The Pirates aren’t interesting anymore. They’ve ceased to capture my attention. They’re nearly impossible to write about unless you’re rehashing your take on a derivative story line. “What’s missing from the Pirates?” “Where will they find their upgrades?” “Why does ownership suck, so hard?” We’ve reached the point in the season where we’ve called out to the lord and savior Mark Cuban to kick the tires on how interested he is in buying the team. He isn’t and won’t be. The team follows the same annual cycles. Ok start, poor May, strong June and sometimes July. Tank in August and September. This year they fell off a little early, but couldn’t even make being a clear seller at the deadline for the first time in roughly eight years a story.
I want to start by saying that my interest in a team doesn’t depend on winning or losing. I think the term fair weather fan is an oxymoron. If you punt on your team when they struggle, you’re not much of a supporter. I would prefer the Pirates to win, but they kept my attention for years in the tank.
In my opinion, Bob Nutting has built an organization in his own image. No, not cheap or shrewd. Boring. If anyone has ever seen the Bucco’s primary owner speak publicly for more than two or three minutes, Nutting is as dull as you would expect a man who built his empire on small metropolitan newspapers to be. It’s not a business for forward looking people. It’s an industry that has demonstrated little vision to adapt to changing times profitably. Buying up businesses, regardless of the industry, demonstrates deeper pockets and a greater predilection for low risk investment than visionary leadership.
Let’s make something clear. The Pirates cannot be expected to invest in winning the way a team like Dodgers, Yankees or even the Cardinals can hope to. St. Louis is in a similar market to the Pirates but enjoy a broader regional interest than other midsized TV markets. The Pirates have performed poorly at the gates and the TV contract isn’t much better despite good ratings within the market.
In order to be successful, the Pirates do need good players, but they also need strong organizational philosophies to keep them ahead of the pack. During their peak years under Neal Huntington’s tenure as general manager, the Pirates took defensive shifts to a whole new level and made pitch framing a common evaluation tool for catchers. In the last four years, they’ve gone from leader to follower. They were a couple years behind the curve in embracing launch angles, past the point where they could inexpensively exploit the market for players who could benefit most from some mechanical changes.
Instead, they continue to force what worked before. They still emphasize heavy fastball usage despite watching three pitchers in their organization, Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow move on to tremendous, more consistent success by working in their breaking pitches more frequently. Teams have learned to hit over the shift and yet the one prospect the Pirates returned this year at the trade deadline is known primarily for his AA groundball rate.
The Pirates don’t seem to have a direction and drifting listlessly somewhere between mediocrity and loser denial just has lost its appeal for me. People, myself included, have set up a false dichotomy where the Pirates need to go balls to the wall to contend or they should just blow the damn thing up! If they were going to rebuild, we would have seen more action at the trade deadline. If they were going to spend, they’d have backed up their aggressive 2018 deadline with another strong move or two in the offseason. The front office has chosen a middle path where they try to keep the still relatively young, controllable core together and see what happens. This is a direction, it’s just not a very dramatic direction. It’s not proactive and it relies too much on getting lucky. They nearly did this season with the emergence of Josh Bell, but bad luck in the form of injuries struck as well.
It’s tinkering rather than retooling and very rarely has Huntington managed to tinker successfully. Often times, he’s shed unproven prospects with limited upside for players with limited upside who have proven they are worth very little at the major league level. In the short run, you don’t notice making a series of poor small bets, but the impact in the longer term can be notable. Not to mention, he’s trading interesting players we’ve followed for years in the minor leagues for uninteresting AAAA lifers.
While I’ve long been a supportive of Huntington and celebrate his successes, I think he has run his course building this franchise. If he and his staff had anything else to bring to the table, they would have by now. They lack strong vision at this point that will drive the Pirates to success. It’s time for a new direction, but it likely won’t happen. Why? Because Bob Nutting is boring and risk averse. The Pirates could do better than Neal Huntington, but they could do worse as well. The owner has to be concerned with the damage a rebuild could cause with already an already insecure, fan base.
I won’t quit on the Pirates ever. I’m either too stupid or stubborn to, but it’s getting more difficult for even a die hard baseball dork like myself to stay engaged. I can take losing, and I would happily accept three years of suck if the club committed to a rebuild around some new front office exploiting a new market inefficiency. Maybe Huntington and company’s boring middle path will work. While I don’t like it, I have no idea how it’ll turn out. Until I do, I guess it’s boredom to maintain my fandom.