The unluckiest and luckiest seasons in Pittsburgh Pirates history
There’s a lot of luck involved in baseball, both good and bad. So which Pittsburgh Pirates have received the most and least luck in their history?
Baseball is just a harshly unfair game. There are so many factors that go into baseball that make the sport full of chance. Swinging just a hair behind or a hair ahead can be the difference between a foul ball or a line shot. Some pitchers missed more than 6 inches above the strike zone, but gave up homers on those pitches. During this time, it often happens that a pitcher gives up five runs and is bailed out by the offense. Many little things can significantly decide the outcome of a baseball game.
Many players throughout MLB history have had tough, no-fault seasons, and they’re just down on their luck. Today I want to look at some of the unluckiest seasons in Pittsburgh Pirates history, and there have been plenty of lucky and unlucky seasons post-integration.
Ralph Kiner, the all-time great pirate, has the lowest single-season batting average on live balls in organizational history. Now I know what you’re thinking; how can Kiner, who has led the National League in home runs every year he played with the Bucs, be unlucky? Well, take a look at his 1952 season.
Although Kiner was good, he absolutely could have been better had he had a better chance to hit the ball. The outfielder was still one of the best hitters in the league as he hit for a solid line of .244/.384/.500, .407 wOBA and 139 wRC+, ranking among the top 12 hitters in wRC+, wOBA and OPS. However, he only recorded a .221 batting average on balls in play, well below the .265 mark he had set in the previous six seasons. Even if Kiner had a .250 BAbip, he probably would have had a .260+ batting average. Kiner was never a high BAbip hitter, but .221 was weak even for him.
While wins and losses are the last thing you want to consider when evaluating a pitcher, they can indicate good throwing/bad run support and vice-versa. While Dock Ellis may have had luck on his side when he threw his LSD no-hitter, it was definitely not in his corner in 1969, his sophomore season. Ellis had a solid 3.58 ERA, 2.86 FIP and 1.29 WHIP in 218.2 innings of work for the Pirates. Ellis wasn’t the only 1969 Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher to suffer more losses than wins, as Bob Veale had 13 Ws and 14 Ls.
For a team that averaged 4.5 points per game, the second-most points in the National League East were second in the league in runs scored while ranking in the top two in batting average team, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, the Bats didn’t seem to want to wake up when Ellis took the mound. They’re averaging just over three points per game with Ellis, and the team was 16-19 in Ellis’ starts. He’s never thrown more than a three-point lead, and even then he’s only done it once. He pitched when the game was tied 28 times, with a one-run lead four times, and lost just one run. Ellis’ ’69 season is just one of many times a pitcher has a good campaign but is burned by poor running support.
Another unlucky season by a pitcher comes from Bob Friend in 1954. Friend had a 5.07 ERA while serving as a swing-man for the Pirates. He started 20 of his 35 total appearances, totaling 170.1 innings pitched. Although he gave up many earned runs, he had a 3.80 FIP. Defense was one of the many weak points of the 1954 team, with -36 total points in the zone, the lowest in the National League with a difference of 18 points. Only three of the seven Pirates who appeared in 100+ games were above average defenders, and none had +5 TZR. Friend wasn’t the only pitcher to suffer a poor ERA despite pitching solid. The pitching team as a whole had a 4.92 ERA but 4.14 FIP and led the league against opponent BAbip.
Among Pirate relievers, John Grabow might have had a better season in 2004. The right-hander pitched 61.2 innings for the Bucs with a 5.11 ERA. But it also had a 4.00 FIP and a 3.53 xFIP. Grabow was scorched by a .393 batting average on balls in play, which is surprising that he had such a high rating considering his strong 47% rushing ball rate. Again, it was a good pitch but bad pitch. The Pirates were a -17 overall zone run team. Although they were significantly better than in 1954 on defense, they were still the third worst team in the National League on defense.
Another very unlucky season for a Pirates reliever came from Tommie Sisk in 1964. Sisk threw a total of 61.1 innings and had a 6.16 ERA. But his 3.88 FIP is the biggest difference between ERA and FIP in team history (among relievers). Again, this was another instance of one of the worst defenses in the league doing no favors and, instead, hurting pitchers more often than not. The Pirates had -22 points overall in the zone, third-worst in the league. The only thing that saved them from being even worse was the fact that Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski combined for +21 TZR. This led to Sisk posting a .390 BAbip.
A final reliever worth mentioning is Chris Resop in 2011. Resop had a 4.39 ERA in 69.2 innings but still had a decent 25.6% strikeout rate, 9.7% walk rate and 1 .0 HR / 9. But he had a FIP of 3.67 and a SIERA of 3.08 (interactive ERA on skills). Resop 2011 has the most significant difference between ERA and SIERA among all Pirates relievers with 50+ IP.
The most fortunate
You probably wouldn’t think a guy who hits a ton of ground balls and not too many line drives would have a good season at the plate, but Starling Marte did in 2013. Marte hit .280/.343 /.441 with a .344 wOBA and 122 wRC+. Once you look at the batting rates, Marte’s 2013 doesn’t seem like it should have happened. He had a 50.8 percent ground ball rate and less than 30 percent GB percent, but hit 12 homers and had an above-average isolated slugging percentage of .161. His homer appearance rate per plate was also within the league average. He only had a walk rate of 4.4% and a strikeout rate of 24.4%, but still had a .343 on-base percentage, well above the league average of .315. . It has a lot to do with his .363 BAbip and 24 HBP.
The most RBIs in a wRC+ season below 95 came from Bill Robinson in 1978. Robinson had 80 in 136 games and 552 plate appearances. Despite his good RBI total, he only hit for a 91 wRC+. The Pirates as a team were decent reaching base at a solid pace, with an OBP of .320. Robinson was solid but not great with runners on base, having only averaged .265 and .791 OPS, but also had 268 plate appearances with runners on base. That was 53 more chances than Willie Stargell in 78.
Kevin Correia in 2011 and Ian Snell in 2006 are two of many examples of why no one is watching the pitching win/loss record anymore. Correia had an ERA and FIP just under five, at 4.79 and 4.85, respectively, but won 12 games, two more than Jacob deGrom in 2018. The most wins recorded by a pitcher in the Pirates with an ERA over 4.50 comes from Ian Snell. In 2006, Snell posted a 4.74 ERA and 4.58 FIP but had a 14-11 record. Both pitchers had just two more losses than Bob Gibson in 1968 when he had a 1.12 ERA. Each of Corriea and Snell received nearly five rounds of run support on average during their starts. It’s pretty crazy how much running support each got from the Pirates offense. The team ranked 16th and 14th in runs scored in 2006 and 2011, while ranking in the bottom three in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage between the two years.
A particular late win/loss record comes from Roy Face in 1959. Face was closest to the original Pirates and was the first Bucs pitcher to record 10+ saves in a season. In 1959, Face won 18 games in 57 appearances/93.1 innings pitched. Although he was efficient with a 2.70 ERA, 2.60 FIP and 1.24 WHIP, 18 wins and no starts is an MLB record. Face only pitched over 2 innings 11 times and never pitched until the seventh inning. The Pirates happened to take the lead when he was in the game very often.
Eddie Solomon was a pitcher for the Pirates in 1980, and while he had a fairly standard 7-3 record for a swing-man type pitcher, he was bailed out by the offense on several occasions. Salomon had a 2.76 ERA but 4.32 FIP in 100.1 innings. While his FIP isn’t terrible, it’s still one of the biggest differences between ERA and FIP in the Pirates’ post-integration history. The Pittsburgh Pirates were the best defensive team in the league this time around with +27 total points in the zone.
Chasen Shreve’s 2021 season is pretty impressive once you dive deeper into it. Shreve had an ERA of 3.20 but an xFIP of 5.15. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings of work, who is in the top 10 lowest ERA among pitchers with an xFIP greater than 5.00. Ironically, another former hacker has an even lower ERA and an even higher xFIP, at 2.94 and 5.36. He also has the highest single-season SIERA (Skill-interactive ERA) for Pirates relievers with 50+ IP, at 4.93.