The Pittsburgh Pirates were not the most successful major league team in 2015.
The Kansas City Royals of course won the World Series. For a second consecutive season, the Pirates failed to advance beyond the NL wild card game. Pittsburgh did not even win its own division—despite 98 wins—as it resided in the same neighborhood as the St. Louis Cardinals.
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But few, if any, franchises were more effective in finding value in trades and free agency outside their system. Internally, there were player development successes like the maturation of a home-grown ace. Few teams blend analytics and traditional baseball thought as seamlessly, and arguably no franchise does a better job of compelling different players, field staff, and front office personnel to pull in the same direction. Because of these factors, the Pirates are Baseball America's Organization of the Year.
A baseball organization is a large and diverse entity, encompassing a number of different departments which house scores of employees with different skills, backgrounds and biases. To understand the organizational success, consider several individual stories.
Consider Gerrit Cole. Cole was the first pick in a 2011 draft that lacked clear No. 1 overall prospect.
Bubba Starling was considered the best athlete in the class. Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez were intriguing shortstops. Some believed prep pitcher Dylan Bundy was the top talent. Some even favored Trevor Bauer, and his superior college production, over his UCLA teammate, Cole.
“It wasn't a clear-cut No. 1," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “There were a large number of people on the amateur side that had involvement and inclusion in the process … identifying the mental, physical, and personal skills it was going to take to become a top-of the-rotation start. Then, ultimately, Greg Smith pulling the trigger to select him."
Cole reminded Smith, who had previously scouted for the Tigers, of Justin Verlander. But front-of-the-rotation pitchers, even those with ideal measurable and Verlander comps, do not enter professional baseball as immediate No. 1 starters.
Aces are developed.
Cole's delivery had to become more efficient. Pirates pitching instructors, including former organizational pitching guru Jim Benedict, began by having Cole imagine he was inside a phone booth-sized box when he began his delivery. It was step one in helping Cole improve balance and arm slot.
“Our guys did a ton of work once he got in the system," Huntington said. “Benedict started it and then each of the pitching coaches along the way continued that growth and development."
But to make the leap to a 19-game winner in 2015, to reach 200 innings, Cole had to do something he was unable to do in 2014: remain healthy.
Cole spent 70 days on the disabled list in 2014 with shoulder and back strains.
Huntington has praised the club's innovative strength and training staff, which helped the Pirates lose the second lowest amount of player performance value to injury in 2015, according to ManGamesLost.com.
Cole adopted a new shoulder-strengthening regimen. Under his jersey he wore the Zephyr Bioharness, a device that monitors fatigue. He was one of several Pirates to experiment with the ancient Eastern practice of placing suction cups to his back and shoulder to promote quicker healing.
Said one AL scout who covers the entire Pirates organization: “It takes an organization to develop a player, it's not one or two people. At times they can be a little out of the box, they can start thinking in a different direction than a lot of teams. When they do that—I keep coming back to organization discipline—everyone is on board …. People have put their egos aside."
It took more than one or two people to find Francisco Cervelli.
The Pirates faced a significant void last offseason when Russell Martin signed a five-year, $82 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. There were no internal candidates to replace Marin, who trailed only Andrew McCutchen on the team in wins above replacement (WAR). The free agent market for catchers was desolate.
The Pirates traded relief pitcher Justin Wilson to the Yankees for Francisco Cervelli. In 2015, Cervelli out-WARed Martin 3.8 to 3.5.
The Pirates are often cited as an analytical-leaning organization, in part due to their valuing of pitch-framing, which in part led them to strike-stealers in Martin and Cervelli. But the Pirates consider themselves an inclusive organization that values different schools of thought.
For instance, the process of identifying Cervelli had begun in the 2012 when the club was scouting Martin. The Pirates scouts liked Cervelli, and continued to follow him. They liked his energy, his blocking and his offensive potential.
“Our analysts did an excellent job of identifying some things that were maybe undervalued at that point," Huntington said. “Our (scouts) stayed with him … they continued to like him.
“Without the work of our scouts we would not be in this position. Without the work of our analytics staff we would not be in this position."
Huntington also gambled Cervelli could better stay healthy after missing 199 games due to an assortment of injuries over the previous four seasons. Cervelli did not make a DL trip in 2015.
Said a senior AL talent evaluator: “Teams are thought to be either analytically-minded or baseball purists … You don't get that feeling (in Pittsburgh). They marry them so well."
Jung Ho Kang is another example.
No Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) position player had made the jump directly to the majors until Kang. The unknown surrounding Kang allowed the Pirates to win his rights for a relatively modest $5 million.
Pirates analysts attempted to translate Kang's KBO performance to major league production. The Pirates also sent in multiple evaluators for multiple in-person looks in Korea. Pittsburgh Huntington had six separate evaluators grade Kang off video, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Kang was named as a NL Rookie of the Year finalist in November.
The Pirates marry different camps so well is in part because of the relationship between Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle.
Huntington said it's important he act as a facilitator to create a culture “where people bring forward their opinions yet are willing to listen to constrictive criticism." But he noted there are important “cultural drivers" in the organization, including Hurdle.
Hurdle is inclusive. There is an open-door policy in his clubhouse office. He has demanded his assistant coaches work with and ask questions of the analysts. The openness, the collaboration he has fostered has led to better questions being asked of the data, enhancing and refining on-field strategies.
“We are willing to talk through differences, we are willing to appreciate differences, we are open to new ideas—or old ideas," Huntington said. “It's a pretty good foundation when you respect what the other person does."
Hurdle notes there is a “synchronicity from top to bottom" in the organization, including with the organization's productive, gold-spinning pitching philosophy.
Deadline acquisition J.A. Happ became the latest in a line of successful reclamation Pirates pitching projects in recent years including A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon and Edinson Volquez. Happ went 4-6 with a 4.64 ERA for Seattle. After being acquired at the deadline to replace the injured Burnett, Happ went 7-2 with an 1.85 ERA for the Pirates—and it led to a $36 million, three-year free agent deal with the Blue Jays.
Happ improved the angle of his fastball and trusted it more in the strike zone. It's a common recipe with Pirates' pitchers.
The same pitching philosophies are preached throughout the organization. The Pirate value pitching inside, in part to enhance groundball rates and reduce slugging percentage. They talk about generating outs in three pitches or less, a philosophy Hurdle adopted while managing in Colorado.
“We have our process … what we believe in," Hurdle said. “Very rarely do you (acquire pitchers) when they are good. You have to get them when they are not good and you believe there is substance to them."
Hurdle lives most of the year in a suburb north of Pittsburgh. When he frequents the grocery story or local Starbucks he often receives a dose of public opinion. When Happ was acquired in July, he heard doubt. Early this offseason, he has heard only pleas for Happ to be re-signed.
Said a rival scout: “There are going to be people who doubt you both inside and outside the organization. It's the doubt inside that can erode your effectiveness. You hear guys are saying 'I don't know if I agree with this.' This is baseball, people bitch about everything. Grumbling comes right behind the national anthem. You don't hear that (with the Pirates).
“The Pirates really have a way of getting pitchers to buy into that (philosophy). Now we're not surprised by (the success), we've come to expect it. They have a lot of holes again this offseason, but you're like 'They will come up with something.' It's been impressive to watch.'"
Travis Sawchik covers the Pirates and Major League Baseball for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and is the author 'Big Data Baseball.'