Over the course of modern baseball history, its been imperative for most teams to have a solid offense if they want to be a real competitor to win the World Series. However, every great once in a while a team comes along with a fantastic pitching staff, one of the top-rated in baseball, similar to what the Pittsburgh Pirates have put together through 55 games this season. Many of these teams even have one great MVP-caliber hitter that pushes them over the top and into the playoffs. While watching the Pirates-Reds game tonight, I was thinking about other teams that were historically similar to the what the Pirates, and teams like the 2010-2011 Giants come to mind. And then I started delving further and further back into the history books and came up with the most perfect comparison of all time, the 1985 Royals, who had George Brett, lots of pitching and not much else.
During the 1985 season 7 of the 10 most used batters in the Royals lineup had an OPS+, which is ballpark adjusted under the league average of 100, with only George Brett standing out at 179. The exact same amount of 2012 Pirates have OPS+’s under the league average, with only Andrew McCutchen standing out at 164. In fact the Pirates offense is probably worse, ranking last in the 16-team National League, whereas the ’85 Royals ranked 2nd to last in the 14-team American League. Brett won the Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, and finished 2nd in the MVP vote that season to Don Mattingly. McCutchen is one of the early competitors in the MVP race, leading his team in everything: batting average (.333), slugging (.568), on-base % (.394), OPS (.961), homers (10), steals (10), walks (19), and the ability to electrify a crowd. He’s the greatest 1-man show in baseball, and its a wonder that more teams don’t just decide to complete avoid pitching to McCutchen.
Another similarity between the ’85 Royals and the 2012 Pirates that both teams had highly ranked pitching staffs that were/are able to make a couple of runs per game add up to wins. Brett Saberhagen went 20-6 with 10 complete games and a 2.87 ERA en route to the Cy Young award, propelling the Royals to the World Series with his great pitching. The Pirates have a Cy Young candidate of their own in James McDonald, who is having the best season of his career. McDonald has put up stellar numbers in his 71.1 innings, posting a 2.14 ERA with 71 strikeouts and just 20 walks.
Other pitchers were/have also been major contributors as well. The Royals got big contributions from Charlie Leibrandt, who peaked in 1985, winning a career-high 17 games while posting a career-best 153 ERA+ with a 8 complete games. The Pirates have AJ Burnett, who is 5-2 with a 3.76 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 55 innings pitched. His contributions since coming off the DL have been crucial
The final major similarity between the two teams is the stellar bullpens that both had/have. The Royals relied heavily on Dan Quisenberry, who threw 129 excellent innings, putting up a 2.37 ERA with a 8-9 record and 37 saves. The Pirates spread the workload out a little more, but the results are still the same. They have the 2nd lowest bullpen ERA in the National League, led by Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan, who both possess elite strikeout rates (11+ per 9 innings).
I am already on the record in saying that the Pirates should attempt to acquire another bat, because with their pitching staff they have a legitimate chance at making the playoffs in one of the easier divisions in baseball. Teams with elite pitching staffs typically stand a good chance at remaining competitive, and the Pirates have an excellent bullpen, giving the team a good chance to rack up a lot of 1-2 run wins. While the Royals offense was below average, it still had an team OPS+ of 95 which is 19 points higher that the 2012 Pirates, which is an issue that needs to be addressed. Another bat could push the team’s offense from worst in baseball to below average, which could be enough to make the playoffs. And as the 1985 Royals proved, once you make the playoffs anything can happen, even a World Series title. For the fans of a team who’s fan base is a win starved as Pittsburgh’s, the front office needs to go for it.