The Curious Case of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates

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The Pittsburgh Pirates know a thing or two about being underdogs and still coming out on top in the World Series. This was certainly the case with the 1979 squad.

The 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates are fondly remembered as the team that last brought a World Series to Pittsburgh. Dave Parker, Phil Garner, John Candelaria, Kent Tekulve and Willie Stargell are a few of the legends that made up that fateful roster. That star power makes it all the more remarkable that, for a World Series winner, the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates were unremarkable.

The Lone Star

The 1979 Pirates won 98 games – and had one All-Star. That, of course, was Dave Parker, who had a tremendous 1979 campaign, slashing .310/.380/.526 with 25 HR, 94 RBI and 6.7 WAR.

Phil Garner was the second best player on the team in terms of WAR, accumulating 4.1 with a slash line of .293/.359/.441 as a utility infielder. Garner and Parker were the only two players on the roster with more than 4.0 WAR. For reference, the 2019 World Series champions Washington Nationals had six players above that benchmark, and the opposing Houston Astros had five players with greater than 4.8 WAR.

MVP?

Willie Stargell was the co-National League MVP in 1979. He hit .281, with a .352 on-base percentage, .552 slugging percentage and 32 home runs in 424 at bats. However, he accumulated only 2.5 WAR, good only for ninth best on the Pirates.

Due in part perhaps to his horrible defense and playing in only 124 games, this is still an incredibly low figure for an MVP. Granted, analytics were not at all what they are now, but he shared the MVP with Keith Hernandez, who tallied 7.6 WAR. The World Series ring and future-Hall-of-Famer status he acquired certainly helped his case, but it would be hard to look back on the 1979 campaign and argue that Parker did not have a more impactful season for the Pirates.

How They Did It

What the Pittsburgh Pirates lacked in superstars in 1979, they made up for with depth. Twelve players on the roster had at least 2.0 WAR, a feat achieved by neither of the 2019 World Series participants. They were second in the National League in home runs and stolen bases, with the soft-hitting Omar Moreno swiped 77 bags by himself.

They pitched well. No Cy Young performances but a solid rotation and good bullpen from top to bottom earned them the second best ERA in the National League. While nobody aside from Parker really set the world on fire that year, pretty much everyone on the team (Blyleven, Kilson, Tekulve, Candelaria, Madlock, Robinson, Stargell, Moreno, to name a few) turned in a quality campaign that left no real holes in the lineup or the pitching staff.

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Less tangibly, the Pirates had one of the great managerial minds of the 20th century in Chuck Tanner. He made the most out of the talent he had and brought out the best in his players. Maybe more substantially, the team had remarkable chemistry with some of the most beloved Pirates of all time. After all, they were fam-a-lee.