believe the winning culture of the organization still has problems, because the twitterverse announces "Spend Nutting, Win Nutting".
4) Not signing elite free agents because Nutting won't pay. Bob Nutting is part of an OWNERSHIP GROUP of which he is the principal owner. Other owners own between 1% and 49% of the Pirates. Realistically, Nutting's ownership is just past the 51% threshold mark. Exact numbers aren't out there, but other owners are. Nutting cannot spend the money of the rest of the ownership group. More publication needs researched and reported on the other owners, their stake in the team, and financially how much they contribute. I think it's safe to assume that tight pockets lie with others in the organization.
In conclusion, Robert Nutting is not the greatest owner of a professional sports team. There are much worse out there than him, and before being scolded through social media or the press; it is important that we examine all sides of an argument. The Pirates will not magically have the payroll of the Dodgers or Cardinals, however, the ball club is trending in a positive direction.