I’m old enough to remember when the Pittsburgh Pirates were a really, really good franchise. During the 70s, they were among the National League elite, bookending the decade with thrilling seven-game World Series wins over the Baltimore Orioles, the first in 1971 led by Roberto Clemente in what turned out to be one of last great flurries of talent of both his career and life, the latter in 1979 led by co-MVP Willie Stargell, the veteran “Pops” of the “We Are Family” team that rocked nine different uniform combinations and made the girthy Stargell all the more an unlikely, and endearing hero.
Statues of these gentlemen adorn their park near the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny and Monangahela ribers in Pittsburgh, one I was fortunate enough to attend the opening of in 2001. Stargell has passed away at the too-young age of 61 the morning that the stadium opened, so as I walked across the bridge to the stadium I saw an air of mourning and sadness atypical to all other Opening Days I had been to previously. And that was much the mood in Pittsburgh during that period. Since Barry Bonds left the team for San Francisco in 1993, they had not made the post-season, and they would not again until a three-year stretch between 2013-2015 where they won one series and then lost two consecutive wild card games. They haven’t been close since.
So it’s heartwarming and indeed stunning to see that this morning, albeit just a month into the 2023 season, that the Pirates are the National League’s best team. They are anything but aggressive with free agents and have often chosen to trade away or let go even the talent they were able to grow because of their perpetually terrible records. But so far this year, a team filled with a combination of young talent and value proposition acquisitions have taken full advantage of a modest early schedule to get off a surprising 16-8 record.
And as Emma Baccellieri of Sports Illustrated wrote, there is a looseness and happiness in the Pirates’ world unlike those seen since the 70s:
If you didn’t know the Pirates’ record, you could easily guess it from the mood in the clubhouse.
Outfielder Connor Joe handed out T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Good Vibes Only” last week, and his teammates have seemingly taken the message to heart, boosting the energy with all kinds of inspired fun. A home run is now rewarded not just with a pirate-inspired cutlass celebration but also with a custom blazer. The night’s best performer is greeted at his locker with a stuffed Pikachu. And their play on the field has been just as strong as all of this would suggest.
So, is it fair to say the Pirates have been cruising? Sure. But their pitching staff might prefer a different term.
“Man, we’ve been spinning,” Pittsburgh starter Johan Oviedo says with a grin.
The Pirates’ pitching has been especially nasty and frugal. As Baccellieri continued:
Last year, Pittsburgh finished as one of the weakest pitching staffs in baseball, with a team ERA+ of 89. This year? Its ERA+ is 122. It leads the majors in quality starts (14), and its rotation is going deeper into games than all but three others. There’s more to that beyond its breaking ball usage. But it’s certainly part of the story. Last year, Pittsburgh finished as one of the weakest pitching staffs in baseball, with a team ERA+ of 89. This year? Its ERA+ is 122. It leads the majors in quality starts (14), and its rotation is going deeper into games than all but three others. There’s more to that beyond its breaking ball usage. But it’s certainly part of the story.
For 23-year-old righty Roansy Contreras, that meant upgrading his slider from a secondary pitch and beginning to use it more than his fastball for the first time. For reliever Wil Crowe, it meant ditching his little-used curveball in favor of a new sweeper that could better complement his slider. “If we eliminated the curveball and added a sweeper, a bigger moving horizontal pitch, it would give me another weapon, since I’m really good at already turning the ball over that way,” Crowe says. And for veteran acquisition Vince Velasquez, Pittsburgh suggested leaning more on his slider, believing he would be more effective if he threw the pitch far more frequently. In Velasquez’s eight major league seasons before 2023, his slider made up just 14% of his pitches. Now? He’s throwing it 42% of the time as his primary secondary pitch in his first season with the Pirates.
And that success is finally attracting the likes of hitters and leaders that now seem to want to stay in Pittsburgh, and this week, at long last, the Pirates coughed up for a much sought after young talent that had all but been traded in spring training by pundits. Instead, this happened, per Yahoo! Sports’ Tyler Greenwalt:
The Pittsburgh Pirates reportedly signed outfielder Bryan Reynolds to a long-term contract extension, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Jason Mackey.
Reynolds’ deal is reportedly an eight-year, $106.75 million contract that includes a modified no-trade clause and a club option in 2031. It’s a record deal for the Pirates, who signed third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes to a then-record eight-year, $70 million a little more than a year ago.
Reynolds, 28, has been one of the Pirates’ best batters since his debut in 2019, with a slash line of .282/.359/.484 through 515 games. He joined the Pirates in 2018, when Pittsburgh traded Andrew McCutchen to the San Francisco Giants for Reynolds and Kyle Crick. Reynolds requested a trade in December during initial contract negotiations.
This season, Reynolds is batting .294/.319/.553 through 22 games.
Admittedly, they have fattened up on likes of Colorado and Oakland and Cincinnati. Last night, they blew a five-run lead against the injured-riddled and so-so Dodgers at home. So who knows where this team will be by August?
But bearing in mind the thirst that fans have for winners, and at a time when the Penguins are not in the playoffs and the Steelers are in transition, the original source of “Black and Yellow” (yes, Wiz Khalifa’s dad Sammy was once a poor-hitting shortstop for the Pirates, and his hit rap song is indeed a tribute to his favorite city’s teams) is ripe for a new generation of fans to embrace a team with the legacy and onetime domination that has been limited to only those old enough to remember disco. Early season crowds are improved, and with the signing of Reynolds, there is at least some hope on the horizon.
Yo ho, National League. If a Pirate’s life is good enough for Bryan Reynolds, fair warning that others may follow. People like winners. It’s been a while since the Jolly Roger waved often in the breeze by the confluence.
I finally noticed. You oughta, as well.