Bob Nutting Discusses Payroll, Attendance, and Public Perception of the Pirates

BRADENTON, Fla. – The Pirates are coming off a year where they went 82-79. They acquired Chris Archer and Keone Kela at the deadline, getting two of the biggest names who were available at the time. And yet the attendance dropped below 1.5 million for the season, which was the lowest in PNC Park history.

Pirates fans have soured on the team. Some are gone for good. Others might return if they ever make the playoffs again. And I’m just going based off the comments I hear from readers daily. I don’t know if the attendance drop and ill feeling toward the team is fully justified to this extent. At the same time, the Pirates have definitely brought this upon themselves on some level.

As you could imagine, most of the questions to Bob Nutting in yesterday’s media session were about payroll and the decline in attendance. A lot of the answers were the usual responses, and didn’t really say much. I’ve written about this subject a lot, and I don’t want to editorialize the quotes from this interview in this article that much (I’ll have a column tomorrow with my summary of all the subjects discussed). So for now, let’s take a quick look at the most notable attendance and payroll comments, along with the views of the team.

The 2019 Outlook

Nutting was optimistic about the team, although that is to be expected. As for player additions, he repeated the idea that the additions of Chris Archer and Keone Kela were additions for 2019 and beyond. When asked why they didn’t add more to those guys, he said that the team liked Jordan Lyles, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Erik Gonzalez to fill the gaps they had.

The interesting thing to me was his comment about the offense.

“With hitting, we’re taking a radically different approach to make sure we’re getting maximum benefit out of guys like Josh Bell, guys like Colin Moran, bringing back Jung Ho,” Nutting said. “I think those are some of the pieces where you fit in that offense, young core pitchers who are going to be more prepared, more ready. Building on the strengths is the right way to continue that progress that we made.”

The Pirates seem to be banking on better performance from some of their internal guys who have struggled in the past, using new techniques from their new hitting coaches. That’s not a bad plan.

Nutting also repeated a few times that the Pirates had the best record in their division against the NL Central, and need to find ways to improve against the other teams. There’s not much correlation year-to-year with division records. The Pirates were 21-13 against the East in 2017 and 33-43 against the Central. Those numbers flipped in 2018 to 12-20 and 43-33. So while they do need to improve against teams outside the division, expecting the same results in the Central isn’t a given.

On the Attendance Drop

Nutting was asked several times about the attendance drop over the last few years, along with the impact that had on the payroll. He commented a lot on the expectations of the team, and how that impacted attendance last year. His thought seemed to be that there would be higher expectations heading into this year, although I’m not sure that would be accurate.

“I’m really appreciative of the fans who support the team,” Nutting said. “There’s a lot of passion with Pittsburgh sports fans, as you all know, and you help create and you drive. That’s real. It’s a group with very high expectations. I think the expectations going into the season didn’t match the reality of the performance of the team. I’m sure that was a piece of the attendance disconnect.

“I think we have the opposite this year, where we have a lot of confidence and enthusiasm with a young team coming in. There’s no question we have a stronger core, a little more experienced core, some good additions. I think we should see the opposite as we’re coming into 2019.”

A lot of the comments from Nutting didn’t tie attendance to payroll, but was focused on expectations and atmosphere in the ballpark when there are more in attendance. Largely the takeaway was that Nutting said there’s “a lot of engagement and excitement around this young team”, while saying they weren’t using attendance as an excuse. From my experiences, the idea of a lot of excitement surrounding the team isn’t an accurate read.

The Payroll Questions

Nutting did give a few comments about the payroll levels, but went to some extremes in his responses.

“We need to focus on the things we believe are controllable,” Nutting said. “Absolute payroll dollars are never going to define this club. It’s not foreseeable that we’re going to have a $200 million payroll. We’re always going to have limitations. It’s about how do we maximize the impact of every dollar that we spend?”

The comment about the $200 million mark is correct, but ignores the issue. The issue is that the Pirates will likely be in the $75 M range on Opening Day, while fans want to see them at least in the $100 M range, which is an area where they were at in 2016 and 2017.

Nutting was asked if the payroll is not controllable, to which he responded that the scale and range isn’t controllable. That’s similar to the above comment, and is true. The Pirates can’t control their scale and range. They can control what they spend within that scale and range.

Nutting did list several areas where the team spends beyond payroll:

“As I’ve said many times, I view the baseball operations payroll as a large bucket and major league payroll is a piece of that. We’ve been in the top five clubs in spending in player development resources for these young players. We’re outspending almost the entire industry in that (area). We’re continuing to reinvest in the support and development of the minor league system, whether it’s mental skills, conditioning, nutrition, sleep. We have people all over the place who are incredibly focused and incredibly smart, trying to find ways to optimize every one of those players. I’m very proud we’re sort of leading the way in baseball analytics. We were early and continue to reinvent and drive some of those dollars. Those are areas where we can be really competitive and the dollar-for-dollar impact of those investments have and will continue to really pay off for us.”

The problem with these comments are that we have no way of comparing the spending to what other teams spend. That doesn’t take away from the idea that the Pirates are trying to maximize dollars, and it doesn’t suggest that spending in these areas can’t be successful. It just raises a question as to whether you can spend on these things while still being able to afford more in MLB payroll.

Public Perception

Nutting did mention that the Pirates need to get better at communicating with the fans.

“That’s something we need to get better at because I know and Frank knows and Neal knows and we have belief and confidence in the rest of those systems we’re putting in place, and we’re probably not doing a good enough job (explaining it).

“Those guys are first class, world-beating brains, technology, commitment. The best of class in the industry. We need to do a better job of getting out in front talking about it. The nuance there is a little bit hard because the last thing you want to do is signal to the rest of the industry an area where you believe you’re a little bit ahead. I’m not thrilled about putting (out) what we think is the next level. We believe we’re rolling out a new and better baseball analytics program that’s far more embedded within the clubhouse. But when you start getting more detailed than that, it starts becoming a competitive disadvantage.”

The Pirates are very secretive about a lot of things. Some of those things are to maintain a competitive advantage, which is understandable. Others are things where it’s hard to see how being secretive or vague is a competitive advantage.

There is a perception in Pittsburgh that the fans think the Pirates are talking down to them, or feeling that the fans are stupid. I’ve never really bought into this idea. That’s mostly because I view the issue as the Pirates being secretive, but that secrecy being interpreted the wrong way.

“We certainly respect our fans,” Nutting said. “We certainly appreciate our fans. If we fall short on communicating effectively that to our fans that falls on us. That’s obviously something we need to be aware of and that we need to work on.”

As for his own impact, Nutting addressed the viewpoint the fans have of him as the owner of the team.

“I think the only piece that worries me is to the extent that it negatively impacts the club. And that’s unfortunate and up to me to do everything I can to make sure that the degree of commitment that I show — and I’ll say show as opposed to have, because I deeply believe that I am fully committed to this organization and to its success and devote all the energy I possibly can to seeing that happen — if I need to be more effective to communicate that in order to help and support the team, that’s on me.”

As for whether spending more might be able to impact this, Nutting didn’t feel that would impact things long-term.

“I obviously think it’s much deeper than that. The spending is a band-aid and a little bit of a distraction. I think we’re spending appropriately in order to achieve the goals that we’ve set out, which is to win a championship. I think we’re allocating between the multiple buckets that we need to allocate dollars in a smart, efficient way to be able to drive the very best team on the field that we possibly can. All of those, the performance and the intent and the desire, absolutely are there.

“If I need to do a more effective job communicating that and allowing people to see that, and allowing people to have the same faith in the organization that I have, the same faith in our baseball leadership team that I have, the same faith in the coaching staff and this young group of players that I have, then that would be the ideal.”

I think there’s some truth to the band-aid aspect and the anger being deeper than just spending. The two years where the Pirates spent the most in franchise history came in 2016 and 2017 when they finished at around $109 M. A lot of complaints about those years, even to this day, were that they didn’t add payroll, which is factually wrong. Now we’re in a year where spending $109 M would be seen as good effort, or at least much better than the current level of spending, which is easily argued as being too low.

I don’t think spending money will ever solve the problem in Pittsburgh. For every previous spending goal that the Pirates reach, the figures will be immediately moved to a higher total. I think the only thing that will improve fan perception of Nutting and the organization is by winning a World Series, which is difficult, because there’s a significant advantage that bigger payroll teams have in that department, and I’m not sure that any amount of analytics or competitive edge the Pirates can come up with, or even an influx of spending in their range, could make up for the big market advantage.

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