Diary of a long-suffering Pirates fan: Can Pirates' young guns carry them to championship glory like the '69 Mets?

Or what about the 2010 San Francisco Giants? History suggests no, but history also suggests "Wait 'til next year" will be a legitimate rallying cry.
New York Mets
New York Mets / Focus On Sport/GettyImages
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First up is the 1969 Miracle Mets.  The miracle part referred to the fact that the Mets had never had a winning season in their franchise’s history going into the 1969 season, but then went on to improbably win the National League Eastern Division over the heavily favored Cubs, then the NLCS against the Braves, and finally the World Series against the heavily-favored Orioles.

As runs producers, the '69 Mets were not exactly Murderer’s Row.  They had only one player, Tommie Agee, who hit over 20 home runs (Agee hit 26).  The next highest total was Art Shamsky’s 14.  Collectively, the Mets offense was 16th (out of 24 teams) in producing runs.  They were 18th in slugging and 18th in team OPS.  The team as a whole batted only .242.

But it was starting pitching that was the Mets' calling card.  Hall-of-Famer Tom Seaver was at the top of the rotation, followed by Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Don Cardwell, and Jim McAndrew.  In 1969, most teams used a four-man rotation and substituted some of their bullpen arms for spot starts.  So, while the five pitchers named above got the bulk of the starts, a 22-year-old kid named Nolan Ryan also got 10 starts that year, and a bullpen ace by the name of Tug McGraw got four starts.

Seaver, Koosman and Gentry reliably took every turn in the four-man rotation.  They accounted for 102 starts (out of 162) between them. Cardwell and McAndrew took turns in the fourth spot.  But it was Seaver and Koosman that were the engines that drove the Miracle Mets.  Seaver won 25 games and Koosman 17.  Seaver’s ERA was 2.21, and Koosman’s was 2.28.

There is a misnomer about the '69 Mets.  That misnomer is that people believe that the 1969 Mets were propelled by a bunch of rookie pitchers who burst onto the scene and took the league by storm.  To be sure, the Mets' pitchers were young, with the entire aforementioned group aged between 22 and 26. And they did take the league by storm.  But of that group, only Gentry was a rookie in 1969.  The others were either in their second or third seasons with the Mets.  That is to say, except for Gentry, every single one of those pitchers was on the 1968 New York Mets team that finished 73-89.  And some of them, like Seaver, were on the 1967 team, that lost 101 games.

I point this out because before these pitchers came to realize greatness, they had to suffer the slings and arrows of a bad baseball team.  The Mets' problem in '67 and '68 was that they couldn’t hit.  In '67 they were dead-last in run production in the major leagues.  And in '68, they improved, but only to 18th out of 20 teams in run production.  Although Seaver had a pristine 2.20 ERA in 68, he still only went an un-Seaver-like 16-12 in the won-lost column.  In Seaver’s first two years in the majors, he learned that you can’t win games if your teammates don’t score runs for you.

The Mets were 18-23 on May 28, 1969, and were in fourth place, nine games behind the first-place Cubs.  It looked to be business as usual for those Mets.  Another losing season seemed inevitable.

But on May 28, the turnaround started.  A 1-0 extra inning victory against the Padres (a game started by Koosman) began an 11-game winning streak for the Mets.  In the winning streak, Seaver won three games, Koosman and Gentry two apiece. 

For the purposes of this article, I won’t get into the blow-by-blow incredible summer the Mets had after that May 28th game.  But it’s a pretty sweet story if you ever want to read about it.  The Readers Digest version of it is thus:  Despite winning more than they lost going into August, the Mets still found themselves 10 games behind the first-place Cubs on August 13.  From then on, the Mets went 38-11 while the Cubs completely and utterly collapsed.  And thus did the Mets erase a 10-game deficit and win the division going away by eight games.

How did they do it?  Pitching.  Koosman and Seaver accounted for 42 percent of the Mets’ victories.  Of the 38 wins down the season's home stretch, Koosman and Seaver won 17 of those games.

But while the starting pitching was exceptional at the top of the rotation, the Mets bullpen, too, was a force to be reckoned with.  The mainstays of the Mets bullpen that year were Nolan Ryan, Tug McGraw, Cal Koonce and Ron Taylor.  Collectively they won 30 games and lost only 13.

The Mets pitching staff as a whole finished third in MLB in fewest runs allowed and second in lowest batting average against.

The coming out party for the Mets' pitching staff was the '69 World Series. The Mets won the World Series in five games, holding the Orioles' #1 ranked MLB offense to just nine runs in five games.  Koosman won two of the games, and Seaver won one.  The other was won by Gentry. 

As I mentioned at the top of this section, the Mets offense was middling.  But interestingly, the cast of hitters between 1967 and 1969 was largely the same.  And while it was not a fearsome lineup, each of the hitters made improvements such that the offense improved from last in the league in '67, close to last in 68, and then closer to the middle of the league in 1969. Tommy Agee and Cleon Jones were the most improved players.  Agee’s batting average improved from .217 to .271, while Cleon Jones’ batting average jumped from .246 to .340.

The Mets' young pitchers, who in 1967 and 1968 operated in a low-scoring environment, were able to run with that modest increase in run production by those '69 Mets and turn it into magic.

Can the Pirates young pitching staff similarly turn a low scoring Pirates offense into magic? 

Let’s take a look at another example.

I give you the 2010 San Francisco Giants.