So Andrew McCutchen is really, really good. This is not news. He went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts against Max Scherzer and the Tigers on Sunday, but nonetheless sports a sparkling .336/.396/.540 line (162 OPS+) through the Pirates’ first 41 games.
[Note: I’m going to be using OPS+ a lot here. I’m not thrilled about that either, but it’s an accessibility thing.]
The rest of the Pirates are really, really bad. This you knew, too. They’re averaging under three runs a game, which hasn’t happened in decades, and only one other player on the entire roster has an OPS+ of over 100 (Josh Harrison is at exactly 100, and in only 56 PA), and most are well below. The team’s OPS+ of 71, if it stays as low as it is, would be the lowest of any team in the post-integration era, and has been matched or bettered by Carlos Zambrano in four separate seasons. There are other players on this team who are young and talented and could eventually make things interesting, but right now, McCutchen is really the only show in town. And it’s actually really rare for a hitter this good to end up in an offense this bad.
In the 65 seasons since 1947, 43 teams have posted a team OPS+ of below 80, and on the vast majority of them, the entire offensive roster ranged from the very, very bad to the just-okay. On the 79-OPS+ 1992 Angels, for instance, none of the nine starters listed on Baseball Reference posted an OPS+ above 89, and the team’s two “best” hitters were Rene Gonzales (114 OPS+ in 380 PA) and Chad Curtis (100 in 502).
In fact, on all 43 of those teams, only eight players have had what I’d call a stud hitter — one who posted a more or less full-season OPS+ of even 130 or better — and half of them are Pirates. Here they are:
2001 Pirates: Brian Giles (.309/.404/.590, 150 OPS+)
There were more decent hitters on the ‘01 Pirates, who lost an even 100 and posted a 79 OPS+; Aramis Ramirez hit .300/.350/.536 (122 OPS+) with 34 homers in his first full season, and John Vanderwal was pretty solid as the bigger half of a platoon. But then, Jack Wilson got 425 PA and “hit” .223/.255/.295 (40 OPS+) as the team’s shortstop, Pat Meares managed to be just as bad at 2B (.211/.244/.304, 39 OPS+ in 284 PA), Jason Kendall had his first awful year at age 27 after five star-level ones, and Kevin Young held down the first base job while hitting .232/.310/.399 (80 OPS+).
Meanwhile, Brian Giles had a third straight brilliant offensive season for Pittsburgh. I don’t often cite RBI, but it does seem pretty telling that a guy who hit like that, in 160 games, managed to drive in only 95 runs — and 37 of them were Giles himself.
1998 Pirates: Jason Kendall (.327/.411/.473, 131 OPS+)
The year before the Pirates stole Giles from the Indians, Kendall was at the height of his powers, putting up that line in 149 games (and catching all but five of them) and stealing 26 bases in 31 tries. Only two other players got 200 or more plate appearances with an average OPS+: the aforementioned Young (and a .270/.328/.481, 108 OPS+ line from your everday 1B will not tend to help make an offense not-terrible) and Jermaine Allensworth (109 in just 69 games).
It’s hard to point to one or two culprits for the team’s 79 overall OPS+, like Wilson and Meares on the 2001 squad (though Tony Womack certainly should never have gotten 704 PA in a season); lots of guys were terrible in half-season bursts. The worst would be infielder Kevin Polcovich, who played 88 games (238 PA) with a .189/.255/.245 (32 OPS+) line, and Doug Strange, who put up a .173/.217/.216 (14 OPS+!) in 201 PA.
1983 Mets: Keith Hernandez (.297/.396/.433, 131 OPS+) and Darryl Strawberry (.257/.336/.512, 134 OPS+)
This is cheating a bit, as neither player started with the team. The guys who were with the team all year were uniformly awful; the other Brian Giles, a second baseman, played 145 games with a 70 OPS+, 19 year old Jose Oquendo put up a 42 OPS+ in 353 PA. Hubie Brooks played 150 games and put up a 68.
Hernandez was acquired in a really unusual trade; the Cardinals were in first place in the NL East on June 15, and the Mets in last. Hernandez was 29 and a former MVP, but also viewed as a bit of a personality problem, and on that date, he was sent from the division leader to the basement dweller in exchange for two mediocre pitchers. Hernandez was awesome as a Met, but it didn’t help the team’s fortunes any.
Strawberry was 21, and was called up to make his big-league debut on May 6. He was terrible for most of the year, but the Mets had no reason not to stay with him, and he rewarded them with a .311/.380/.634 in 52 games from August 1 on to wind up with that more-than-respectable line. Hernandez and Strawberry were, of course, a huge part of the core that would see the Mets put up 90, 98 and 108 wins over the ensuing three years.
1968 Mets: Cleon Jones (.297/.341/.452, 137 OPS+)
Four of the first seven teams in Mets franchise history made the sub-80 OPS+ list, and this is the only one with even one decent hitter. Jones had the best offensive year in the Mets’ history to that point, and it was legitimately excellent, though it didn’t look like much in the Year of the Pitcher. It foreshadowed 1969, when Jones batted .340 for the Amazins.
Jones was one of the only remotely bright spots on an offense so bad that a team with five above-average starting pitchers, including the brilliant Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman, lost 89 games. Tommie Agee had been good in the past and would be excellent in ‘69, but in ‘68 they ran him out there 132 times and for 391 plate appearances, and he hit .217/.255/.307 (69 OPS+).
1955 Pirates: Dale Long (291/.362/.513, 132 OPS+)
The 1993-2012 Pirates have been really bad, but the early- to mid-fifties Pirates made the Pirates of modern vintage look like All-Star teams. In ‘55, Frank Thomas (the other one, of course) had an average season playing a position (left field) at which one is expected to be above average, part-time OF Jerry Lynch had a 108 OPS+, and everyone else but Long was below average, most of them significantly. Rookie Roberto Clemente, age 20, was allowed to play 124 games for this depressingly awful team, five full years before becoming anything approaching a good hitter, and went .255/.284/.382 (77 OPS+) in 501 PA.
Long, though, seems like he was a lot of fun. He was given 128 PA between the Pirates and Browns in 1951, spent another three-plus years in the minors, and then resurfaced in the majors as the Pirates’ everyday first baseman in ‘55, by then aged 29. Long led the league with 13 triples along with his 16 homers, and had five more pretty good seasons to go after that.
1952 Pirates: Ralph Kiner (.244/.384/.500, 144 OPS+)
The ‘52 Pirates ended the season with a 73 OPS+, roughly as bad as the 2012 squad has been to date. They employed a 20 year old first baseman named Tony Bartirome, maybe because they lost a bet or something; Bartirome had slugged just .382 in a class-C league the year before, and he predictably hit .220/.273/.265 (48 OPS+) in 386 PA in baseball’s most offense-heavy position, and was never heard from in the majors again, logging eleven more seasons in the minors. Three other regulars posted an OPS+ below 75. Aside from Kiner, only catcher Joe Giragiola (114 OPS+ in 396 PA) beat the league average in more than 31 plate appearances.
This was the year before Kiner was sent to the Cubs due to the salary dispute as part of which Branch Rickey allegedly told him, “we finished last with you, we can finish last without you,” and to be sure, nothing could’ve kept this team (which went an astounding 42-112) from finishing last. Kiner was a step off the peak he’d established from 1947 through ‘51, but was still excellent, leading the league in homers for the seventh consecutive, and final, time. Kiner’s 37 homers were 40% of the team’s total; only one other Pirate made it to double digits (Gus Bell, with 16). This is certainly the closest comp to 2012 on this list; like McCutchen, Kiner was a terribly exciting, don’t-miss-an-at-bat type of player, and like the 2012 Pirates, the rest of the ‘52 offensive lineup was just terribly depressing, without exception.
1947 Senators: Stan Spence (.279/.378/.441, 130 OPS+)
The Senators lost 90 games, five ahead of the last-place Browns, but with better pitching and a markedly worse offense, coming in with a 79 OPS+. Apart from the centerfielder Spence, no regular put up an average OPS+ (two did come in at 99, albeit both at offense-first positions), and only 41 year old Rick Ferrell (126 in 115 PA) topped 100 in as many as 50 appearances. Spence was very solid, though, capping off a run of five seasons (in a six-year span, having missed 1945 in war service) in which he made four All-Star appearances..
So: modern baseball has probably never seen a team that, over a full season, has been as bad at doing the things that lead to runs as the 2012 Pirates have been so far this season. And this team can’t really be this bad…but they’re really, really bad. And while the 2001 Pirates deserve some recognition for managing to be collectively awful despite having both Giles and Ramirez, it’s been sixty years, going back to Ralph Kiner in 1952, since a team has been anything approaching this bad at scoring runs despite one player who has been this good.