It doesn’t sound like the Pittsburgh Pirates will be making an aggressive push this offseason to contend in 2022.
I still have the Pirates contending starting in 2023, though I think there could be an outside chance of that happening a year early if they make the right strategic additions.
If the Pirates do contend in 2023, it would end a four year losing streak. If they made the postseason, it would snap a seven year drought.
How does that compare to other teams in their own rebuilding efforts? I decided to take a look by running through every team’s history to see how long it took each team to rebuild, and how long they stayed in contention after they started winning.
For the purposes of this article, I’m using two terms: Build and Maintain.
The Build period begins in the first year a team has a below .500 finish. It extends until a team has a .500 or better season.
The Maintain period starts the first year with a .500 or better record, and extends until the next losing season.
I went back to 1993 with every single team for reference, though I feel the recent results are far more applicable. Below are the average Build and Maintain periods for each time frame.
Build: 3.49 years
Maintain: 3.66 years
This is a long period of time, and you could probably break this into smaller periods. I used this as a baseline for the “old baseball”, before Moneyball really kicked into the mainstream, and before the Rays took off as one of the smallest markets.
Build: 2.98 years
Maintain: 3.12 years
Call this the era of the Rays. The average build period went down, while the average maintain period also went down. I’ll point out here that the Yankees played a massive factor in the previous maintain period, starting that stretch in 1993.
Also, there’s a chart below, but notice how many small market teams just started losing for long stretches of time, starting around the 1993-95 years that surrounded MLB’s strike and Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations — which did nothing to address the disparity in the game.
It’s difficult to evaluate the current period. The averages are going to be much lower, due to the fact that so many of the streaks are currently active, or existing from the previous period. That said, here are two ways to get an idea of the current period.
The first is to look at the current active Maintain streaks, along with the current active Build stretches. There are 15 teams on each side.
Active Maintain: 5.2 years
This number is thrown off by the Yankees winning 29 seasons in a row. The Dodgers are currently on an 11 year streak, while the Cardinals are at 14. The average build time for those three teams before those streaks was two years.
If you take out the Yankees, you get an average of 3.5 maintain years thus far.
Active Build: 2.87 years
The longest current losing stretch belongs to the Angels, at six years, followed by four teams with five years. Overall, this is still showing about a three year average for building back to a contender once that first losing season hits.
The other way to look at this would be to view the entire 1993-2021 stretch by team. Red represents a below .500 season. Green represents .500 or better. Merry Christmas!
This article idea came about after a conversation in the comments praising the Rays for showing small market teams can win, and praising the Brewers for their quick rebuilds.
Looking closer at those teams, you’ll find two different results. The Rays had a four year losing stretch, which was preceded by six years of winning, and followed by four years of winning — so far.
The Brewers have been quick to build, although they’ve been poor to maintain. They are actually an interesting case with the ownership change. They had a 12 year losing streak until 2005. Since then, they’ve had five different Build periods and are currently on their fifth Maintain period. They haven’t gone more than two years of losing in a row, but also have only gone more than two years of winning once.
I think the important thing, in the long run, is the ratio. During this stretch, the Brewers have nine winning seasons and seven losing seasons.
Now if we look at the Pirates, I’m sure fans wouldn’t see that 2018 season as a blip of green in a stretch of red. However, if you focus on the ratio, they’re currently at 5:1 Build to Maintain. Even if you back that up to 2013, they’ve got a negative ratio, where they are building from a losing team more often than they are winning and maintaining.
The Pirates are currently three years into their latest build, although only two of those have come under Ben Cherington, and one of those was the COVID-19 shortened season.
I believe the Pirates should make an attempt to contend in 2022 with low-key additions, and a focus on boosting the pitching staff. I do not believe the Pirates will contend in 2022.
It’s not that a prolonged build period is bad, as the Rays have shown. I think the big test will be how long they can maintain the winning once they’re back to contending status. If they start contending in 2023, then any losing season prior to 2027 would be a disappointment.
In the end, I don’t think it’s about how long the build takes. I think it’s about how long the build can keep you winning, and how often you’re winning to losing in the long-term.
The Pirates have something to prove in either category.