Diary of a long suffering Pirates fan: Games 27-29: How life imitates the 1941 St. Louis Browns.

Pirates still on track to break St. Louis Browns record for most runners left on base in a season.
Eddie Gaedel On The Bench
Eddie Gaedel On The Bench / Transcendental Graphics/GettyImages

When the Pirates started the season 5 wins and 0 losses, I pointed out in my fun with small sample size statistics article that the Pirates were on pace to obliterate the 1941 St. Louis Brown’s record for most runners left on base in a season.  After the first five games, the Pirates were scoring 7.8 runs per game and stranding 12.33 runners on base per game.  When you’re scoring 7.8 runs per game, leaving runners on base is a by-product of the run production that the Pirates were generating in those early series.  And when you score 7.8 runs per game, your team is likely to have a winning record, which the Pirates did after five games.  So, you’re not really that concerned with those potential runs you left out on the bases.

Fast forward to game 29.  The Pirates now have a losing record (13 wins, 14 losses).  They are averaging 4 runs per game instead of 7.8.  But they are still on pace to break the 1941 St. Louis Brown’s record for most runners left on base in a season.  Through 29 games the Pirates have stranded 240 runners.  If they continue at this pace (8.276 per game), they will end up stranding 1,340 for the season, surpassing the 1941 St. Louis Browns who stranded 1,334 runners.

The Pirates lost 2 out of 3 to the San Francisco Giants over the weekend.  In losing, the Pirates continued to write a familiar script:  Not scoring runs while stranding a lot of runners on the bases.

For the San Francisco series, they stranded a total of 26 base runners, while going a collective 2 for 22 with runners in scoring position.

The Pirates have now lost 9 of their last 12 games.  They have not won a series in three weeks.  In 9 of those 12 games, the Pirates scored two or fewer runs.  Going into the middle game of the Giant's series, the Pirates had a collective batting average of .119 with runners in scoring position over the past 3 weeks.  That did not improve in the final two games of the series, batting .066 with runners in scoring position.

I am reminded of ex-Oakland A’s scout Grady Fuson, who is portrayed in the movie “Moneyball,” as the out-of-touch, old-school, scouting director unwilling to consider Billy Bean’s new sabermetric ideas.  Although he is made out to be a Neanderthal in the movie, he has a very prophetic line in the movie that pertains to the 2024 Pirates.  As Billy Bean is lecturing him on the need to sign players that get on base, Fuson objects by saying, “Yes, but you still need someone to knock those runners in.  You still need a big bat in the lineup.”  

The Pirates thus far lack that big bat. Heck, when it comes to knocking those runners home, they lack any bat at all.

The 1941 St. Louis Browns finished with a 70-84 record.  They scored an average of 5 runs per game.  But their pitchers gave up 5.3 runs per game.  That .3 difference between runs scored and runs allowed suggests a team that should be close to .500.  And they probably would have gotten to .500-- if not better-- if they hadn’t stranded so many runners through the course of the season.  Those 1,334 potential runs left on the bases by those 1941 St. Louis Browns certainly played a role in their not finishing with a better record.  For instance, they lost 23 one-run games that season.

The Pirates, through 29 games, seem to be mirroring those 1941 St. Louis Browns. They are averaging 4.0 runs per game, while their pitchers allow 4.3 runs per game.  That .3 difference between runs scored and runs allowed suggests a .500 team or slightly below .500 team, which the Pirates now are.  But had the Pirates cashed in a couple more of those 240 stranded baserunners, they might still be thought of as a contender instead of a team destined for another year of mediocrity.

The buzz around the Pirates coming out of Spring Training was the offense.  The Pirates led the Grapefruit League in home runs.  Henry Davis and Oneil Cruz looked to be primed for breakout seasons.  But thus far those predicted breakout seasons have not materialized for them or for any of the Pirates’ hitters.  In fact they have more hitters batting below the Mendoza line (4) than they do players batting over .250 (3).

It's no secret as to who are the Pirates' hitters are that are struggling:

Henry Davis: .169 batting average

Jack Suwinski .178 batting average

Rowdy Tellez .198 batting average

Andrew McCutchen .197 batting average

Jared Triolo .214 batting average

So as one looks at the Pirates' batting averages, one sees why they are having difficulty scoring runs.  What is amazing about the Pirates is that despite the putrid batting averages of the collective players, the Pirates are still putting lots of people on bases.  They are doing so by drawing walks.  But while drawing walks gives you baserunners, those baserunners mean nothing unless someone, as Grady Fuson sagely said, can knock them in.  When you bat .091 with runners in scoring position, as the Pirates did this weekend against the Giants, you are not going to win a lot of ballgames.  Pirates fans should perhaps take solace that the Pirates were able to win one of those games despite the putrid offense.

What is perhaps amazing about the 1941 St. Louis Browns is that they stranded all of those runners in an era where players did not strike out a lot. The Browns averaged only 3.6 strikeouts per game. So with more batted balls in play, there are more opportunities to move base runners along. That the Browns still managed to strand so many runners in such an era is astounding.

Conversely, the 2024 Pirates' failure to advance runners is partially attributable to their playing in an era where strikeouts are common. And the 2024 Pirates are proving themselves to be quite adept at striking out. They are averaging 9.4 strikeouts per game, the 5th worst in the MLB. And, of course, when you are striking out, you are not advancing baserunners.

The season is still early.  There is plenty of time left to hopefully correct these shortcomings.  We saw the Pirates score a boatload of runs in Spring Training and early in the season.  Hopefully, we will see the return of that offense very soon.

If not, it may be a very long season.