Why today’s Pirates might consider reusing the mold of the 1960 World Champs

Andrew McCutchen photo taken from Google Images

This article was originally posted on Bucs Prospects back on the 19th.

Retired Jersey #21

Image via Wikipedia

I hope baseball fans enjoyed watching Game 7 of the 1960 World Series on MLB Network.  I didn’t think it possible to fulfill the build-up, but it absolutely did.  Maz’s homer was hardly the only drama, it was baseball at its best with two highly talented teams who refused to die, a display of desire and competitiveness not seen in recent World Series.

And while the championships of 1909, 1925, 1971, and 1979 were surely tremendous for the city, I can understand why so many believe the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates to be the most meaningful team of them all.

Sentimentality aside, I’m forever a scout and while I enjoyed the spectacle, I was unable to turn off my internal radar gun and stopwatch.  I watched the way the Pirates won that World Series with great fielding and athleticism and asked myself, why can’t this next generation of Bucs also build around those same ideals?

From watching Game 7 alone, I could see that the Pirates’ athleticism, speed, and defense had much to do with defeating the New York Yankees despite their “Murderer’s Row” of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Moose Skowron.  The Pirates had some bats, but not nearly the same juice as the Yanks.  The Pirates won on great defense, occasionally good pitching, and timely but less than thunderous hitting.  The Yankees blew them out three times for a combined score of 38-3, but Pirate “small ball” managed air-tight wins in the other four games and that was the difference..

The Pirates’ emphasis on athleticism and defense was exemplified by their scouting and signing of minority players in a time when much of Baseball was still prejudiced against them.  Roberto Clemente was the first and best of many more to come.  Later in the decade, stars like Willie Stargell and Manny Sanguillen would join him and the Pirates boasted the first All-Black lineup in the early 1970s.  The 1979 club had more Black players than any World Series Champion in the history of the game.  Many of these players brought speed, athleticism, and defense with them, aspects of the sport that the Pirates excelled at over two decades.

There aren’t many dark faces in this 1960 game aside from Roberto Clemente’s, but you can see that GM Joe Brown had already put that stamp on the franchise.  Base-stealing had been dormant since the Babe Ruth era (Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills was about to change things), but the Pirates still had plenty of speed and athleticism all over the field.

When you have Bill Virdon in center field and Roberto Clemente in right, not much is going to fall in.  Both were speedsters with great instincts who were off and running by the crack of the bat.  Other sparkling gloves included 8-time gold glove second baseman Bill Mazeroski, slick hot corner man Don Hoak, and shortstop Dick Groat, whose athleticism made him a serious NBA prospect out of Duke.

I believe Major League Baseball is going to take a step back from the last two decades of “Gorilla Ball”.  Small stadiums, lighter bats, and performance enhancing drugs made the 1990s and 2000s a home run era, but I believe the crackdown on PEDs have already made a mark.  Its effect will grow over the years, forcing teams to manufacture runs with small ball and speed, and to have more far-ranging fielders.

One of my disappointments as a fan is that Major League Baseball has become slower while both the NFL and the NBA have become much faster over the past thirty years.  If you go to the early 1980s, almost every team had more speed then than they do now.  Even Earl Weaver’s “Pitching and 3-Run Homer” Orioles and the notoriously slow-footed Boston Red Sox would have someone who could run and steal bases, i.e. Al Bumbry or Jerry Remy.  Everyone had a true leadoff hitter and the glove men were more athletic.

Because of Gorilla Ball, the speed-and-defense aspect of the game has been diminished.  While I don’t see it coming back to Dead Ball Era levels, when the league home run leader would be lucky to hit 10 and Ty Cobb could swipe 90 a year, I do think the speed-and-defense guys will make a comeback.  Some of those burners who go off to the NFL and NBA will get longer looks and more coercion to play baseball from scouts.  At least that’s what I’m hoping for, because I love speed and what it can do out on a baseball field.

I believe that the Pirates can and will benefit from this trend and build their team in such a manner.  Andrew McCutchen can be their flag bearer, because he is very much out of this mold.  “Cutch” hit 16 HR last year and I can see him hitting 20 in the future, but that’s just icing on the cake as far as his game is concerned.  McCutchen’s one of the game’s fastest players, with the potential to steal 50+ bags and cover a ton of ground in center.  In many ways, he’s a righthanded hitting version of his 1960 counterpart Bill Virdon but with base-stealing skills.

Pedro Alvarez is the next most important core player and he, of course, is much more out of the Gorilla Ball mold.  Alvarez is a lefthanded hitting slugger and though he’s inherently athletic with good defensive actions, he’s put on significant weight since college and is not consistent with the routine plays.  Alvarez looks like a much better hitter than this 1960 counterpart Don Hoak, but Hoak got to balls and made plays in Game 7 alone that Alvarez can only dream about.

Where the next generation of Pirates will have the hardest time matching the 1960 Champs is at second base and right field.  I’ve heard older baseball men argue that Hall of Famers Bill Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente were not only the best defenders at their position in their time, but the best fielders of all-time!  For current second baseman Neil Walker and whoever ends up the long-term rightfielder, those are impossible shoes to fill!

Think about that for a second.  How much did it help their pitching staff just having Clemente and Mazeroski alone?  This game didn’t show a lot of Mazeroski’s slick glove work (though he came through with the bat!), but I’ve seen the clips of his lightning double play pivot and his exceptional hands and range.  Clemente had a beautiful glide and showed a ridiculously strong arm on a couple throws to keep runners from advancing.  Over the course of the season, how many times did these two alone kill rallies with their gloves and arms?

I don’t know how often teams look specifically for gloves in the draft or even on the free agent market.  Offensive numbers and sabermetrics have more influence than ever on both personnel decisions and in salary negotiations.  You don’t hear much of teams making a wish list for a “gold glove-caliber rightfielder” or a “wide-ranging second baseman who can turn the deuce”.

As general managers have become more dependent on numbers and less on pure scouting, the importance of fielding has been diminished or, in some cases, been vastly misunderstood.  Instead of listening to their veteran scouts on who the best defenders are, or even watching the games themselves, the modern “educated” GM is resorting to recently invented metrics like Range Factor and Ultimate Zone Rating as a catch-all to determine who the best fielders are.

(It’s a topic I’ll discuss at length in another story, but I believe those new defensive metrics to be greatly misleading and that their emphasis is actually contradictive to an emphasis on fielding.)

What most appeals to me about building a team around speed and defense is simply that you’re circumventing everybody else.  Everybody else is going after the big bats and driving up the prices.  The good gloves and the speed guys aside from Carl Crawford tend to slip through the cracks as bargains.
I liken it to changing the rules of a rat race.  It’s hard to win a rat race if you put in a rat, but what if you enter a cat instead?

The Whitey Herzog-led St. Louis Cardinals were the team of the 1980s and they played the fast cat.  “Whitey Ball” was a different brand of baseball that got everybody else off their game.  He took speed and defense to the extreme and let everybody else fight over the power-hitting gorillas.

And this philosophy ran top-to-bottom, throughout the organization.  Scouting director Fred McAllister drafted for it and the minor league coaches made sure their prospects learned how to run the bases and play the field.  Three pennants and a World Series crown later, Whitey Ball was a rousing success.

I don’t know if the Pirates are capable of remaking to the extent of the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals, but I do think they could mimic the 1960 Pirates.  The Pirates will have a better chance competing if they take an alternate path that doesn’t always involve butting heads with the big boys.  By emphasizing defense, they might be able to sneak in some really good players.

In their minor league system today, I believe Starling Marte has the potential to become a very good defensive outfielder.  If Chase d’Arnaud can make the routine plays at shortstop, he might become a plus defender as well.  Players like that, even if they don’t mash from day one, should have a more prominent role in the 2010s than they would have the last two decades.  They deserve more patience with their bats because their big league value will go beyond whatever their stat-line reads.

People can look at the offensive stat-lines and even the pitchers of the 1960 Pirates and Yankees and conclude the Yankees should have killed them.  Some sabermetricians will go as far to claim the Yankees are the better team simply because their “Pythagorean” record (another recent statistical invention that takes into account “runs for” against “runs against”) is overwhelmingly better.

But I don’t think teams really care about winning the Pythagorean World Series, they want to win the real one.  Great fielding and great baserunning will never be accurately accounted for by statistics, but they’ll always play up, measurable or not.   Very often, such talents will be the difference in what was “supposed to happen” based on computations and what actually ends up happening in real life.

A lot has changed with baseball in 50 years, but this is one that hasn’t.  It’s very simple.  If you can catch the ball and throw the ball, you have a better chance to win.  Watching Mazeroski and Clemente do it in the flesh drives that home with much more conviction than any comparison of Ultimate Zone Ratings ever could.

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