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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Retired Numbers Series: Pittsburgh Pirates

For the next team in my Retired Numbers Series, I was at a bit of a loss over which team to cover. So, I decided to take my dad’s suggestion and cover his favorite team growing up, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

I lived in Pittsburgh when I was little, and tried to become a Pirates fan-unfortunately, it was at the height of the recent struggles, which made it very difficult for a young fan to maintain interest. I root for other teams now, but I still have a respect for the Pirates-they were my dad’s team growing up. They seemed like as good a team as any to continue my series.

On to the analysis.


Notes on the Numbers 
Some quick notes on the stats: the two most prominent stats I used are similarly named. Both are called WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. They both try to account for every part of a player’s game, including, but not limited to: offense, defense, position, and playing time. So, it is a counting stat, like hits or home runs (with the small difference that bad seasons can actually decrease your WAR, if you are worse than a replacement player). WAR credits a player with how many wins they have provided to their team. They aren’t perfect, but for my purposes (a single number showing roughly how good a player has been), they work perfectly.

There are two major sites that provide WAR, Baseball-Reference (henceforth called bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR). The two are mostly the same, with the biggest difference coming from the different fielding stats the two use. Fangraphs has a fairly good summary of what makes up WAR and how it is calculated (for those wanting a more general summary, the introduction works just fine). Pitching is slightly different: Fangraphs’ WAR for pitchers only goes back to 1974, so for my purposes, I stuck to just bWAR for them.


The Already Retired Numbers 
Despite their recent struggles, the Pirates’ strong history has lent itself to nine retired numbers, a considerable total.

The earliest player to get his number retired in Pittsburgh was Honus Wagner. Wagner didn’t actually wear a number as a player, but wore number 33 in a coaching stint; that is the number retired in his honor. Wagner started in 1897 with the now-defunct Louisville Colonels, but moved to the Pirates in 1900. He would finish his career a Pirate in 1917. In his career, Wagner managed a fantastic sum of 135 bWAR and 150 fWAR; 124 of his bWAR and 138 of his fWAR came with the Pirates.

Ralph Kiner (number 4) and Paul Waner (number 11) are the only other players in this group who spent any time on other teams. Kiner played with the Pirates from 1946 until 1953, then spent some time with the Cubs and Indians in his final two and a half seasons. He has 46 bWAR and 53 fWAR for his (rather short) career, and 42 bWAR and 46 fWAR from his Pirate days. Waner had a similar career, starting as a Pirate in 1926 and playing with them until 1940. He spent his final five seasons bouncing around the league. 69 of his 74 career bWAR and 74 of his 79 career fWAR came from his time in Pittsburgh.

The remaining four players all played for the Pirates their entire careers. Number 8, Willie Stargell, played from 1962 until 1982, and got 56 bWAR and 71 fWAR. Bill Mazeroski, who wore number 9, played from 1956 to 1972 and amassed 27 bWAR and 40 fWAR. Pie Traynor wore number 20 and played from 1920 to 1935 (as well as 12 plate appearances in 1937). He totaled 37 bWAR and 42 fWAR for his career. Finally, Roberto Clemente racked up 84 bWAR and 91 fWAR during his prematurely-shortened career, which lasted from 1955 until 1972.

The Pirates also retired two numbers for managers: number 1, for Billy Meyer, and number 40, for Danny Murtaugh.


Compared to the League 
There are three main parts to the comparisons I use: Average or Median, bWAR or fWAR, and career numbers or numbers with the team in question.

In average career numbers, the Pirates retirees rank right around the middle of the league in both bWAR and fWAR. The median career numbers also fluctuate around the middle of the league. However, in all numbers with team, regardless of bWAR, fWAR, average, or median, the Pirates rank near or in the upper quartile of the league. Basically, this means that the Pirates are about league average in what they expect career-wise from their honorees, but require more of the player’s success to come with them (compared to other teams).

The Pirates’ nine retired numbers ties them with three other teams (the Reds, White Sox, and Astros) for fifth most in the majors.


So Who’s Next? 
The Pirates’ recent troubles means that they lack potential number retirees from the recent past, compared to other teams. However, this doesn’t mean they don’t have any candidates.

Both bWAR and fWAR are unanimous in naming Arky Vaughn the best position player without a retired number in Pirates history. Baseball-Reference gives the shortstop 64.6 bWAR for his Pirates days, fourth among Pittsburgh position players, and 75.6 for his career. Meanwhile, Fangraphs gives him 64 fWAR and 74 fWAR, respectively. They rank him fifth among position players, behind Wagner, Clemente, Waner, and Stargell (Baseball-Reference flips Stargell and Vaughn). But Vaughn was highly underrated, only getting into the Hall of Fame through the Veteran’s Committee. Additionally, he hasn’t actually played in Pittsburgh since before World War II (1932-1941 in Pittsburgh, 1942-1943 and 1947-1948 in Brooklyn). The large gap between his playing days and now makes it unlikely he will see his number retired any time soon. Even more of a problem is that his main number (21) has become more associated with a certain someone else.

Both sites are also unanimous in the next three hitters on their lists, although they place them in different orders. Max Carey is another Veteran’s Committee selection to the Hall of Fame, and spent 17 seasons playing center field in Pittsburgh. Baseball-Reference places him eighth in Pirates history, with 50.1 bWAR in Pittsburgh (and 50.6 in his career). Fangraphs, meanwhile, has him sixth among Pirates, with 63 fWAR with the team (and 67 fWAR in his career). He played from 1910 until 1929, and left Pittsburgh in 1926 in a midseason trade. Two factors significantly hinder his chances of getting his number retired: how long ago his career was, and the fact that he never actually wore a number. Teams have retired numbers for numberless players before, but Max Carey isn’t quite as famous as those players. I’d put him as a long shot.

Fred Clarke has a similar case. Clarke started in 1894 with Louisville, before moving to Pittsburgh in 1900, where he stayed until 1911 (with short comebacks in 1913, ’14, and ’15). He is listed sixth in bWAR and seventh in fWAR with the team, with 53.1 and 57, respectively. He too is a Veteran’s Committee HoF outfielder, but he has the added plus that he was a successful player-manager from 1897 to 1915 (including four pennants and a World Series under his watch in Pittsburgh). But, again, he never wore a uniform number, and he too has been rather forgotten over time.

Even though he only spent seven seasons with the team. Barry Bonds finishes eighth on the fWAR team leader board, with 50, and seventh on the bWAR team leader board, with 50.2. However, his unceremonious departure from Pittsburgh will likely keep number 24 from leaving circulation any time soon.

Tommy Leach rounds out both top tens, among those without retired numbers-he joined the Pirates from the Colonels the same year Wagner and Clarke did, 1900. He has 40.2 bWAR and 47 fWAR, but, again, never had a uniform number. His legacy is even less lasting than Carey’s or Clarke’s, as he hasn’t made the Hall either.

The past Pirate pitchers don’t offer a wealth of candidates, either. Baseball-Reference lists the Pirates second through fourth best pitchers as Babe Adams, Ed Morris, Wilbur Cooper, and Sam Leever, with bWARs of 45.9, 43.9, 42.8, and 40.3, respectively. However, none of them pitched a game after 1926; pitching has changed a lot since then, and none of the four stuck out for their time. And again, none of the four actually had uniform numbers.

Bob Friend is the only realistic shot at getting a retired number among Pittsburgh pitchers. He leads the franchise in bWAR from a pitcher, with 49.9, despite his losing career record. That, along with the fact that he has been out of baseball since 1966, do not help his cause, though. For as good as he was, I don’t see Friend’s number leaving circulation any time soon. Really, the Pirates don’t have any pitchers who look like promising number retirees at the moment.

Players who get their numbers retired usually come from a team’s period of dominance, and the 1960s/70s Pirates still have three reasonably strong candidates left. Dave Parker started with Pittsburgh in 1973 and played there until 1983. In that time, he racked up 36 fWAR and 32.6 bWAR. He finished his career in 1991, with 46 fWAR and 37.8 bWAR. And I can’t claim to know the specifics of every team, but for what it’s worth, my dad is quite adamant about retiring his number. I have no idea what the Pirates think about Parker’s case, though.

My dad is even more in favor of retiring Al Oliver’s number. In his ten years with the Pirates (1968 to 1977), Oliver was worth 32 fWAR and 25.0 bWAR. He would play until 1985, and for his career, he was worth 50.2 fWAR and 38.8 bWAR.

Manny Sanguillen was a teammate of Oliver and Parker, playing with the Pirates from 1967 until 1980 (with the exceptions of 1968, when he was in the minors, and 1977, when he played in Oakland). He was worth 24.6 bWAR and 32 fWAR (with 24.3 bWAR and 32 fWAR from his days in Pittsburgh).

The last two former players that I would like to cover are much more recent. The first is Brian Giles. Giles had a very short stay in the Steel City (1999 to 2003), but they were far and away his best years. In his four and a half seasons in black and gold, Giles was worth 26.6 bWAR and 30 fWAR. For his career, the right fielder was worth 42.7 bWAR and 59 fWAR. While I never really became a Pirates fan when I lived in Pittsburgh, I did become a fan of Giles and Jason Kendall (the other recent player I’m going to mention). Both were incredibly overlooked for their careers, and each has their claim for most underrated player in the history of the game. Giles’ argument in this discussion would be that he has a borderline-Hall of Fame career, yet has been almost forgotten in the two seasons since his retirement.

Jason Kendall, according to one measure, is the best active player to never receive a single MVP vote. Baseball-Reference gives him 37.7 career bWAR, with 31.5 of those coming in Pittsburgh. Fangraphs gives him 43 career fWAR, with 34 of them coming in black and gold. I would like to see Giles and Kendall remembered in some way, but I’m not sure if either made a strong enough impression. Also, they played during the Pirates’ worst stretch in history. The management might not want to remember that period in history.

Among current players, Andrew McCutchen is the only one worth serious consideration at this point. Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, and Jameson Taillon may all be worth considering some day, but as of right now, none of them is a serious threat for number enshrinement.


So, In Closing... 
As of right now, the players that I think are most likely to get their numbers retired by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the future are, in order:

Andrew McCutchen-22
Jason Kendall-18
Al Oliver-16
Dave Parker-39
Manny Sanguillen-35
Bob Friend-19
Barry Bonds-24
Brian Giles-24
Arky Vaughn-21/3/5
Max Carey
Fred Clarke
Tommy Leach

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