If the season ended today, the Pittsburgh Pirates would have an historically bad season scoring runs. Now in the franchise’s 131st season, no Pirates team ever has scored less runs per game over their season than the 2012 Pirates have in their first twenty-six games.
At 2.88 runs per game, the Pirates currently rank last in all of baseball in runs scored, trailing all 29 major league teams and all 120 minor league teams. They have an outfield with two homers among their three most used players and if you throw in Nate McLouth, the fourth outfielder, you are now at 332 plate appearances with just two homers. Behind the plate, Rod Barajas has yet to drive in a run and his backup, Michael McKenry, has one RBI, coming on a solo home run.
Since this is a history column, I won’t get too far into what is wrong with the current team but I will talk about the team they compare the closest to when it comes to run scoring, the 1917 Pirates. That team scored an average of 2.96 runs per game over the season, just 0.08 more than this year’s squad. Over a full season, only the 1917 team has averaged less than three runs scored per game in franchise history. The big difference between that team and this year’s squad though, is the fact that National League teams averaged 3.53 runs scored per game that season, it was after all, called “the deadball era” for a reason. This year, NL teams are averaging 4.08 runs per game, so that makes it seem even worse.
The 1917 Pirates had Honus Wagner, playing in his final season. He was still a decent play but well past his prime and he only played 74 games. They also had another Hall of Fame player that ran the offense and his story might sound familiar with the current team. Max Carey was the team’s center fielder, a speed burner with great range and in the prime of his career. He led the NL in stolen bases in 1917, scored 82 runs and hit .296 while leading all NL center fielders in putouts. No one could blame Carey for the Pirates lack of offense in their worst full season.
In the outfield alongside Carey, the Pirates had Carson Bigbee, just 22 years old and in the second year of his career, he would eventually develop into an all-star caliber player. In 1917 however, he hit just .239 with 21 RBI’s in 133 games. The team stuck with him all year and the experience paid off, as Bigbee was a strong player for Pittsburgh from 1919-1923. They also had Lee King, a serviceable major league backup for seven seasons but in 1917 he played 111 games for the Pirates. He hit .239 with 35 RBI’s. The 1917 Pirates had speed in the outfield, no power at all and the two young players struggled at the corner spots…sound familiar?
The middle infield that year was extremely bad. Wagner, when he played, spent more time at first base that season. Rookies Jake Pitler and Chuck Ward saw a lot of time that season and neither hit. A combined .235 average, no homers and 66 RBI’s in 805 AB’s explains why this team scored so few runs and neither played was around much longer, despite being just 22(Ward) and 23 years old during that 1917 season.
The Pirates went through third baseman in 1917, ending up on Tony Boeckel, a 24 year old rookie who made his debut in July. Like Wagner, Ward and Pitler, he also failed to hit a home run that season. Forbes Field was a huge park, owner Barney Dreyfuss said he didn’t want any cheap home runs in his new park when it was built. It was hard to hit a ball over the fence but a good hitter could put one into the gap and run forever, so inside-the-park homers were plentiful during that era, just not by the 1917 Pirates.
William Fischer was the Pirates main catcher in 1917 and he couldn’t be blamed for the lack of offense, he was the Babe Ruth of this team, hitting .286 while leading the club with three homers….yes, three. They hit nine homers as a club, easily worst in the NL and two players(Gavvy Cravath and Dave Robertson) out-homered the Pirates on their own.
So just how did this club finish in the standings you ask? The National League had eight teams in 1917 and Pittsburgh finished in eighth. They were 20.5 games back in the standings behind the Brooklyn Robins(Dodgers). That type of finish for a team that couldn’t score runs wouldn’t be so bad if Brooklyn was actually the first place team. They were the seventh place team with a 70-81 record. Pittsburgh finished 51-103. On this date 95 years ago, they stood five games back in the standings with a 7-13 record. They also scored 60 runs in those first twenty games, slightly higher than their overall season average.
One other note on the 1917 season. They were eight years away from their next playoff appearance. From that team, Carey, Bigbee were the only players to play for the 1925 team as well. Babe Adams was with the Pirates during both years but he spent the entire 1917 season in the minors, recovering from an arm injury. Owner Barney Dreyfuss was also still around. One player they should’ve held on to was George Kelly, a young first baseman who they gave up on after just eight games. From 1920-25, Kelly averaged 108 RBI’s a season for the Giants, the 1921-22 World Series Champs.
Like I said above, the current Pirates team are the worst so far but there are still 136 games left in the season and hopefully better things are up ahead.
John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.
When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.