Monday, November 24, 2008

The Road to 17: 1998

The Road to 17 is a longer-form look at each losing season that the Pirates have had since their last playoff appearance in 1992. The object is not to wallow in the misery of the Pirates, but instead remember just what it is that makes us Pirate fans in the first place. Every team has their great moments, the Pirates' are just fewer and further between. Today, we hit the sixth stop on the Road to 17: 1998.

1998 was, without a doubt, one of the two most disappointing years during this entire debacle. The Freak Show in '97 was supposed to be the rise of a core of young players that would lead the Pirates back to respectability. '98 was supposed to be the year that that young core broke through and brought the Pirates back to glory. They won 69 games and finished in last place in the NL Central, becoming the first sixth place team in the history of the Wild Card era (in 1998 the Brewers shifted to the NL to make room for the creation of the D'Backs and D-Rays ... both of whom have made the World Series since). There's breaking your heart, and then there's ripping your heart out of your chest, stomping on it, and putting it in a doggy bag to take home. The Pirates are awfully good at the latter, and 1998 was just another incidence of that kind of disappointment.

In fact, in about three months, pitchers and catchers are going to report to camp and the Pirate PR machine will start cranking out stories about how this year will be different and the young players are coming around and so on and so forth. And some people will believe that. In fact, there's a good chance that something will happen that will make me pause and think about getting excited for the Pirates' chances in 2009. I won't do it, though because I know better. I take a ton of crap every spring for putting too much stock into projections, but if Pirate fans had paid attention to projections, we probably wouldn't have been as crushed by the 1998 team as we all were.

As far as I can remember, there's only one Pirate highlight from 1998; Turner Ward running full speed through the center field wall at Three Rivers Stadium to catch a fly ball. I want to say that the play defies description, but it doesn't. Turner Ward ran through the wall to catch the ball. That's exactly what happened. I haven't seen anything like it, because it wasn't a wooden wall like the famous Rodney McCrary catch, it was full bore through the fiberglass/padding/whatever else wall that populated those cookie cutter stadiums in the '90s. I don't know how he did that, beyond catching a seam in the wall, but it was amazing.

In all actuality, the Pirates' pitching in 1998 wasn't awful either. Of the six guys that made the majority of the Pirates' starts in 1998, only Jose Silva and Esteban Loaiza had below average ERAs and their ERA+ still came in at 99 and 97 respectively. Francisco Cordova was a horse in 1998, putting in 220 innings that probably ended his career. Jon Lieber, Jason Schmidt, and Chris "I swear to god I'm older than 12" Peters all did a nice job in the rotation as well. The 'pen got a lot of good work from Rich Loiselle before his injury, Jason Christiansen, Ricardo Rincon, Jeff Tabacka, and yes, Mike Williams. Their team ERA+ was actually 112 in 1998 and they were sixth in the NL in runs allowed.

What was the problem? It was the offense. Holy freaking crap, it was the offense. The Pirates only scored 650 runs in 1998. That was 17 runs less than the dismantled Florida Marlin team that lost 104 games. I remember being at Three Rivers for a game in early September against the Cubs in which Sammy Sosa hit his 58th home run. Check out the Pirates' starting lineup from that game, with each players' OPS at the time noted:

  1. Tony Womack, 2B - .686
  2. Adrian Brown, CF - .765
  3. Jason Kendall, C - .874
  4. Kevin Young, 1B - .841
  5. Jose Guillen, RF - .709
  6. Turner Ward, CF - .771
  7. Freddy Garcia, 3B - .941 (though please note the career on-base percentage of .283 in 439 PAs)
  8. Abraham Nunez, SS - .322
  9. Sean Lawrence, P
Now, that list brings back a lot of memories and I'll get to them in a second. One memory it doesn't bring back? Sean Lawerence. Who the hell is Sean Lawrence?

Who remembers the Jose Guillen saga in 1998? After his promising breakout in '97, he got stuck in the Domincan Republic in the spring of '98 and missed a bunch of Spring Training. If I recall correctly, the situation had something to do with visa problems relating to his marriage over the winter. I could be making that up. More accurately, he could've been making that up. In the end, he ended 1998 with an OPS of .712, identical to his number in 1997. It was alarming, though, to see a guy so young (he was 22 at the time) make absolutely no progress at all during the year. The problem was, of course, that the Pirates had zipped him directly from A-ball the year before and he wasn't ready physically or mentally for the Majors. Unfortunately, as we'll see when we get to 1999, the Pirates didn't really learn from this lesson.

All told, the Pirates' team OPS+ in 1998 was 84. To give those of you who might not be as sabermetrically inclined an idea of what an OPS+ of 84 is like, Ronny Paulino's OPS+ in his massively disappointing 2007 was 83. The way Ronny Paulino performed relative to the National League in 2007 is how the Pirates performed relative the National League in 1998. It was seriously that bad.

I do have one other 1998 story to share that's only tangentially related to the Pirates. Despite growing up smack in the middle of Pittsburgh and Cleveland (Hellooooooooooo, Hermitage! I'll be home on Wednesday!) , I didn't make my first voyage to the Jake until late in the 1998 season. I thought I was at one of the Orioles/Indians games from August 13th-16th, but my brother remembers being at a Rangers/Indians game and after talking to him, the schedule shows that the Rangers were in town right before the O's and Esteban Loaiza started one of the games for the Rangers. This seems to ring a bell, so maybe he's right (this isn't as crazy as it sounds -- an acquaintance of the family gave us a bunch of tickets to a couple Indians games that week and I'm almost positive my uncle, grandpa, and a couple cousins were at the 12-inning Indians/Orioles game on Thursday of that week ... please don't ask why I remember that).

Anyways, this story is getting long and it's meandering away from the point. The point is that we saw a young outfielder that night play for the Indians named Brian Giles. The Pirates traded for him that winter, and I remember digging up my scorecard from that game and confirming that he did play. I was really excited by that trade, even though my dad didn't remember being impressed by Giles, because we were trading for a guy with decent numbers that just didn't have a place to play in Cleveland.

Somehow, even after the debacle of 1998, I was excited about baseball for 1999.