Tuesday, December 02, 2008

WHYGAVS has moved

It's official. WHYGAVS now has a new official home. It's actually at WHYGAVS.com, which means that it's the same as the old home, but I'm off Blogger now, which means that this old link won't redirect. You'll have to subscribe to a new feed if that's how you read WHYGAVS, but beyond that things are going to be mostly the same.

Monday, December 01, 2008


For reasons that will become shortly apparent, I've been working on cleaning/updating the sidebar links. That means that I've got some new links to add to the sidebar, as well as some other things for your general perusal.

Cory Humes, Geeves, and Alan from Bucco Wire are all blogging again at MVN under the header Pirate Revolution.

There's also The Green Weenie and The 'Burgh Blues, two blogs I should've added some time ago.

Meanwhile, Dejan's series about the Pirates' presence in the Dominican is awesome. I'm sure most of you have been checking it out as it's been published, but if you haven't I can't recommend parts one, two, and three, Renee Gayo's list of the top 5 prospects yet to play in America, and everything else that DK's put on his blog on the subject enough. It's an awesome look in to the Bucs' international operation and how things have changed since Bob Nutting took the lack of Pirate presence in the region personally.

On a more depressing note, Wilbur Miller runs down the Pirates' drafts from 1999-2007 (via Bucs Dugout).

Jay Bell is eligible for the Hall of Fame this year. As the sponsor of his Baseball-Reference page, I feel like I have to mention this. His career highlights include a bajillion sac bunts in 1990 and 1991, a Gold Glove in 1993, scoring the winning run in the 2001 World Series, and hitting a grand slam in the exact inning some potentially clairevoyant lady said he would, winning her a million dollars.

The Pirates are talking to Mark Loretta

There are a couple of possible reactions when reading that the Pirates are talking to Mark Loretta. The easy reaction is, "Well, so long as he's replacing Chris Gomez, I'm fine with that." That's true. Loretta's a useful utility infielder that can still handle a bat fairly well and can play just about every position in the infield in a short-term capacity. In fact, he's probably a better hitter than Gomez and he can't really be a worse fielder. That may make him more the successor to Doug Mientkiewicz, which is fine by me as well.

But then I started thinking. Aren't we trying to trade our shortstop away? Isn't "successor to Jack Wilson" a position that needs filled on the depth chart at the moment? I mean, I know Huntington's not looking at Loretta as a starting shortstop next year ... but what if he is?

This is how the offseason drives people crazy. You can go months and months without hearing any rumors, then as soon as rumors start show up, you project your highest hopes and biggest fears on to everything that you hear. After watching Huntington work for a year, I'm confident that he doesn't want Loretta for anything more than utility work, and yet, I still can't help but jump a little when I hear about the Pirates negotiation with someone like this. I suppose if Huntington keeps doing his job, I'll get over this in time.

How defense affects pitching

Every year, David Pinto at Baseball Musings releases the Probabilistic Model of Range, his very good defensive metric which measures batted ball characteristics like velocity and location in order to determine how many outs teams should have made on those batted balls relative to how many outs were actually made. This year, he also gave the PMR for defense behind pitchers, which Beyond the Boxscore translated into runs and ERA.

If you doubt that defense can make much of a difference behind the pitchers, look at how the numbers ran for the Pirates. Ian Snell lost 0.63 of a run on his ERA, which would've brought his ugly 5.42 down to 4.79. Tom Gorzelanny adjustment is almost as big, while Zach Duke only lost about a tenth of a run to defense, according to this metric. Of course, looking at our pitchers' adjusted ERAs is still depressing because it really drives home just how poor our pitching staff was this year.

The other interesting thing that leaps off the page at me is that Snell and Gorzelanny, the two pitchers that induce the fewest ground balls, were hurt most by the Pirates defense while Duke, who's GB% is higher than either of the first two, saw little effect. Paul Maholm, who gets the most groundballs of the four by a pretty good amount, was actually helped by the defense this year. I guess intuitively that makes sense as the infield, save Freddy Sanchez, was actually kind of good defensively last year. On the other hand, we know there were issues in the outfield with just about everyone that played out there (we've discussed McLouth a lot, Nady consistently ranks as one of the worst right fielders by PMR, and Jason Bay doesn't usually score well either ... if you take the time to look through Pinto's data you'll see the Pirates ranked below average in all three outfield slots).

As with any defensive metrics, you can make of this what you will. Still, I think the disparity in the groundball and flyball pitchers is worth noting, if only for future reference when trying to figure out what the team is trying to do.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Road to 17: 1999

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 seventh stop on the Road to 17: 1999.

Perhaps the analogy I'm about to use is a bit of a stretch, but it's predominate in my mind at the moment so I'm sticking with it. On Sunday, I left Hermitage at 8 AM for my 8-hour trip back to North Carolina hoping to get back in time for most of the Steeler game. Thanks to a wonderful combination of a huge travel day and horrendously crappy weather, my 8-hour trip took almost 11 hours. The only positive thing was that the dense cloud cover from Washington, PA onwards somehow carried the 1170 signal with Bill, Tunch, and Wolf out of Wheeling (one that my dad says he's never picked up south of Morgantown on I-79) all the way to my apartment. It was one bright light in an disappointing day.

Similarly, the 1999 Pirates had Brian Giles. Except for Giles, most of '99 was disappointing. We can get to the other parts later, but let's start with Giles. After Cam Bonifay acquired him in exchange for only Ricardo Rincon in the winter of 1998, he lead the NL in OPS with an insane .315/.418/.614 line that saw 39 homers and 115 RBIs from a lineup that batted Al Martin (.337 OBP) and an empty hole in front of him after Gene Lamont moved Jason Kendall out of the leadoff slot on May 1st. In 1999 (and later in 2000, 2001, and 2002), Giles was just about as good at the plate as anyone in Pirate history. That seems insane to say, but it's true. Had Giles spent his prime somewhere other than the Indians' bench and with the Pirates, he'd be remembered as one of the best players of the late 90s and early 00s. Instead, he's an All-Star and nothing else. It's a shame, but I guess it's how it works out sometimes.

Beyond Giles, though, 1999 will be defined by Jason Kendall's horrific ankle injury. The Pirates came into the 4th of July at a game above .500 and certainly in the thick of the NL Central and wild card race. Then, in the sixth inning of a game in which the Pirates trailed 3-0 (after two straight losses to drop them near the .500 mark), Kendall tried to make something happen with a leadoff bunt for a hit. As he raced down the first base line, he stretched out, hit the base funny with his right foot, and completely dislocated his ankle. The bone stuck out of his leg, his foot dangled off at a precarious angle, and his season ended. The Pirates lost the game, briefly went above .500 again at 42-41, and then fell off to a 79-win season, even though they had their best Pythagorean record of the 17 year losing streak (775 runs scored, 782 allowed).

The Kendall trade also went on to some disastrous reprecussions. After Keith Osik failed to fill Kendall's shoes, the Bucs traded Jose Guillen to Tampa for Joe Oliver and Humberto Cota. The Pirates mishandled Guillen in just about every way possible, from the way they called him up early, to keeping him up when he struggled, to giving up on him at the age of 23. They could have mishandled him worse, but the only way they could've done that was if his name was Aramis Ramirez. At least the Pirates had the sense to keep him in the minors for most of 1999 after his disastrous debut as a 19-year old in 1998.

Presenting Giles as the only redeeming factor of 1999 is a bit misleading. Giles was the difference between the awful 1998 offense and the respectable 1999 one. He was the reason that 1999 was disappointing and not disastrous. There was, however, another player that Cam Bonifay rescued from the scrap heap that was a key component to the '99: Todd Ritchie. He went from Twins castoff to 15-9/3.49/1.29 for the Pirates, leading what was again a very good Pirate pitching staff (except for Pete Schourek ... he was awful).

Good turns from Ritchie, rookie Kris Benson, and Jason Schmidt should have portended a good Pirate pitching staff for years to come. Instead, they were the last Pirate pitching staff to finish with an ERA+ of over 100 (though they did finish right at 100 in 2002 and 2004). A lot of this can probably be blamed on the decline of Francisco Cordova, who fell off in 1999 after 220+ innings in 1998 and was never the same again. He probably wasn't 27 years old like he said he was at the time, but losing him from the rotation was something the team never really seemed to recover from.

There are a million other mini-plots from this year we could talk about. There's the mystery of Warren Morris, who was a solid .288/.360/.427 rookie second baseman in 1999, then never hit ever again. There was the continuing awfulness of Brant Brown and Mike Benjamin, who spent most of the year in the starting lineup despite being awful. We also had Mike Williams' first disastrous stint as closer but a solid bullpen because of Scott Sauerbeck, Brad Clontz, Marc Wilkins, and Jeff Wallace -- a bunch of guys that mostly never came close to matching their 1999 seasons.

When you view the Pirates' 16-year journey as a full story, 1999 was the year that things finally hit the fan for good. In reality, the Kendall injury followed by the Guillen trade was what officially transitioned things from attempting to build a decent team for the future to the "Drive for 75." That's not to say that Bonifay didn't misstep here or there before the Guillen trade, but at the midway point of the '99 season the Pirates had guys like Kendall, Giles, and Jason Schmidt with young guys like Guillen, Ramirez (again, in AAA in '99), and Kris Benson. When they ditched Guillen for a poor-hitting veteran catcher with a good defensive reputation and a middling catching prospect like Cota was an attempt to finish .500 in a year when .500 shouldn't have been the goal. Leading up to'99, Bonifay was making his name by pulling guys like Ritchie and Turner Ward and Kevin Polcovich off the scrap heap and turning in reasonable production from them. After '99 he made some good moves, but mostly signed terrible players like Pat Meares and Derek Bell to terrible, crippling contracts. The focus of the front office shifted from trying to slowly rebuild to trying to put a superficially decent squad on the field in 2001 when PNC Park opened.

I've been in the car for too long today. Thinking about 1999 more than this is a bad idea.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Post-turkey links

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. I am officially back in Western PA for a few days, goggling my eyes at the snow. We don't have that in the south.

With the Winter Meetings looming, Dejan's back at the PG. His first story updates the offseason to this point, mentioning that Grabow, Paulino, Sanchez, Wilson, and LaRoche are available while Huntington is looking for any and all pitching.

Rinku and Dinesh posted about signing with the Pirates
. They're pretty excited. They looked up Pittsburgh on the internet.

Charlie had a good post about the Rule 5 draft earlier this week, based on this list of players made up by the USS Mariner.

Finally, Pittsburgh Sports and Mini Ponies found a video of Rinku Singh's motion, and there's also one on YouTube of Dinesh Patel throwing as well. They're embedded below, but if you're hoping to see something crazy, you won't find it. They look pretty traditional.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Who's the Rockies' new bench coach? Well, if you look at the guy in the uniform you'll probably recognize him as former Pirate manager Jim Tracy. (via Bucs Dugout)

Keeping the Jack Wilson rumors rolling, the Dodgers are interested in Jack but not his current price.

The plans for the Marlins new stadium are moved back a year. Does anyone think this stadium is actually happening?

A weird effect of the economic downturn is that many of the companies the government's been bailing out are big advertisers of sports. First there was AIG, the insurance giant that advertises on Manchester United's kits. Now, there's Citi Field, which NY officials want re-named "Citi/Taxpayer Field." Because THAT makes everything better.

Stunningly, we can no longer joke that the Pirates will have a winning season when Axl finally releases Chinese Democracy (if you read one review of Chinese Democracy, read that one). This is one long losing streak we're mired in, folks.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A blast from the past

Google recently added the Life Magazine photo archive to its image database. I was browsing through recently and was absolutely blown away by this image of Bill Mazeroski turning a double play. The beauty of baseball is in the little details like this.

More on Patel and Singh

First things first, Patel and Singh officially signed. I thought it was important to note that news from a site that didn't need a babel fish to figure out what was going on.

Secondly, I mentioned their blog second-hand in my earlier post and I know that a lot of you checked it out through the Walkoff Walk post I quoted, but if you haven't read it yet you really have to do it. There are a million things I could quote, but to give you an idea of what these guys have been thrust into, read this post:

Tonight we were celebrating the Halloween Holiday here in America. we are not sure what the holiday comes from, but kids dress up in all kinds of crazy outfits and then go to houses asking for sweets. if people in the house no give the sweets then the kids put toilet paper in their trees.
I hope no one took the to a college Halloween party. Their heads might've exploded with all the naughty nurses and Playboy bunnies around.

I can't even begin to describe how weirdly surreal and awesome this whole thing has been. The bottom line here is that the Pirates saw some high upside 19 year old arms and signed them. That's good, whether these guys work out or not. But they won a reality TV contest. In India. And they have a blog. Can this even possibly be real? I mean, I know it is, it's just really hard to wrap your brain around.

One thing to remember is that even if Singh and Patel are awful, Neal Huntington just managed to make the Pirates the favorite team of a billion people, though it is unfortunate that it's in the one region of the world where piracy is actually a problem in the 21st century (as an aside ... does the rise in prominence of Somali Pirates mean that global warming is over?). If nothing else comes from this venture or the signing of Mpho Ngoepe, Huntington has increased the Pirates' presence in the world more in a year's work than Littlefield did in seven. Maybe nothing will come of it, but there's only one way to find out.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Pirates Sign Indian pitchers

Indian as in, "from India." I just got an e-mail from Rob Ircane at Walkoff Walk informing me that the Pirates have just signed Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, two Indian pitching prospects, to minor league contracts. I can't really put the weirdness of this news into proper context, but here's what Rob wrote at his blog:

As you know, Rinku and Dinesh won the Million Dollar Arm contest on Indian TV by displaying awesome arm strength and a desire to become baseball players. They've spent the last nine months in California learning the rules of the game and, most importantly, how to throw fastballs and brushback pitches. Their blog has been a constant source of amusement to us, and their recent audition for major league scouts even caught the attention of mainstream media publications.
Lest you think this is a joke, NPB Tracker has a post about it and I'm fairly certain that the truth is contained somewhere in this article. I present, for your amusement, the Google Translate version of the Japanese article:
First! Pirates pitcher who signed a contract with India
Daily Sports - 2008/11/24 10:39

Major League Baseball, Pittsburgh Pirates and the Indians pitcher who signed a minor league contract to 22, sources said.
According to sources, the two universities in India to attend a 19-year-old physical education. The right arm is 189 centimeters tall, thin links with the fastest fastball in the second half of the 80 miles (140 km), the tall left-hander's 180 centimeters DINESHU MAX92 PEITERU miles (148 kilometers) to throw a sharp slider. In the audition shows both the country's more than 30,000 applicants were selected from a "phenomenon", he said.
However, India has a thriving baseball than cricket country. Both of them close to the baseball novice, for a tryout in November, America in May. Arizona and a former major leaguer Tom House's leadership after a major 30 team earlier this month, the 11th of 19 teams showed off a pitch in front of scouts. Meanwhile, the Pacific have a strong interest in the military.
This season, including the United States in the majors, the players played in 17 countries, the official said, "is a minor player, but not Indian nationals. This agreement is an historic achievement," he said. Once the two, returned to India. MAINAKYANPU from April 01 to participate in the plan.
Add these two to Mpho Ngoepe and I guess we can really believe Neal Huntington when he says he's going to be looking everywhere for talent.

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.

Fire up the Jack Wilson rumor mill again

Yes! It's finally time to talk about the Hot Stove! The Pirates aren't likely to do a whole lot of interest this winter, but they're probably going to do something and the past few weeks have been brutal in their absence of Pirate news. On Sunday, the Detroit Free Press reported on the long-running "Jack Wilson to the Tigers" saga, which is unsurprisingly being revisited again this winter. There's not a lot of new stuff in that story, but I found this quote from Neal Huntington interesting:

At the general managers' meetings this month, Pirates GM Neal Huntington said, "If we get the right return, then we'd move Jack.

In a perfect world, you trade Jack for a young shortstop, but there may not be that scenario out there. We have to accumulate talent right now."

How often do you hear a GM talk about a player by name like that when trades are being discussed? I'll be shocked if Jack's back in Pittsburgh next year.

Right now the rumor that's been floating around the Wilson-t0-Detroit rumor is that the Tigers are looking to add a catcher this winter. Ken Rosenthal shot down a three-team rumor that involved the Pirates, Tigers, and Marlins and had Matt Treanor going to Detroit. My gut reaction is to say that the because the Pirates have good catching depth they would be stupid to let at third team get involved here, but the Tigers don't have much to offer beyond Rick Porcello, who they certainly won't be giving up for Jack Wilson and Ronny Paulino, so maybe the Pirates are looking to shop someone else to Florida in order to pull a better return here. I doubt anything happens before the winter meetings, but it's always something to keep an eye on.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Let's talk about John Russell

About a week ago, ACTA Sports and the Hardball Times were kind enough to send me a preview of this year's Hardball Times Annual. The topic of the preview that they sent me was an interesting one-- quantifying managerial performances. If making a good fielding metric is hard, finding a way to quantify managerial performance has to be nearly impossible. They designed a "Manager of the Year Tool" that compares the team's expected record based on preseason projections (revised for playing time, trades, injuries, etc.) with their actual Pythagorean record and their actual linear weight runs, then compares the team's actual record with their Pythagorean record, then considers the number of wins generated by stolen bases. As a result, Cecil Cooper and Mike Scioscia come up as the best managers in their respective leagues, with John McLaren/Jim Riggleman and Bud Black coming up as the worst. It's not a perfect tool as it relies fairly heavily on projections, which aren't perfect, but it does put some thought into the process of picking the best manager, which is likely more than can be said for the writers who picked Joe Maddon and Lou Piniella without really thinking.

Anyways, I don't want to bore you with the sabermetrics of managing for too long, but I thought it was a good springboard to talk about John Russell, who scored a -3.9 on the THT's scale, good for fourth worst in the National League. Is that really fair? Was Russell terrible last year? Certainly, he had his maddening traits. He loved bunting in all situations, leading to the Jose Bautista debacle during the home opener. He often stuck with his young starters an inning too long, leading to some frustrating meltdowns. But does that make Russell a bad manager?

Take, for example, Joe Maddon. By all accounts, Maddon's done a wonderful job in Tampa with the Rays. He's a bit quirky, he does a nice job matching traditional and unconventional, and most importantly, he understands his team's strengths and weaknesses and managers accordingly. But last year, when the Rays pitching was disastrous and the hitting didn't come around quite as quickly as they needed it to, Maddon would have been the worst rated manager in the AL using the metric that THT came up with.

The difference, I think, is that the manager of a team that's full of young players has to manager differently then the manager of a team that's in contention. When he leaves a pitcher with a reasonable pitch count out for the seventh inning and he melts down and the Pirates lose, then justifies it with, "Our young pitchers have to learn how to pitch deep in the game," isn't that statement kind of true? I mean, what's the difference between 66 and 67 wins for the Pirates? Wouldn't their bullpen blow half those games anyways?

What I liked the most about Russell this year was his demeanor. I mean, yeah, I made fun of his monotone a lot, but an even keel is probably the best way to handle a team like the Pirates. With the caveat that in NC, I see a lot less post-game stuff then most people do, it seemed like he kept the respect of the players a lot better than Jim Tracy did. Maybe it seemed like the Pirates quit down the stretch, but I think that had a lot more to do with the circumstances surrounding the trades than Russell himself.

I think that two years ago, Russell would've driven me insane. This is mostly because I saw Nate McLouth square around to bunt several times this year and that's really something that should give smart baseball fans an aneurysm. But Russell is far from the only manager in the league that would have a "fast" player like McLouth bunt from time to time. That's how baseball is coached. It's wrong, but it's not going to change anytime soon. After years of watching baseball, it really seems to me like the most important thing a manager does is manage egos (I can't take credit for that alone, it's mostly what my dad, who coached Little League forever, thinks). Is it more important to a team that Nate McLouth lays down a few bunts or that Andy LaRoche gets comfortable in the batters box?

JR is far from a perfect manager, but I guess the point is that most managers are far from perfect. Kosuke Fukudome played most of the second half after he tanked in Chicago. Joe Torre was starting Juan Pierre, even in the playoffs. Joe Maddon and Mike Scioscia tend towards small-ball far more than their lineups call for. Russell's quiet intensity seems pretty well suited to a team like the Pirates. We'll probably learn a lot more about him this year then we did last year. Last year, he spent 2/3rds of the season with guys playing their hardest to get out of Pittsburgh, then the last 1/3 with a combination of young guys who were over their heads and old guys were pissed they weren't traded too. This year, he should have a much better opportunity to leave his mark on the team. And so long as that means he doesn't like Doug Mientkiewicz teach everyone how to run the bases like a moron again, I'm not sure that's necessarily a bad thing.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Alex Ramirez is MVP in Japan

It's amazing how one headline can bring back a rush of Pirate memories. Over at Bucs Dugout, I saw this post about former Pirate Alex Ramirez winning MVP of the Japanese league with a monster year for the Yomiuri Giants.

Over the winter in 1999, the Pirate signed Wil Cordero to a contract. He came to the Pirates and mostly killed the ball, though his inability to field and off-field issues predicated a trade back to where he came from: Cleveland. He went to Cleveland and Alex Ramirez and Enrique Wilson came to Pittsburgh. Ramirez had a lot of pop, but not a lot of patience and the Pirates seemed to quickly get frustrated with him. After part of just one year and 123 plate appearances, the Bucs shipped him off to Japan. I distinctly recall talking about the move as a "current event" in our 10th grade goverment class, as our teacher was so lazy that we were allowed to give three current events a day, each worth a bonus point, so that she could just give everyone a 100% in the class (hooray, Kennedy Catholic!). My recounting of the transaction was something like this:

The Pirates sold Alex Ramirez to Japan today, probably because Cam Bonifay is so stupid that he forgot that 10 million yen isn't actually a lot of money.

Of course, no one knows what would've happened with Ramirez had he stayed in Pittsburgh. The history of international baseball is filled with guys like Tuffy Rhodes who raked in Japan but were average at best in Pittsburgh. Still, Ramirez has more than 250 homers and over 800 career RBIs with the Giants and Yakult swallows. It somehow seems appropriate that the Pirates' most significant transaction with Japan in the past decade hasn't been to acquire talent, but rather to give talent away.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The John Van Benschoten era ends

There have been a lot of casualties of the Pittsburgh Pirate organization over the past sixteen years. Countless fans have fallen off the bandwagon and there's been more than a fair share of players who have had their playing careers ruined by the Pittsburgh Pirates. John Van Benschoten can probably write his name down on the latter list, as he's filed for minor league free agency and informed general manager Neal Huntington that he won't be returning to the Pirates' organization next year.

Pirate fans give JVB a lot of crap and certainly, he's never performed well with the Pirates (save his monstrous home run against Arizona in one of his first few starts back in 2004. But his arm problems were never his fault, nor was the way his transition from first baseman/closer to starter was handled/botched. Watching him was like having teeth pulled, but it was never actually his fault. If he ever finds the strike zone, he might be a useful reliever some day. I'm not really counting on it, but I won't be mad at him if he ever pulls himself together.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Roster additions

With the winter meetings and the Rule 5 draft approaching, the Pirates had five spaces open on the 40-man roster to fill with players that need to be protected. They filled all five slots today, putting Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, Jeff Sues, Steve Lerud, and Ronald Uviedo. Jennifer Langosch makes it sound like these five are the last five additions before the draft. I don't know if that's the case (there's still some dead weight on the 40-man, if you ask me, though I don't know when the roster has to be set for the December 11th draft), but if it is, it means that Kyle Bloom and Jamie Romak will be exposed to the Rule 5 this year. It's a calculated risk, but given how raw Bloom and Romak are and how unlikely they are to be big-time producers in the big leagues, it's probably not a bad one.

The most interesting name on the list of people added to the roster is probably Lerud. He hasn't really hit well at any level and he's only got 47 AA at-bats after his age 23 season. Robinzon Diaz and Raul Chavez were both already on the roster to go with Doumit and Paulino. I'd guess that the Pirates will be shopping Paulino this winter given his nice AAA numbers, his nice run in winter ball, and the fact that the new management seems to want nothing to do with him. Still, I find it hard to believe there was a risk that Lerud was going to be picked in the draft, while I feel like Bloom might be.


This interview with Nyjer Morgan has me laughing out loud, though I'm not sure that's the intended effect.

Don Wakamatsu was hired by the Mariners to be their next manager. He's the first Asian-American manager in big league history.

I fail to understand why a good player on a non-playoff team can't be valuable. Without Pujols, the Cardinals win like 75 games this year. You can argue that the Phillies wouldn't have made the playoffs without Ryan Howard, but they also wouldn't have made it without Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Shane Victorino, or Jayson Werth, who were either more or comparably valuable to Howard. Picking the guys with the most RBIs on a playoff team isn't the best way to decide who's the most valuable; it's lazy. All hail Albert Pujols, the best hitter on the face of the planet and therefore, the most valuable.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The lamest pun ever

I'm sorry for the lack of posts today, but I'm giving group meeting for my lab tomorrow and that has me really tied up. I did manage to wander over to Pirates.com today and see what a fantastic old man pun.

Nice work, headline writer. Pat yourself on the back for that one.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Road to 17: 1997

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 fifth stop on the Road to 17: 1997.

If you want to know how screwed up the Pirates have been since 1992, let's start with 1997. Technically the most successful year for the franchise since Bonds left, the 1997 Freak Show was the worst possible thing that could've happened to the Pittsburgh Pirates as an organization. In 1997 the Pirates were a below average team that hit their ceiling by playing .500 ball. Unfortunately, they were run by a very poor front office that failed to recognize a team playing over its head. This, however, isn't about 1998, 1999, 2000, or 2001 **shudder**. This is abou 1997. And 1997 was awesome.

I don't really know where to start with the '97 team. They weren't like the 2003 team that shot out of the box to 12-5, then slowly fell apart. After starting the year at 4-4 on a West Coast road trip, they dropped the home opener to the Dodgers 7-1, then had a rainout, then got drubbed 14-5 on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon that was so ugly my friend's dad estimated the attendance in the eighth inning at "58" when they showed it on the scoreboard and I don't think he was off by much. The weird thing about 1997 is that the other shoe just failed to drop. The Pirates were around .500 in April, and they were still there in May, then June, then July. And when the Astros failed to run away with the division, well, we had something special on our hands.

The first time the wheels could've come off was in mid-May when Kevin Elster got hurt. He was about as big of an acquisition as a team with a $9 million payroll could've made and the Pirates picked him up because without Jay Bell they had no one to play short. Well, they had no one to play shortstop except Kevin Polcovich, the 27-year-old with no big league experience that had a .674 OPS in AAA in 1996 and was demoted to AA to start '97. On May 17th (the day after Elster got hurt), this was our starting lineup:

  1. Tony Womack, 2B- A leadoff hitter with a .326 OBP.
  2. Adrian Brown, CF- Or as I prefer to know him, Adrian f***ing Brown (that's how I distinguish him from f***ing Emil Brown in my head).
  3. Al Martin, LF- One of the Pirates that had a career year (114 OPS+) in '97.
  4. Mark Johnson, 1B- But only because Kevin Young had the night off.
  5. Dale Sveum, SS- Won a ring in 1998, as the Yankees bullpen catcher, but in fairness put up big numbers off the bench in '97.
  6. Jason Kendall, C- The best hitter on the team hit sixth that night while Adrian Brown batted second.
  7. Jose Guillen, RF- Remember when Jose Guillen was a 20-year-old uber-prospect with a Roberto Clemente arm from right field? Good times.
  8. Joe Randa, 3B- Gene Lamont may have been the worst person ever at assembling a batting order. Then again, Randa was hitting pretty poorly at this point.
  9. Steve Cooke, SP- I met him in the Hermitage Giant Eagle in 1993 with Randy Tomlin. I still have his autograph.
LOOK at that lineup! It's terrible! Mark Johnson? Tony Womack? Dale Sveum? Adrian f***ing Brown!

Of course, that was what made their run so beautiful. Do you remember how awesome it was to see Rich Loiselle set down Frank Thomas, Albert Belle, and Harold Baines to hold a 3-0 lead? We started Jermaine Allensworth in center that night! He was the butt of the joke in an SNL sketch so obscure, I can't even find a clip of it on the internet. And what about the game in late August with the Pirates starting to fall behind Houston, only to have Loiselle nail down the save by striking out Barry Bonds?

The best part about the '97 team is that everyone has a few favorite memories like that from the season. When else in history can a player like Shawon Dunston be a franchise hero? He rode in on his white horse after Polcovich got hurt while doing a reasonable impression of an MLB shortstop, hammered two homers in his debut against the Indians on September 2nd (side note: when did interleague games ever happen in September?) and crushed the ball all month before becoming a free agent. Has any team in history ever had a more unlikely shortstop trio than Kevin Elster, Kevin Polcovich, and Shawon Dunston? I remember the Pirates being in first place at the All-Star Break that year and actually reading a feature story about them in Sports Illustrated. A positive story! All about the Pirates!

Of course, while ten different people might have ten small favorite memories about the '97 Pirates, all ten of them have the same big favorite memory: the no-hitter. THE no-hitter. In all of my years of watching baseball, I've only seen one play that I swore happened in slow-motion the first time I watched it and that was Mark Smith's home run. Francisco Cordova was probably the first iteration of the frustrating "Ace of the Future" for the Pirates. He great out of the pen in 1996, he was awesome in the rotation in '97, then even better in '98, and he didn't pitch again after the year 2000. July 12, 1997 was his night, though. How do you describe the pressure that builds during a no-hitter? It was July and the Pirates, who hadn't made the playoffs in almost five years at that point, were a game behind the Astros. Cordova had become the ace of the staff by that point in the season and he just kept stringing zeroes on the board. He struck out ten in his nine innings, but without a Pirate run, he came out in favor of Ricardo Rincon in the tenth. This is just an opinion, but that tenth inning was probably the highest leverage situation any reliever in Pirate history has ever pitched in. I still remember watching him pitch one inning that seemed to take three hours in my parents bedroom (I have no idea why we weren't in the living room, but we weren't). When he got out of the tenth, every Pirate fan thought the same thing: "SCORE A RUN, PLEASE!" In the bottom of the tenth, with two on and two out, Mark Smith, a journeyman who hit 32 home runs in eight big league seasons, delivered a monstrous three-run bomb. The no-hitter was preserved, the Pirates were tied for first place, and for one of the last times in recent memory all was right with Pirate baseball.

A flash in the pan starter, a journeyman pinch-hitter, and a career LOOGY combined to create the best memory the Pirates have given anyone since their last playoff appearance. No matter what happens to them for the rest of their lives, they'll always have that game. And Pirate fans will always have that game. And when you get down to it maybe the Pirates only won 79 games in 1997, and maybe they missed the playoffs, but it's hard to say that year was a failure.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Choose Your Own Manny-venture

I haven't done a lot of posting here the last couple days and that's because I've been busy, both with school/labwork and with doing my part in FanHouse's latest Choose Your Own Adventure epic:

Choose Your Own Adventure: Manny Being Choosey in Free Agency

There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 individual posts, mainly due to Herculean efforts by Mullet and Josh Alper, who really pushed the idea through and churned out the storylines. Anyways if you're looking to kill time this afternoon there's plenty of content there, so I hope you enjoy it.