Since the start of the 2013 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates have won the third most regular season games in all of baseball, falling behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals. They will make the playoffs for the third year in a row this year, and with the way the current standing are going, they will also join the Dodgers and Cardinals as the only teams to make the playoffs every year for the last three seasons.
The Pirates haven’t reached the highest level of success yet — winning the World Series — but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been successful. Aside from the regular season numbers and the playoff appearances, there have been a lot of things that have gone right for the Pirates.
On the amateur side of things they have built one of the best farm systems in baseball. Even after graduating Gregory Polanco, Gerrit Cole, and Starling Marte the last few years, they still have one of the top ten systems in the game. And next year the system will pay off in a big way, as Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon, and Alen Hanson are projected to make the jump to the big leagues (you could add Elias Diaz to that list as well if you’re talking about a bigger role than his current September call-up status).
The Pirates have built this top system on value. They don’t spend big on the international side, instead relying on a lot of very good scouts, led by Rene Gayo in Latin America, to find talented players where not many teams are looking. On the draft side they have been stocking up on young, projectable arms for years, and now the upper levels are starting to get flooded with pitching talent. They’ve recently been focusing on athletic position players who can play premium positions, and the early results have been encouraging. JaCoby Jones had enough value to be traded for Joakim Soria at a time when relievers were going for a high value on the trade market. And Jordan Luplow had a breakout second half with the West Virginia Power, and will be a guy to watch next year.
A lot of things have brought on the success at the Major League level, and most of them have been influenced by value. That’s not surprising, since the Pirates have recorded the third most wins over the last three years all while having payrolls in the bottom-third in baseball.
They’ve added some of the worst statistical pitchers in baseball and have turned them into some of the best statistical pitchers just a year later. This growing list includes A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, and now J.A. Happ. They’ve had success on the reliever side with guys like Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, and Joel Hanrahan all giving them discount closers. The process involves great scouting, combined with mechanical adjustments from Ray Searage and Jim Benedict, all supported by a focus on pitch framing and defensive shifts to maximize a pitcher’s impact.
Speaking of that last part, the Pirates have also been one of the leaders in targeting pitch framing catchers, not just at the MLB level, but all throughout their minor league system. Their focus on defense has led to gems such as Russell Martin and Francisco Cervelli. They also got a good backup catcher in Chris Stewart for a very low price.
As for the defense, in terms of Defensive Runs Saved and UZR/150, they’ve been slightly below average this year. There are a few possible reasons for that, such as focusing a bit more on offense, and Pedro Alvarez doing a poor job of learning first base. But the last two years they ranked third in baseball in DRS, despite having low ratings in UZR/150 (which throws out any play involving a shift). This gives a lot of credit to their shifting work, which has been picked up by a lot more teams (the Pirates weren’t the first or only team doing this, but they were one of the leaders).
They’ve also managed to find value in all areas to build their MLB team. Most of the offense came from the farm system, although they added Jung Ho Kang out of Korea to a four-year, $11 M deal after a $5 M posting fee, and he looks like the biggest steal of the off-season. Francisco Cervelli was added in a trade for Justin Wilson (drafted in the fifth round of 2008), and costs less than $1 M this year. And the pitching value has been highlighted above.
It appears the Pirates are now starting to get poached for talent from their front office and coaching staff. Last year, MLB Bench Coach Jeff Banister was hired away by the Texas Rangers to be their new manager. Today, the Miami Marlins announced that former Special Assistant to the GM Marc DelPiano was hired to be their new Vice President of Player Development. There was also news that current Pirates Director of Player Personnel Tyrone Brooks would interview for the vacant Milwaukee Brewers GM position.
It’s no surprise that this is happening. Look at what the Pirates have been doing the last few years. Look at how they’ve done this. They’re not just throwing money at players and buying success. They’re finding smart, creative ways to win that not many teams are utilizing. The Pirates are on the forefront of the newest trend in baseball: smart spending. This trend is why the Dodgers — a team with more money than any other team, and probably most pairs of two teams combined — hired Andrew Friedman to run their operations, looking to make the best use of their money.
When the Rangers hired Banister this year, their General Manager mentioned that Banister made them realize that they were below-average in the analytics department. Banister brought the practice of defensive shifts to Texas, and that could be why the Rangers went from 26th in DRS last year (-43) to 11th this year (10). Most of their infield is the same, with Elvis Andrus at shortstop, Roughned Odor at second, and Adrian Beltre at third. Andrus has gone from -13 DRS to -3. Odor has gone from -11 to -5. Beltre has gone from 9 to 19. And their primary first baseman this year has been Mitch Moreland, who has a 3 DRS, after zero last year and much less playing time at the position. That’s almost a +30 DRS gain from their primary infielders, which would amount to three extra wins.
So you can only imagine what the Marlins are thinking when they hire DelPiano to oversee player development after watching the Pirates churn out top 25 prospects the last few years and still maintain a top farm system. You can also only imagine what Milwaukee might be interested in with Brooks after seeing the Pirates soar past them in the standings, and project to be at the top of the NL Central for the foreseeable future, while seeing their own short and long-term chances take a huge dive.
I don’t even think DelPiano and Brooks (assuming he’s hired away, and eventually I think he will be, even if it’s not by the Brewers) will be the only guys to go. The Pirates have opened some eyes. They proved what they’ve done isn’t a fluke. And now we’re going to see a lot of teams hiring Pittsburgh personnel away, hoping to copy aspects of the Pirates’ success in order to try and have the same success for their own teams.
The Pirates have proven to be successful time and time again when it comes to finding talented prospects, or finding reclamation project pitchers, or finding steals in free agency and in the trade market. They’re now going to need to show that they can continue finding talented personnel to continue making all of this happen.
**Brewers to Interview Pirates Director of Player Personnel Tyrone Brooks. As I said above, I can see Brooks eventually being hired away.
**Giles: How Did the Pirates End Up Destined For Another Wild Card Game? Ed Giles makes his debut on the site, looking at how the Pirates ended up in their current position, heading to their third straight Wild Card game.
**Could Steven Brault Be the Exception For a 2016 Promotion to Indianapolis? He’s been one of the breakout pitchers this year, and could be the exception to the “150 inning” trend when it comes to a promotion to Triple-A.
**Pirates Release 2016 Schedule. A breakdown of the schedule, which starts and ends with St. Louis.
**Morning Report: Pirates’ Farm System Produces Four Playoff Teams. The playoffs start today. We’ll have live coverage from Indianapolis and Altoona, while John Dreker and I will be following all of the action and listening to the two West Virginia teams.