August 11, 2022

They Belong to the Ages: The 2010 Pittsburgh Pirates

July 14, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Sometimes we notice incompetence only when it assumes its most spectacular forms.  The chemist who blows up her lab.   The surgeon who amputates the wrong leg.  The mechanic who fills your radiator with wiper fluid.

But often we overlook the grinding, day-to-day manifestations of ineptitude, the kind you live with and suffer through until one day you finally take a step back, survey the full magnitude of the accumulated damage, and ask yourself, “My God!  How did this happen?”

Most fans are aware of Pittsburgh’s epic streak of 17 straight losing seasons.  However, the national media has remained mum about the particularly shameful state of the 2010 Pirates, who are slowly, quietly shaping up as perhaps the worst major league team since World War II.

The Bucs careened into the all-star break with a record of 30-58, which is terrible, of course, but not historic.   However, the truly astonishing statistic is the Pirates’ run differential.  Opponents have outscored them 478-284, which calculates to an expected won-loss record (Pythagorean W-L) of 24-64.  So as appalling as their actual record is, it is six games better than it deserves to be.  Statistically, the Pirates have been, by far, baseball’s luckiest team.

The list of the worst records in baseball history is littered with teams that were at least a little bit unlucky.  They all were horrible clubs, but in most cases they weren’t quite as awful as their records suggest.  Even the inglorious 1962 Mets, with their 40-120 mark, had an expected won-loss record of 50-110.  So they were dreadful, sure, but they also didn’t catch a lot of breaks.  The Pirates, on the other hand, have fared disproportionately well in close games – a record of 14-15 in one-run contests.  An extensive body of research suggests a club that has been outscored as badly as the Bucs shouldn’t expect to survive that many tight ones.

Since 1900, only four teams have finished a season with an expected won-loss percentage worse than that of the Pirates right now:

Team Expected W-L Actual W-L

2010 Pittsburgh Pirates (to date) 24-64 (.273) 30-58 (.341)
1904 Washington Senators 41-110 (.272) 38-113 (.252)
1909 Washington Senators 41-111 (.270) 42-110 (.276)
1916 Philadelphia Athletics 41-112 (.268) 36-117 (.235)
1942 Philadelphia Phillies 39-112 (.258) 42-109 (.278)

A team’s expected won-loss record has solid predictive value.  In baseball, luck is your ally for only so long; over a season, teams and players tend to regress toward the mean.   Therefore, the rest of the way, we might expect the Bucs’ winning percentage to be closer to .273 than .341.

It might get even worse.   If recent history is any guide, Pittsburgh is likely to be a seller at the trading deadline, which means they could significantly weaken themselves for the final two months by casting off useful veterans like catcher Ryan Doumit or starter Paul Maholm.   According to Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Pirates are on pace to be outscored by 362 runs this year.  If they slip just a little bit and are outscored by 373 runs, it would be the worst run differential of any team since 1899.

An optimist, though, will point out that the Bucs do seem to have a smidge more talent on the field than they did during the season’s first three months, when they were wasting regular at-bats and innings on ciphers like Aki Iwamura, Charlie Morton, and Jeff Clement.  Rookie Neil Walker has performed surprisingly well since replacing Iwamura at second base.  Much-hyped prospects Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez have done little since getting the call last month, but they have the potential to improve in the second half.  Right-hander Ross Ohlendorf, injured in April, has been OK since returning, while rookie Brad Lincoln hasn’t been extraordinary since joining the rotation a few weeks ago, but hasn’t embarrassed himself, either.

The ‘62 Mets should feel safe; Pittsburgh probably will not lose 120 games.  But 110 losses are a real possibility, and 100 defeats are almost guaranteed.   Yes, 2010 was supposed to be more about development than wins and losses.   The trouble is that outside of set-up man Evan Meek, no one on the opening day roster has shown discernable growth.  In fact, several key players (Morton, Andy LaRoche, Garrett Jones) have regressed markedly from 2009.

For the fifth straight year, the Pirates are next-to-last in the National League in attendance.  Too bad. People don’t know what they’re missing.  A team like this might come around only once in a lifetime.

James Forr is the 2005 winner of the McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award and co-author of Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography, released in January 2010.


One Response to “They Belong to the Ages: The 2010 Pittsburgh Pirates”
  1. Devon Young says:

    It’s as if Pittsburgh’s trying hard to lose, but they just can’t LOL …Reminds me of a Casey Stengel quote – “I always heard it couldn’t be done, but sometimes it don’t always work.”

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