Since 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates have consistently entrenched themselves into a playoff race as deep into the season as July. In three of those seasons (2013-15), they made the playoffs. In the other four, they finished under .500.
Barring a turnaround, the current 64-68 Pirates will likely finish under .500, marking five collapses in eight years. What has caused the Pirates to peak in July so consistently? In the Clint Hurdle era (which started in 2011), the Pirates have a July record of 121-84 (.590 win percentage). They have never finished under .500 in that month.
As we know, August and September are another story. Excluding the playoff years, the Pirates have tailspun themselves back into irrelevancy in those months. Like I said, this has now happened five times in eight years. But why?
Blame Clint Hurdle. Blame the coaching staff.
That seems to be a popular thesis these days. But it does hold some water. In 16 seasons as a manager including this year, Hurdle has produced a winning record four times. His career win percentage is .488. He is slightly below average.
Besides managing mostly average teams, Hurdle has been known to lead some fantastic runs. Every year with the Pirates, that run has come in July. With the Colorado Rockies in 2007, we all remember the 21 wins in 22 games to get them to the World Series.
Hurdle is a rah-rah inspirational quotes kind of guy. When things are going good, he is the perfect voice to keep it going. When things are going bad, an inspiring quote can only say so much. Fundamentals and clean baseball are things that keep good teams from enduring extended slumps. The Pirates haven’t exactly been tight around the edges during the collapse years.
Coaching is the problem. A voice is needed to reign the troops in when things go awry. Clint Hurdle is not that voice.
Maybe the talent assembled isn’t nearly good enough to be a true contender. During the collapse years, the Pirates have had mostly young teams. It is a long and grueling season. Young players notoriously run out of gas late in the year.
Also think about this. During the collapse years, the Pirates usually tread water for the first few months of the season. They aren’t necessarily out of the playoff race but they aren’t seen as a team that will make a real impact. Then the July highs come. During that month they insert themselves right into the playoff mix. The problem with the July highs is that the come down hits hard.
The talent isn’t just great enough. The first few months of average baseball is a true metric of what the team actually is. Getting hot for one month is just that. One month. Sustaining that high level of outplaying your true talent for multiple months is impossible. Adding a player at the deadline can only move the needle so much. An average team is an average team. That’s why they play 162 games. To weed out the pretenders. In five of the last eight years, the Pirates have been exactly that.
A coaching staff won’t change that. Draft better. Develop better. Trade better.
Obviously something is wrong with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Which theory is it? Not to be a cold take artist here, but I think it’s a combination of both.