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Deconstructing the Pirates

With the Brewers embracing a systematic rebuild following the 2014 and 2015 collapse, it is worth scrutinizing other building cycles around the MLB. As the Brewers play in Pittsburgh, the Pirates are winding down their second disappointing season following their 2013-2015 contending run. Pittsburgh fully rebuilt their baseball operations, analytics, and player development system under Neal Huntington, who began the massive project in the 2007-2008 offseason. At that time, the Pirates were in the midst of 15 consecutive losing seasons, including eight consecutive years during which 75 wins was the peak achievement. Needless to say, with this losing atmosphere in the background, Huntington had a full mandate to rebuild the franchise. A decade later, it is worth asking, did the Pirates have a successful rebuild? Or, rather, to the extent that the Pirates successfully rebuilt their franchise, what can the Brewers learn from the Huntington model?

Huntington Pirates Wins
2008 67
2009 62
2010 57
2011 72
2012 79
2013 94
2014 88
2015 98
2016 78
2017 [79 max]

Travis Sawchik, at the time a Pirates beat writer, documented Huntington’s redesign of Pirates baseball operations in (fantastic and highly recommended) Big Data Baseball. One of the successes of Huntington’s regime was the early use of pitch framing and PITCHf/x data, which arguably allowed the club to flourish with (then) counter-industry signings of Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. Sawchik also demonstrated that Huntington’s efforts to redesign the Pirates system required aspects of the organization to be built from scratch; in this sense, Huntington did not necessarily “rebuild” the Pirates so much as “build” the organization. This perspective must be kept in mind in assessing Pittsburgh’s performance, for it took the Huntington Pirates five years to fully compete in the NL Central. The 2011 and 2012 seasons featured glimmers of competitive ball before the club fell back, leaving the 2013 Pirates to fully unveil the successes of the front office.


 

Even with this perspective in mind, it is worth questioning the comprehensive success of the Pirates front office. For after a five year build and three consecutive contending seasons, Pittsburgh fell back to earth with two consecutive losing seasons. 2017 will indeed be another losing year for the Pirates, as the 83-loss club can only reach 79 wins (should they win out); they are on pace to win approximately 73, which is quite a fall from 79 wins in 2016. What is especially interesting about 2016 and 2017 is that the club demonstrated early season success, only to fall back, much like 2011 and 2012. At the 2016 All-Star Break, the 46-43 Pirates might not have been expected to catch the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central, but the club was within two games of the final Wild Card spot. In 2017, a July surge, including a sweep of the Brewers, brought the Pirates within two games of the division lead.

The midseason swoon has become something of a trend for the Pirates, who for better or worse largely eschew notable deadline deals under Huntington’s watch. This seeming disfavor of midseason trade markets (or, seemingly, trade markets in general) defines Huntington’s ballclubs with the long gaze of prospect player development cycles. After building the Pirates system from scratch, Huntington sticks with “his” guys, leaving Pittsburgh generally flush with a deep prospect system, but also held to the volatile fluctuations of player development cycles. A look at the 2013 Baseball Prospectus Pirates Top 10 prospects will showcase this phenomenon:

2013 Pirates Top 10 OFP
RHP Gerrit Cole 7
RHP Jameson Taillon 7
CF Gregory Polanco 6
RHP Luis Heredia 6
IF Alen Hanson 6
OF Josh Bell 6
C Wyatt Mathisen 5
RHP Tyler Glasnow 5
RHP Nick Kingham 5
OF Barrett Barnes 5

Jameson Taillon, due to injuries, appeared on six consecutive Top 10 lists as one of the Pirates’ very best prospects. Tyler Glasnow has appeared within the top three prospects since 2014, seeing his Baseball Prospectus role assessments fluctuate from average to high rotation grades, and everywhere in between, befitting his command issues and also his potential impact. Josh Bell has fluctuated between the system’s midrange and top tier since 2012 before graduating into an impact MLB role. This same game can be played with players like Alen Hanson, Jose Tabata, and others. By sticking with their talent, the Pirates have a fascinating sort of inertia, where their system consistently ranked within the Top 10 among MLB organizations since 2012 without necessarily maximizing that surplus into MLB wins through development, graduation, and trades. The biggest lesson here being that should you desire to stick with prospects, the player development cycle is not a consistent or easily discernible pattern.

Prospects Org Rank Top Three Prospects
2008 17 Andrew McCutchen / Steven Pearce / Neil Walker
2009 22 Pedro Alvarez / Andrew McCutchen / Jose Tabata
2010 21 Pedro Alvarez / Tony Sanchez / Jose Tabata
2011 17 Jameson Taillon / Stetson Allie / Luis Heredia
2012 8 Gerrit Cole / Jameson Taillon / Luis Heredia
2013 6 Gerrit Cole (7) / Jameson Taillon (7) / Gregory Polanco (6)
2014 3 Jameson Taillon (6/7) / Gregory Polanco (6/6) / Tyler Glasnow (5/6)
2015 8 Tyler Glasnow (5/6) / Jameson Taillon (6/7) / Josh Bell (5/6)
2016 6 Tyler Glasnow (70) / Austin Meadows (60) / Jameson Taillon (60)
2017 8 Austin Meadows (60/70) / Tyler Glasnow (60/70) / Josh Bell (55/60)

This inertia can also be reflected in the Pirates midseason transaction log since 2011, as the club has almost systematically refused the notable deadline deal to bolster their clubs. For better or worse, the Pirates exemplify a team that trusts their own system, which produces benefits such as strong reclamation moves (JA Happ, A.J. Burnett, and Jason Grilli, among others, represent this strength). Interestingly enough, the 2016 Pirates exhibited the club’s busiest midseason during the club’s competitive run of seasons, but this was a type of rebuilding / counterbuilding formula to realign the club. Here, a fantastic move such as the Mark Melancon and Francisco Liriano demonstrated that perhaps the Huntington front office was more comfortable using midseason deadline moves to restock for the future rather than pay for an MLB upgrade to reach the playoffs. It’s difficult to argue with this set of moves in one sense, as Felipe Rivero (2.1 WARP) and Ivan Nova (1.5 WARP) became two of the 2017 Pirates key contributors.

Midseason Moves Acquired
2011 Jason Grilli (Free Agent) / Derrek Lee (Trade) / Ryan Ludwick (Purchase)
2012 Wandy Rodriguez (Trade) / Kyle Kaminska & Gaby Sanchez (Trade) / Chad Qualls (Trade)
2013 John Buck & Marlon Byrd (Trade) / Kelly Shoppach (Free Agent) / Kyle Farnsworth (Free Agent)
2014 Ernesto Frieri (Trade) / Angel Sanchez (Waivers) / John Axford (Waivers)
2015 Travis Ishikawa (Waivers) / Aramis Ramirez (Trade) / Joe Blanton (Purchase) / Joakim Soria (Trade) / Mike Morse (Trade) / Travis Snider (Free Agent)
2016 Erik Kratz (Purchase) / Eric Fryer (Waivers) / Cole Figueroa (Waivers) / Taylor Hearn & Felipe Rivero (Trade) / Drew Hutchison (Trade) / Antonio Bastardo (Trade) / Ivan Nova (Trade) / Zach Phillips (Trade) / Wade LeBlanc (Trade)
2017 Joaquin Benoit (Trade) / Sean Rodriguez (Trade)

It is difficult to draw a set of lessons from one club to another, given the asymmetrical distribution of resources, human capital (in the form of both players and front office personnel), ownership disposition, risk aversion, and information. For the reason, the Brewers rebuilding effort cannot truly be compared to any other club’s efforts; the Milwaukee rebuild will not be the Cubs or Astros build, the Cardinals restructuring, or the big data Pirates reconstruction. Even with this caveat in mind, it is worth questioning MLB results, and finding front office traits that may either be replicated or avoided.


 

The Pirates build is interesting for two key reasons. First, it is worth asking what type of MLB results constitute a successful building effort. Pittsburgh endured five seasons building up to their contending 2013-2015 seasons, and then the club ran into the 2013 Cardinals, 2014 Giants, and 2015 Cubs. It is difficult to look at 280 cumulative wins from those seasons and say that success hinges on eight total games (three Wild Card games and the 2013 NL Division Series), but it is equally difficult to simply state that one can be pleased with a club’s process (they do not hand out Pennants for Process). Perhaps one can judge the lack of staying power for these Pirates, and weigh the losing campaigns in 2016 and 2017 against that competitive era. Here the lesson for the Brewers is one clear question; would this stated rebuilding effort be worthwhile for three consecutive Wild Cards and one LDS? Or, alternately, one stretch of 280 wins over three seasons?

Second, the Pirates demonstrate a type of directionless flow that could serve as an intriguing model for MLB small market clubs. As much as many GMs would arguably not want to replicate the Pirates’ transaction aversion, and certainly caution against fully hanging MLB successes on the ebb and flow of player development cycles, here the Pirates sit with a gang of players age-25 or younger that are at least interesting at the MLB level. These players include Josh Bell, Adam Frazier, Gregory Polanco, Chad Kuhl, Trevor Williams, Jameson Taillon, and Tyler Glasnow. Ace Gerrit Cole is finishing his age-26 campaign. For this reason, it is difficult to say whether the Pirates are indeed entering a downturn (and hence, their two year losing stretch will be prolonged), or whether the club is simply between development cycles (and perhaps their 2018 club will be expected to improve). One can squint through that gang of players, add in Andrew McCutchen and top prospect Austin Meadows, and see fantastic building blocks for 2018 contention. Here the lesson for the Brewers is that it would not be absurd to contend in 2018 while saying, “the Brewers ran into the 2018 Pirates” much like the 2015 Pirates ran into the Cubs.

With the latter argument in mind, it remains worthwhile to ask how long Huntington will remain in charge of these Pirates, for the final question will be how GM cycles can be assessed. If player development cycles are long, volatile, and tricky to assess, surely GM cycles are doubly so. The 2018 NL Central will be interesting precisely because the Pirates will rest with the Brewers in this neverbuilding no man’s land, for GM David Stearns has already assembled a Brewers roster that successfully confounds any labeling as “rebuilding” or “contending.” One only needs to ask, then, what a successful regime looks like for Stearns.


 

Photo Credit: Charles LeClaire, USAToday Sports Images

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