The Pirates Create a New Form of Development Hell

Below is one of the more ominous things I’ve seen lately, although it wasn’t a surprise.  After one of the Pirates’ recent, desultory losses (I can’t distinguish one from another — Was it against the Reds?  The Tigers?  The St. Louis Browns?  I dunno . . . .), Derek Shelton had this to say:

“There’s been some positive things. Obviously, the record’s not a positive thing,” manager Derek Shelton said. “But we have a lot of teaching we still have to do and a lot of development we still have to do.”

The Pirates have been relying on for years now on this message, or diversion if you want to be more cynical/realistic.  When asked about whether they need personnel changes, the pat response is, “We have a young team, we need to help them get better first.”  In other words, “No, we’re not going to spend any money on better players.”

So do the Pirates really have a young team that can be expected to improve?  (We won’t even get into the question of how much they need to improve a team that’s by far the worst in MLB.)  One of the nice features at baseball-reference.com is that the team stats show the average age of each team’s hitters, weighted by ABs plus games, and pitchers, weighted by 3XGS plus games plus saves.  At 27.6, the Pirates’ hitters are the third youngest in the NL.  Their pitchers, at 27.8, are tied with the Dodgers for second youngest.  The league average for both hitters and pitchers is 28.6.  So the Pirates are one of the NL’s youngest teams.

Or not.

There’s a reason these ages cluster around 27-29.  Of the 15 NL teams, the hitters on 13 average between 27.5 and 29.7 years.  The pitchers of 13 teams average between 27.4 and 29.2.  That’s because these are the ages when players are at their peak, especially with hitters.  They’re more likely to be in the majors rather than in the minors or on the golf course.  A truly young team is one that has significant talent below these ages.  You have to dig deeper.

The Pirates have a relatively young team because they have very few older players.  Their oldest player by far is Jarrod Dyson, who’s 36.  Counting all 40 players who’ve seen action with the team this year, Derek Holland is the next oldest at 33.  There are three players who are 30, Jacob Stallings and two relievers.  There are also only four players who are under 26:  Nick Mears (23), Cole Tucker and Mitch Keller (both 24), and Bryan Reynolds (25).

That’s very different from, say, Atlanta.  The Braves’ hitters and pitchers are slightly older than the Pirates’, but that’s because of Nick Markakis (36), Mark Melancon and Josh Tomlin (35), Darren O’Day (37), and 13 other players (some of whom haven’t played much) between 30 and 34.  They also have Ronald Acuna, Mike Soroka and Huascar Ynoa (22); Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley (23); Touki Toussaint and Kyle Wright (24); and three other players between 22 and 24.  Those guys may get a lot better.

What the Pirates have is a remarkable concentration of players who are age 27.  Here’s a full breakdown:

Hitters

24:  1
25:  1
26:  1
27:  4
28:  4
29:  2
30:  1
36:  1

Pitchers

23:  1
24:  1
25:  0
26:  4
27:  12
28:  2
29:  2
30:  2
33:  1

I don’t think the concentration at age 27 is any mystery.  Due mainly to their insistence on cheap, controllable players, the Pirates’ roster is heavily comprised of three categories:  their own prospects who made only slow progress in the minors and reached the majors relatively late, players who became “seven-year” (i.e., minor league) free agents, and players who reached the majors but didn’t stick for long.  These players are going to fall very heavily right around age 27.  With rare exceptions, they’re not prospects who are still on the way up.  They’re experienced players with track records who are what they are.

The Pirates’ core, to use the term very loosely, isn’t young apart from Bryan Reynolds and Mitch Keller.  Kevin Newman is 26; Josh Bell and Joe Musgrove 27; and Gregory Polanco, Adam Frazier and Trevor Williams 28.  If these guys all still need “development,” they’re just not that good.

Or maybe this is Shelton’s idea of development:

It’s my job to continue to make sure that we find ways to have fun.

No word yet on whether the Pirates plan to look for ways for their fans to have fun.

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