By Stephen Zielinski
As I faced the task of writing another article on the 2005 Pirates, I quickly realized I couldn’t identify a topic to address! My failure in this respect makes it tricky to write an article, doesn’t it? I even found it difficult to write a ‘recent observations’ piece since little of significance occurred during the past week. ‘What to do? What to do?’ I asked myself. The answer then came to me: Why not write an article about lacking something worthwhile to write about! How very appropriate for this year’s Pirates team!
The 2005 season is not yet old but I have already encountered difficulties writing about this year’s Pirates team. I expected to ‘hit the wall,’ to ‘draw a blank,’ at some point during the season, but I did not believe it would come so early in the year. It’s late April, after all. These admissions might surprise those fans who previously marked me as a ‘complainer’ or ‘whiner’ about the team and its management. They might find them surprising since the Pirates, having just swept the hapless Astros, are currently (April 28, 2005) winning slightly more than a third of their games (.400), a rate that projects to a 65-97 record for the whole season. So, if I were merely looking for reasons about which to ‘complain’ or ‘whine,’ I’d not have to look far or spend much time examining this year’s Pirate team. (‘Hitters? We don’t need no stinkin hitters?’) Yet, the only compelling topic I found to address for this week’s OBN article is the obvious lack of compelling stories to write about! This has been one boring Pirates team....
Why is this so?
The team stinks
While the Pirates have mostly played atrocious baseball this season, it remains difficult to rationally blame the players for what they have done or not done on the field. As I am writing this, some are slumping (J. Bay, O. Perez, M. Gonzalez), some are coming back from injuries (K. Wells and J. Wilson) and some are underperforming while trying to meet the demands the team has placed on them, expectations which might exceed their abilities (C. Wilson, T. Wigginton). Some currently are injured or ill (J. Castillo, B. Santiago, M. Gonzalez, S. Torres). In a few happy instances, the Pirates field players who have beaten their realistically expected performance (R. Mackowiak, J. Mesa, M. Redman, J. Fogg and D. Williams). Yet, despite their good work, the team has won only 40 percent of its games. It’s even looked bad when it has won. It’s been unimpressive because the overachievers are too few in number and collectively incapable of raising the team to a higher level of play. They can’t, after all, resurrect the diminished play of their teammates because they, like every other mortal on the planet, lack the God-like powers this Lazarus-raising achievement would require. They can’t hit for the Wilsons and they can’t pitch for Perez and Wells. They can only play their tiny corner of the game. Although we might expect some or even every laggard on the team to pick up their play as the season evolves, so that the team as a whole no longer needs miracles in order to significantly elevate its level of play, it’s now almost certain that the 2005 Pirates will not finish the season over .500. They may even finish below .400.
Why is it irrational to blame the players? Well, they are what they are. This is a tautology, of course. With it I mean to refer to the fact that Pirate players were known entities before the season began. As such, we — and this royal we includes team management — ought to have had a fairly realistic sense of the height of their ceilings and depth of their floors. Given this rather sensible expectation, we may proceed by noting that the players were accurately evaluated or not by the organization. In either case their presence on the team does reflect the organization’s resources and choices. They reveal the opportunity costs the team was willing to pay to have the right to not pay the salaries it owed to some of its former players (A. Ramirez, B. Giles, J. Kendall, K. Benson); the ability of the organization to evaluate major league ready talent, as Bob Smizik recently argued; the goals the organization set for itself and the means it mustered to realize those goals. We can thus evaluate the organization as a whole by the choices made when Littlefield constructed the 2005 roster. So, we may ask what does the team’s performance so far express about its potential for the season? It suggests that they are not a good team and will not finish over .500. We may infer this point from the fact that the 2005 Pirates have shown a marked inability to score runs, that the team lacks impact hitters. Currently, the Pirates are scoring a feeble 2.85 RPG. Amazingly, although its win rate is terrible, the team has outperformed its actual and adjusted Pythagorean projections for the season. See: Baseball Prospectus Pythagorean Projections, 4.28.2005. (You will need Adobe Reader to view this file.) Things could have been worse when assessed according to the team’s propensity to win games.
Who would have expected otherwise before the season began? (Some did.) Who would have predicted an able offense for this year’s team given, on the one hand, its paltry run scoring (680 RS, 27th overall, 4.22 RpG) and hitting (.722 team ops, 26th overall) last season and, on the other, the virtual ‘stand pat’ attitude Littlefield displayed during the winter? Certainly, no one who has a rational and realistic attitude about the team and its players. For what the Pythagorean data shows is that, far from being a liability, Lloyd McClendon has the team winning at a rate greater than what we would expect given its on-field production. It’s not McClendon who has been the anchor that has held this team back. The Pythagorean data shows a team which looses games because it can’t score runs. It reveals a team lacking even one high-quality middle of the lineup hitter. It has thus over-achieved in that sense. (Perhaps, Littlefield and McClatchy would choose to give Mac a big raise for achieving the impossible: Making them look good!) The Pirates may be lucky so far, McClendon might be a great manager or the team may eventually come to flounder more than it has since the beginning of the season. But, the fact remains that the play of this Pirates team does reflect the quality of the players on the roster. It follows that its performance reflects the quality of the Pirate front office roster.
The greatest share of the blame for this year’s team lies with team management — more specifically, with upper management. We can infer this point from the one I just made above, namely, that the organization as it now exists created this year’s team. As such, it reflects the capabilities and choices made by the organization in this and in years past. Now, as Paul Meyer wrote after the Jason Kendall trade :
‘More importantly I think it is beautiful that we are finally at a position where this is Littlefield's team and he is no longer burdened by bad contracts from a previous administration. This is the first off-season that we get to see the real Dave Littlefield and I am getting really excited about this year and the years to come.’
Yes, ‘everything is beautiful’ — ‘in its own way,’ of course. We might suspect that finding beauty in this year’s team would be an impossible endeavor since it has lost so many games. Who could find splendor in all these losses? Yet, one feature of our situation has been so compelling as to have drawn my attention, namely: The bloom has now fallen from the rose. The flower in question is, of course, the enormous promise Dave Littlefield and PNC Park brought with them in the 2001 season. Fans then could expect that the team was righting itself, that it could afford to keep the kind of players it lost after the 1991 and 1992 seasons, that it would soon be poised to win championships and that it would eventually win another World Series title. Littlefield and PNC would put to rest the ‘Ghosts of Barry Bonds and Sid Bream.’ They would sooth the wounds that have aggravated Pirate fans once their World Series champions of the early 1990s — the team that failed to achieve what they were meant to be — disbanded completely, only to be replaced by the despair and gloom of the 1990s and beyond. Such was the disdain the locals felt for Cam Bonifay that they gladly gave Littlefield a four-year honeymoon. During Littlefield’s tenure, his teams went 254-324 (.439). Yet, one could often hear a fan state: ‘Look at the mess he had to clean up....’ ‘Littlefield has to be better than....’ ‘Give him time.’ And: ‘How could he be worse?’ They could excuse Littlefield’s work so long as the pledge to achieve great things remained active and plausible, that is, until the organization reached a point when a reasonable person could no longer believe the team could win under its current owners and managers. I would say the organization has now reached that point. What remains on the naked stem of the once beautiful rose are the profit-taking thorns of the McClatchy partnership. These he has freely given to the people of the region and the fans of the team. Moreover, the closer a fan comes to the team, the more he or she cares, the more likely he or she will be pricked by these thorns. What are these thorns? Littlefield is one thorn; the ‘Drive for 75’ strategy is another.
The ‘Drive for 75’ strategy may be defined as a discount the McClatchy partnership places on the future and a markup they assign to the present. This adjustment is made every year so that the present, any given current season, is always overvalued and the future undervalued. What this means is that the McClatchy partnership strongly prefers current success — success in the very short term, success during a single season, during one business term — to future success. It lets the future take care of itself by the simple reapplication of the strategy.
From a rational fan’s perspective, the ‘Drive for 75’ strategy implements a kind of value deflation and inflation on the team and its players. It mostly ignores the actual value a player can be expected to provide over successive years by assessing his value using non-baseball performance criteria. To be sure, this non-baseball criteria is filtered through a baseball metric: The 75 win goal. But, the organization derives this ‘baseball goal’ from a business goal. The goal: The preservation of a steady and therefore predictable level of income, costs and thus profit for the McClatchy partnership. The strategy wishes to insure that teams which are too good — which win 85 games or better — or too bad — which loose 95 games or better — do not take the field for the Pirates, as Russ Steele recently noted. The Pirates want to avoid fielding teams such as these — teams which gravitate towards the extremes, which greatly rile or excite the fans, which deflate or inflate the expectations the median fan brings to the game — because the Pirates seem to operate with the belief that widespread and deep fan disappointment will strongly effect gate revenue and thus team profits. The ‘Drive for 75’ strategy intends to avoid these extremes because it wants fan expectations to remain within a range that does not create widespread dissatisfaction and apathy. It prefers a predictable level of attendance to winning. From this predictable attendance and the effort to reduce the team’s costs of doing business, the partnership can thereby increase the profits they take from the operations of the team. The Pirates are thus committed to profit maximization under the constraints the team faces in its markets. They are not committed to winning percentage maximization. The ‘Drive for 75’ strategy is therefore a low risk one for a team like the Pirates. It is not meant to acquire and develop great players, to build a contender, to win a championship for the people of Pittsburgh. It is a plan for perpetual wheel-spinning and profit-taking, as I wrote a few weeks ago.
The reason management shoulders the majority of the assignable blame for this year’s performance is the use it makes of the ‘Drive for 75’ strategy and, of course, the preferences this strategy reflects. The reason the team might fall short of its rather minimal goal is a simple one: Player performance varies. What this means in the context set by the Pirates and their minimalist strategy is that even a team constructed to ‘Drive for 75’ can falter, it can have numerous players produce at or near to the minimum of their rationally expected level of performance just as it can have players who wholly collapse or suffer injuries (and who the team cannot replace with adequate backup players). Because of this variability, this unpredictability, a team meant to ‘Drive for 75’ can actually win a mere 60 games. This outcome looms large when enough of its players perform at or near their minimal level of rationally expected performance that the losses can’t help but to accumulate. In fact, thanks to this variability and the always present possibility that any given player could injure himself, a talent-poor team like those the Pirates send onto the field is more likely to collapse, as this year’s team seems to be doing, than it is to perform to its maximum. Thus, the sad performance of this year’s Pirates team merely reflects the goals the organization has set for itself and one way its ‘Drive for 75’ strategy can fail.
The team might be slumping right now and it may have more than a few players who are now injured or have had poor starts. The team may even be performing at or near its minimally expected rate, so that we can reasonably hope that it will improve as the season progresses. Yet, the team might not improve. The kind of play we have seen so far this season might be what we are going to get for the year. By depending on too many inexpensive players and too few highly talented players, the profit-seeking Pirates will always confront the possibility of just this kind of collective collapse. What’s sad, of course, is the fact that even if this team were to play to its abilities, it would merely win about 75 games! ‘Ay, there’s the rub,’ as the poet had the Dane say. 75 wins — Mission accomplished! Why is this acceptable?
It isn’t, of course.
Could they at least try....
I wouldn’t expect them to. Why would they try when their goal is to make money? Why would the partnership threaten the revenue streams it won with the construction of PNC Park by spending their secure profits to win a championship? Why would they subject themselves to the unrealistic hopes of the fans, to the vagaries of the competitive struggle, to the whims of the team’s bankers? Why would they open themselves to damning criticism?
We shouldn’t expect them too. And it is because management does not try to win championships that I find it difficult to identify topics to write about. The Pirates have modest expectations for the team it fields because the McClatchy partnership has high expectations for the profits it takes from the operation of the team. The players it acquires, develops and sends onto the field reflect this profit-maximization strategy, these modest team aspirations. They symbolize the business goals of the owners. Every strikeout, every poor pitch points to the dollars McClatchy and company pockets or will pocket when they sell the team. It is thus difficult to believe the team is striving to win championships when it isn’t doing any such thing. I find it difficult to be too concerned with the construction of the team when the organization itself is not overly concerned with the construction of the team, its concern being limited to the cost of the team it puts on the field and its ability to win about 75 games.
The organization’s commitment to a profit maximizing goal like the ‘Drive for 75’ strategy became clear enough when the Pirates began to trade away their talented and highly paid players. It was not just the fact that the team wanted to reduce its wage bill and was willing to brave fan criticism by trading away Giles, Ramirez, Benson and Kendall that indicated its adoption of the ‘Drive for 75’ strategy. No, it was the return they got for most of their better players. (Only the Giles trade proved to be the exception and even honest Littlefield defenders must admit that Bay, Perez and Stewart were risky prospects when the Pirates acquired them.) By trading for major league or major league ready players, the Pirates mostly were forced to settle for players with lower ceilings than they would have gotten had they traded their stars for players then in A ball, as Wilbur Miller has often pointed out. The lower ceiling players they did acquire do fit well within the ‘Drive for 75’ strategy, of course. They keep fan expectations in line. They shore up the team for its annual trek to nowhere. They affirm the illusion of competitiveness the organization maintains.
As a fan who wants to root for a championship contender, who longs for the good old days, there is a bit of hope remaining in the mess the McClatchy partnership has made of the team. That hope lies in the possibility that the partnership will sell the team before it earns the record for consecutive loosing seasons.