The Pittsburgh Pirates have been around for a long time, and some of their records will likely stand the test of time. But which franchise records have the best likelihood of being broken?
The Pittsburgh Pirates have been around for a good portion of baseball’s history. They were the first team in the World Series, and statistical records date back to 1882. But in the franchise’s long storied history, what record is the most breakable? The first one we’ll look at is just by single season, and the second one will be all-time with the Pirates.
Arguably the most breakable single season record is the most RBI’s in one year by a Pirate. The most runs batted in during a single season for any Pirate player is held by Paul Waner in 1927. During that year, Big Poison knocked in 131 runs. Overall, he batted .380/.437/.549 with a .450 wOBA, and 158 wRC+. Aside from RBIs, it’s one of the single best seasons in the Pirates’ history. But why is this one so breakable?
Well for starters, runs batted in are very reliant on the other players in the line-up. When Waner drove in 131, he didn’t do it all on his own. The Pirates led the league in on-base percentage in 1927 at .361. Of the nine batters they had with at least 300 plate appearances, seven had an OBP of .370 or greater. Waner had a grand total of 410 plate appearances with a man on base.
The second thing is that being a good hitter isn’t a prerequisite of racking up a ton of RBIs. Over the last 15 Major League seasons (not including this year or 2020), there have been 344 instances of a player reaching at least 100 RBI’s. Five have a wRC+ under 100, with Albert Pujols at the lowest with 101 RBI’s and a 77 wRC+ in 2017. Adam Duvall managed to drive in 113 with a wRC+ of just 103 in 2021. Even Ryan Howard in 2008 drove in 146 with a 120 wRC+, which while good, is certainly not elite. Sure, being a good hitter certiantly helps, but being one of the best isn't a requirement.
However, it does require you to come through when there are runners on base. Even in 2017 when Pujols had an atrocious year at the plate, but still drove in over 100 runs, he batted .305/.366/.500 in high-leverage situations and drove in 50 runs in just 131 plate appearances. He actually had nearly triple the amount of RBIs in high-leverage situations compared to low-leverage situations despite having over 100 fewer plate appearances in said situations.
So who is best suited to perform this feat? If I had to put money on it, it would be Oneil Cruz. Cruz has the potential to hit upwards of 40 home runs. He has an insane amount of power potential, and he started to show what he could do in the tail end of 2022. Unfortunately, Cruz’s season was cut after the second week of the season because of an ankle injury.
So Cruz has the potential to drive in a ton of runners, but will the Pirates give him enough opportunities? It depends on who hits in front of him. Thus far in his brief Major League career, Cruz has batted a little bit of everywhere in the order. But here’s the unfortunate part: he’s played the most games at the leadoff position, which is not a pole position to rack up a ton of RBIs.
Now if the Pirates bat him third, behind Bryan Reynolds and possibly Ji Hwan Bae, we are now making a serious proposition. Reynolds consistently draws walks and hits for an above-average batting average. If Bae can manage a league average OBP, he’ll give Cruz a ton of opportunities with a man in scoring position. Bae is right now on pace to steal 57 bases in 150 games. He can will himself into scoring position and give Cruz a ton of potential opportunities.
So can Cruz hit in clutch situations? So far, he hasn’t had any trouble with that either. With men in scoring position, Cruz is a career .307/.380/.625 batter. With men on base in general, he hits .295/.358/.611. Cruz has hit extremely well in high leverage to with a .281/.375/.537 career triple-slash.
It’s all going to come down to where the Pirates bat Cruz. If they bat him leadoff all the time, he’ll have a real uphill challenge to break the record. But if they bat him third, and he keeps hitting like he has thus far in the best situations to drive runners in? He could make a serious run for the Pirates’ single-season RBI record.
The easiest to break all-time franchise record is the most strikeouts with the Bucs. The current record is held by all-time Pirates great, and part of the Pirates’ first Hall of Fame class, Bob Friend. Friend struck out 1682 batters throughout his time in Pittsburgh. Overall, he had a 3.55 ERA, 3.33 FIP, and 1.29 WHIP. Friend pitched a lot, managing 3480.1 innings while wearing black and gold.
This record is arguably easier to break than the single-season RBI total record. Bob Friend racked up so many strikeouts because he pitched so much. Even for his era, he was a workhorse. From 1951 to 1965, the years he pitched for the Pirates, Friend had the 3rd most innings pitched, 3rd most starts, and fifth most games played for a pitcher, despite relievers and closing pitchers starting to make a stronger presence.
But Friend played in a very different era in baseball. Throughout his Pirates tenure, his strikeout rate was just 11.5%, while his strikeout per-9 rate was 4.35. On five separate occasions, Friend struck out less than 10% of opponents. Even though strikeouts were way less relevant when Friend played, he was below average most of the time even back then, posting an above-average strikeout rate just three times and an above average K/9 just twice. When Friend retired in 1966, the league average K/9 was 5.8, and the average strikeout rate was 15%.
So who is the best fit to break this record? As of right now in the Major Leagues, it’s probably Mitch Keller. Keller already has 498 strikeouts. He’s about 30% of the way there. He is posting the best strikeout rate of his career at 26% and 9.92 K/9 rate. The only number on the back of his baseball card that can even match it is his 2019 brief MLB call-up, when he only pitched 48 innings.
Let’s say the Pirates extend Keller, and he pitched 180 innings over the next five years. It’s very plausible, given that the Pirates stated earlier in the season they’ve already gotten preliminary talks started, and have extended two very key pieces of their core over the last two years. Plus, Keller has been fairly durable during his time in Pittsburgh. The only year in which he had an injury that kept him out for a chunk of time was 2020, which by all means was not a typical year. Teams had a quick ramp-up, and some had layoffs because of COVID.
If we are a little generous and say that Keller strikes out a batter per inning over this stretch, he’ll have struck out 900 more batters, putting him at 1398. That’s not including any more strikeouts he’ll have this year, and only assuming he never strikes out more than one batter per inning. As of right now, his K/9 is closer to 10.0 than 9.0. If he were to average ten strikeouts per-9 innings, that would put him at 1498 Ks.
You also can’t rule out someone from the minor leagues overtaking Friend. Paul Skenes has the ceiling of a superstar pitcher. He struck out 15.3 batters per nine innings in college and has a 13.5 K/9 rate so far in his brief professional career.
Skenes definitely has top-of-the-line strikeout stuff and will debut in an era where strikeouts are a very prevalent part of the game. This is stretching it, a lot, and this is completley theoretical. But let's say that Skenes continues to strike out 13.5 batters per nine innings, and that carries over into the Majors. Skenes would only need 1122 innings to break Friend's record. He would only need to pitch about 160.1 innings in each of his seven seasons to break said record.