Bryan Reynolds had a phenomenal 2021 season. Over 159 games played and 646 plate appearances, the 26-year-old center fielder hit .302/.390/.522 with 24 home runs, 35 doubles, and a league-leading eight triples. He played sound defense in centerfield. His baserunning was solid. All in all, Reynolds put together a great season that earned him a 6.0 bWAR and 5.5 fWAR.
Since 2010, there have only been five individual qualified seasons in which a Pirate hitter reached an OPS of .900 or higher. Andrew McCutchen did it three times from 2012-14. Josh Bell did it in 2019. In 2021, Reynolds achieved that mark as well. Because of his outstanding offensive output, Reynolds was chosen as a Silver Slugger finalist for National League outfielders. There is a real chance that he lands that award. Although Reynolds likely won’t receive any first-place MVP votes, it is a guarantee that he will be on many ballots, perhaps in the fourth to sixth place range.
When it came to the 2021 season as a whole, the Pirates failed to generate many, if any, other positives besides Reynolds’ awesome year. The team lost 101 games. This was the ninth time in franchise history that this organization had lost 100 or more games (yes, I’m including the 1890 Alleghenys who went 23-113). Sadly for Reynolds, his spectacular 2021 season will likely be forgotten years from now as all aspects of a terrible team are usually forgotten. That includes the limited good parts.
This got me wondering. What are some of the other great “lost” individual seasons trapped within an overall terrible team year? I went back and looked at every 100 loss season for the Pirates. Some of those teams had great players who had great seasons. Let’s give them some love.
2001 Brian Giles - LF - 5.3 bWAR - 5.5 fWAR
The 2001 Pirates finished with a record of 62-100. A few names on that team consisted of Pat Meares, John Vander Wal, Abraham Nunez, and Todd Ritchie. This team did not have many, what’s a nice way to put this, good players. They did have Brian Giles though. In 2001, Giles hit .309/.404/.590 with 37 home runs throughout 160 games. His OPS+ that season was 150, just four points higher than Reynolds 146 mark this past season. Although Giles’ overall numbers that year look considerably better than Reynolds in 2021, consider the fact that this was the tail end of the steroid era and offensive numbers were still ridiculous. Giles was a monster over his time in Pittsburgh. In 2001, he was an All-Star and finished 24th in MVP voting. He deserves to be appreciated.
*Honorable mention* - 2001 Aramis Ramirez - 3B - 4.1 bWAR - 4.7 fWAR
Aramis Ramirez also raked for this team. As a 23-year-old, Ramirez hit .300/.350/.536 with 34 dingers over 153 games played. Without both Giles and Ramirez, this team would have struggled to rack up 50 wins.
1985 Rick Reuschel - SP - 6.4 bWAR - 5.2 fWAR
In February of 1985, right-hander Rick Reuschel signed a free-agent deal with the Pirates. That season, he was phenomenal. Over 194 innings pitched, Reuchel went 14-8 with a 2.27 ERA (2.58 FIP). That season, he completed nine games from start to finish (oh how the times have changed). Although he wasn’t an All-Star and did not receive any Cy Young award votes, Reuschel won the Gold Glove that season. Every fifth day, the Pirates had a chance to win with Reuschel on the mound. Sadly, that wasn’t the case for the other four days.
In 1985, the Pirates went 57-104. Their home run leader that season was Jason Thompson with 12. No other starting pitcher on that team had an ERA lower than four. Reuschel was phenomenal. Everyone else was not. In 1987, Reuschel was traded to the Giants. That season, he finished third in Cy Young voting. With a career bWAR of 69.5 (68.2 fWAR), it is a wonder that he is not included in the Hall of Fame.
Ralph Kiner’s entire Pirates career (1946-1953) - OF - 43.4 bWAR - 42.3 fWAR
I know how I said earlier that most great individual seasons are forgotten if that season happened while playing on a terrible team. Ralph Kiner is the exception to that rule. It is a known fact that Kiner was an absolute beast during his time in Pittsburgh despite playing for many awful teams. From 1946-1952, Kiner led the league in home runs every season. During that span, the Pirates finished with a winning record just one time (1948, 83-71). I’ve heard many older folks say that during the Kiner years, fans would wait to see Kiner’s final at-bat before leaving the lost cause of a game.
In Kiner’s best season (1949), the Pirates finished 71-83. That year, he hit .310/.432/.658 with 54 home runs. That season, Kiner led the league in home runs, RBI, walks, slugging, and OPS. He was worth about eight wins by any WAR metric. In 1952, the Pirates finished 42-112-1. That season, Kiner hit .244/.384/.500 with 37 home runs (again, he led the league) and was worth 4.3 bWAR (4.2 fWAR). The next season he was traded to the Chicago Cubs. The Pirates lost more than 100 games that year too.
When it comes to great individual Pirate seasons in which the team lost at least 100 games, Bryan Reynolds’ 2021 season stacks up well with all of them. This is not necessarily something to be proud of, but at the same time, it is nothing to not be proud of either. Even when a team is terrible, there is still occasionally room for at least one or two 4-6 win players.
Overall, I would argue that there is a case to be made that Reynolds had the greatest all-time Pirate season in which the team lost 100 games, at least by position player standards. What do you think?