The virtual 1951-58 Pittsburgh Pirates (Part 4: 1957-58)

So far we’ve completed six laps in our endeavor of rebuilding the Pittsburgh franchise from the point it was taken over by Branch Rickey in late 1950. Our progress through 1955 had been frustratingly meager, but finally in ’56 we stepped forward as a middle-of-the-pack ball club.

   Actual Pirates  Virtual Pirates

    W    L Pos  Year    W    L Pos
   64   90  7   1951   66   88  7
   42  112  8   1952   65   89  7
   50  104  8   1953   64   90  7
   53  101  8   1954   66   88  7
   60   94  8   1955   68   86  7
   66   88  7   1956   76   78  4

We’ve got just two more years to go on our timetable. Can we yet emerge with a winner?

1956-57 offseason: Actual Pirates deals we will make

Dec. 3, 1956: Outfielder Jerry Lynch drafted by the Cincinnati Redlegs in the 1956 Rule 5 draft.

As of this date, the phlebitis that had infested Lynch’s throwing shoulder hadn’t abated, and his baseball career was in question. Under those circumstances, it wasn’t unreasonable for the Pirates to leave him unprotected in the draft. Indeed, what was remarkable was that the Reds (then officially calling themselves the Redlegs, in a nod to Cold War paranoia) drafted him, given not only Lynch’s precarious health, but also, as we wrote in The 10 most interesting Rule 5 draft picks:

Cincinnati that year would seem to be the last team on earth looking to add another left-handed bat to the bench. The 1956 Reds, tying the major league record with 221 team home runs, had presented the most fearsome array of lefty-swinging substitutes ever seen: backup catcher Smoky Burgess, backup first baseman George Crowe and backup outfielder Bob Thurman combined to deliver 30 bombs in 512 at-bats.

Nonetheless general manager Gabe Paul decided that Lynch’s bat was worth squeezing onto the roster. And it would be in Cincinnati that Lynch would emerge as one of the most productive pinch hitter/platoon players of all time.

Feb. 6, 1957: Signed infielder Buddy Pritchard as an amateur free agent (Bonus Baby).

Oh, yippee, another one. Fortunately, he’ll be our last, as the Bonus Baby rule would be rescinded following the 1957 season.

1956-57 offseason: Pirates deals we will invoke

April 1957: Signed catcher Andy Seminick as a free agent.

This 36-year-old was clearly nearing the end of the line, and had been released by the Phillies the previous autumn. But we could use a right-handed-batting backup catcher, so we’ll see if the power-hitting Seminick can help us out.

1956-57 offseason: Actual Pirates deals we will not make

April 3, 1957: Traded infielder Dick Cole to the Milwaukee Braves for outfielder-infielder Jim Pendleton.

Because we already made this trade a year earlier.

1957 season: Actual Pirates deals we will make

May 14, 1957: Purchased pitcher Bob Smith from the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Cards had taken this 26-year-old southpaw as a Rule 5 pick from the Red Sox over the winter, but now at cut-down time* they were deciding that they didn’t have room for him on the active roster. As per the rules, St. Louis couldn’t send him to the minors without first placing him on waivers, and just as the actual Pirates did, we’ll judge that he’s worth a claim.

1957 season: Actual Pirates deals we will not make

May 1, 1957: Traded first baseman Dale Long and outfielder Lee Walls to the Chicago Cubs for first baseman Dee Fondy and infielder Gene Baker.

Here’s how we assessed this head-scratcher in the Mid-season blockusters series:

Pittsburgh GM Joe Brown … made some good moves in putting together the pennant winner and World Series champ of 1960. But this wasn’t one of them. Long was better than Fondy, and Walls was better than Baker (who was superfluous anyway on a roster that already had Bill Mazeroski to play second and Gene Freese and Frank Thomas to play third).

We’ll politely decline the Cubs’ offer.

1957 season results

As we just alluded, the major change to our lineup heading into this season is the arrival of the rookie second baseman Mazeroski. This phenom had so dazzled the actual Pirates with his sensational fielding as well as his excellent minor league hitting that they’d promoted him as a 19-year-old in mid-1956 and handed him the first-string job. We’ve demonstrated enough patience to give the kid the full season at triple-A in ’56, but now we see no reason to think he isn’t ready for a long run of success. The addition of Mazeroski will bump incumbent Danny O’Connell, who hadn’t hit much the past couple of years anyway, into a utility infielder role.

Another highly impressive youngster whom we’d kept in the minors for 1956 is also on the big league roster for ’57: 22-year-old outfielder Roberto Clemente, who projects to handle a backup role, getting his share of starts against left-handers.

Beyond those changes, essentially the same crew that delivered last season’s greatly improved performance is back.

  Pos   Player        Age    G  AB   R   H  2B  3B  HR RBI  BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
   1B   D. Long*       31  143 503  72 150  24   0  23  90  71  91 .298 .381 .483 .865  134
 2B-SS  B. Mazeroski   20  148 526  66 149  27   7   8  58  27  49 .283 .312 .407 .718   94
   SS   D. Groat       26  125 501  65 158  30   5   7  58  27  28 .315 .341 .437 .778  111
 3B-LF  F. Thomas      28  151 594  84 172  30   1  23  96  44  66 .290 .333 .460 .792  114
 RF-CF  G. Bell*       28  121 510  68 146  19   5  10  65  30  55 .286 .323 .402 .724   96
   CF   B. Virdon*     26  144 561  65 141  28  11   8  54  33  69 .251 .288 .383 .671   81
 LF-1B  B. Skinner*    25  126 387  64 118  12   6  13  45  38  50 .305 .367 .468 .834  126
   C    H. Landrith*   27  116 315  30  76   9   1   5  33  38  37 .241 .318 .324 .641   76

   OF   L. Walls       24   86 266  34  63   8   3   3  24  20  50 .237 .288 .323 .611   67
   IF   G. Freese      23   86 208  28  57  11   1   4  26   9  26 .274 .302 .394 .696   88
   OF   R. Clemente    22   67 180  20  44   6   3   2  14   8  18 .244 .277 .344 .621   68
 2B-3B  D. O'Connell   30   72 151  23  37   7   2   1  12  13  15 .245 .304 .338 .641   75
   C    D. Kravitz*    26   55 110   8  21   3   1   1  10   4  20 .191 .217 .264 .481   31
   C    A. Seminick    36   38  92   8  16   1   1   3  11  16  23 .174 .294 .304 .598   64
   C    H. Peterson    27   30  73  12  22   2   1   2  12   9  10 .301 .365 .438 .803  118
   OF   R. Mejias      26   12  28   3   8   1   1   0   3   1   3 .286 .290 .393 .683   84
   MI   B. Pritchard   21   23  11   2   1   0   0   0   0   0   4 .091 .083 .091 .174  -52

        Others                  20   3   5   0   0   0   2   2   3 .250 .348 .250 .598   67

        Pitchers               373  17  62   7   2   0  19  13 112 .166 .186 .196 .382    5

        Total                 5409 672 1446 225 51 113 632 403 729 .267 .313 .390 .704   91

        * Bats left

        Pitcher       Age    G  GS  CG   W   L  SV  IP   H   R  ER   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
        B. Friend      26   40  38  17  17  15   0 277 273 121 104   28   68  143 3.38  113
        R. Kline       25   42  29  10  11  14   1 205 214 107  92   27   61   88 4.04   94
        S. Jones       31   28  27  10  11  10   0 183 164  79  71   15   73  152 3.49  109
        V. Law         27   31  25   9  12   6   1 173 172  72  55   18   32   55 2.86  133
        H. Haddix*     31   27  25   8  11  12   0 171 176  88  77   17   42  136 4.05   94

        E. Face        29   59   1   0   5   5  15  94  97  41  32    9   24   53 3.06  124
        L. Arroyo*     30   46   2   0   4   5   3  88  97  51  46   13   21   75 4.70   81
        N. King        29   36   0   0   2   0   2  52  69  27  26    7   16   23 4.50   85
        R. Swanson     20   34   2   0   2   1   1  59  47  18  17    6   21   30 2.59  147
        B. Smith*      26   20   4   2   3   3   0  55  48  22  19    3   25   35 3.11  123

        Others                   2   0   1   4   0  37  46  30  27    7   28   20 6.57   58

        Total                  155  56  79  75 23 1394 1403 656 566 150  411  810 3.65  104

        * Throws left

Young Maz would prove every bit as good as anticipated. With Dick Groat blossoming into a high-average hitter, the Pirates suddenly find themselves with one of the elite double-play combos in the game.

Young Clemente would struggle somewhat, and missing a month with back trouble surely didn’t help. But sophomore Bob Skinner’s suddenly robust hitting allows him to move ahead of Clemente and slumping sophomore Lee Walls, and take over a regular job in the outfield as the season progresses.

Gus Bell would be nagged by injuries and see his power production diminish, and Bill Virdon didn’t hit anything close to as well as he had in 1956. Still, our offense altogether is improved: our team OPS+ of 91 is the best we’ve achieved since 1951, and is close to the league-average figure of 93.

And our pitching is once again better than average: the staff ERA+ of 104 is second-best in the league. Bob Friend leads the league in starts and innings. Sam Jones is in the top five in strikeouts, and significantly improves his control. Vern Law is in the top five in ERA. Elroy Face is second in the league in appearances and saves. The staff is effective, and the staff is deep.

We’re able to consolidate the gains we made in 1956, and present an even more competitive team. The actual Pirates tied for last place. Our version will finish in fourth.

We’re no longer a tail-ender, but we’re not yet quite a contender. Will we achieve that status in our eighth season?

1957-58 offseason: Pirates deals we will invoke

Dec., 1957: Traded catcher Danny Kravitz and pitcher Bob Garber to the St. Louis Cardinals for catcher Hank Foiles.

In reality in 1957, the Cardinals had Hobie Landrith on their roster, and the Pirates had Foiles. Since our Pirates have Landrith (having acquired him back in 1955), the Cards would be forced to find another catcher to fill Landrith’s spot, and it’s plausible that they would have landed Foiles, a journeyman who cleared American League waivers in 1956.

We’re interested in Foiles because he’s a right-handed batter. With Landrith, Kravitz, and an up-and-comer from triple-A named Bill Hall in the picture for 1958, we have three lefty-hitting catchers, and that’s really one too many. And meanwhile the Cardinals without Landrith don’t have any lefty-hitting catchers, so they would likely find an offer of Kravitz appealing.

Kravitz and Foiles were comparable talents: defensively limited catchers with some pop in their bats. They would in fact be traded for one another in 1960. We’ll toss a grade-B pitching prospect into the deal here, and make it happen now.

1957-58 offseason: Actual Pirates deals we will not make

Dec. 9, 1957: Traded pitcher Bob Purkey to the Cincinnati Redlegs for pitcher Don Gross.

We can’t make this deal, because we traded Purkey to St. Louis back in early 1956. But if we could make this one, we would.

That’s the case even though Purkey would develop into a star, and Gross would disappear from the major leagues within a few years, because at this point Purkey didn’t appear to be a star in the making; he was a soft-tossing 27-year-old journeyman. Gross wasn’t anything special either, but he was a year younger than Purkey, was a southpaw (a commodity almost alway in short supply), and his walk-to-strikeout ratio was a lot better than Purkey’s.

We’d make this trade in a heartbeat. But we can’t.

Dec. 28, 1957: Traded first baseman Dee Fondy to the Cincinnati Redlegs for first baseman Ted Kluszewski.

Nor can we make this one, since we declined to acquire Fondy earlier. That the Reds were willing to swap the 33-year-old Big Klu for such a moderate talent as Fondy is vivid testimony to just how severely and rapidly Kluszewski’s back trouble had diminished his skill.

1958 season: Actual Pirates deals we will make

June 15, 1958: Traded infielders Gene Freese and Johnny O’Brien to the St. Louis Cardinals for infielder Dick Schofield and cash.

We like Freese. But with Frank Thomas now full-time at third base, we really don’t have a good role for the hard-hitting “Augie,” whose glove isn’t well-suited to utility infielder duty. As did the actual Pirates, we’ll see the lighter-hitting, slicker-fielding former Bonus Baby “Ducky” Schofield as a better fit for our needs.

1958 season: Actual Pirates deals we will not make

May 7, 1958: Purchased pitcher Bob Porterfield from the Boston Red Sox.

The 34-year-old Porterfield would perform quite well for the Pirates over the balance of 1958. But we don’t know that in advance, as he was looking pretty washed-up in Boston. We’ll pass.

1958 season results

Largely the same cast is back again. Other than Foiles in place of Kravitz behind the plate, the only other new face among position players, 6-foot-5 R.C. Stevens, is a right-handed-batting rookie first baseman on hand to back up Dale Long.

Two rookie right-handers are in the bullpen on Opening Day, Whammy Douglas and Bennie Daniels, but neither projects to handle a significant role. Mostly we’re counting on the continued development of our young talent to lead our improvement.

  Pos   Player        Age    G  AB   R   H  2B  3B  HR RBI  BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
   1B   D. Long*       32  135 454  64 124  24   5  18  71  61  59 .273 .358 .467 .825  120
   2B   B. Mazeroski   21  152 567  71 156  24   6  19  69  25  71 .275 .303 .439 .742   96
   SS   D. Groat       27  151 584  69 175  36   9   3  67  23  32 .300 .325 .408 .732   95
   3B   F. Thomas      29  149 562  91 158  26   4  35 111  42  79 .281 .334 .528 .862  127
 RF-CF  R. Clemente    23  102 286  40  81  13   6   3  28  17  24 .283 .319 .402 .721   92
   CF   B. Virdon*     27  119 332  43  86  13   7   4  25  28  40 .259 .316 .377 .692   85
   LF   B. Skinner*    26  144 529  95 170  33   9  13  72  58  55 .321 .386 .491 .877  134
   C    H. Foiles      29   94 211  26  43   8   2   6  24  36  42 .204 .319 .346 .665   79

   OF   L. Walls       25  109 359  56 111  14   3  14  50  34  46 .309 .372 .482 .854  127
   OF   G. Bell*       29  106 347  38  87  14   3   7  41  31  36 .251 .306 .369 .675   80
   C    H. Landrith*   28   70 144  10  31   4   0   2  14  26  22 .215 .333 .285 .618   68
   C    B. Hall*       29   51 116  15  33   6   0   1  16  15  13 .284 .366 .362 .728   97
 3B-2B  D. O'Connell   31   64 102  15  23   4   1   0   8  16  14 .225 .320 .284 .604   64
   1B   R. Stevens     23   59  90  16  24   3   1   7  19   5  25 .267 .320 .556 .875  129
   1B   D. Stuart      25   34  85  13  22   4   2   5  17   3  26 .259 .300 .529 .829  117
   IF   D. Schofield#  23   26  27   4   4   0   1   0   2   3   6 .148 .226 .222 .448   21
   3B   G. Freese      24   17  18   1   3   0   0   1   2   1   2 .167 .211 .333 .544   43

        Others                  37   4  10   0   0   0   2   5   6 .270 .357 .270 .627   72

        Pitchers               387  28  46  10   1   2  22  21 126 .119 .153 .165 .319  -14

        Total                 5237 699 1387 236 60 140 660 450 724 .265 .321 .413 .734   95

        * Bats left
        # Bats both

        Pitcher       Age    G  GS  CG   W   L  SV  IP   H   R  ER   HR   BB   SO  ERA ERA+
        B. Friend      27   38  38  16  23  13   0 274 299 120 112   25   61  135 3.68  105
        S. Jones       32   35  35  14  17  12   0 250 202  89  75   20  110  223 2.70  144
        H. Haddix*     32   29  26   8   8   7   0 184 191  74  67   23   46  110 3.28  118
        R. Kline       26   34  19   5  10  10   2 158 142  59  57   15   61   78 3.25  120
        V. Law         28   31  17   3   9   6   3 121 135  56  48    9   23   37 3.57  109
        G. Witt        24   18  15   5  10   1   0 106  78  22  19    2   59   81 1.61  241

        E. Face        30   57   0   0   6   2  22  84  77  30  27    6   22   47 2.89  134
        L. Arroyo*     31   41   0   0   5   4   4  55  54  29  25    6   24   51 4.09   95
        B. Smith*      27   32   1   0   3   1   1  47  43  26  21    4   21   23 4.02   96
        W. Douglas     23   27   2   0   4   2   1  53  49  22  20    5   21   34 3.40  114
        B. Daniels     26   12   1   0   0   1   0  18  19  11   9    1   10    6 4.50   86

        Others                   0   0   0   0   2  19  21  12  10    3    8    9 4.74   82

        Total                  154  51  95  59 35 1369 1310 550 490 119  466  834 3.22  120

        * Throws left

This season isn’t without its setbacks. Virdon’s hitting continues to be lackluster, and Bell’s continues to deteriorate. But up-and-comers Clemente and Walls are on hand to take over for them over the course of the year.

And that dynamic will be a theme: for just about every problem, this deep roster finds a solution. Stevens hits surprisingly well when spelling Long, but when the youngster encounters a mini-slump, we send him back down and call up a young slugger named Dick Stuart, who’d been dismantling the minor leagues, and deploy Stuart as Long’s platoon partner over the second half.

Daniels fails to impress, so we send him back down and call up a hard-throwing right-hander named George “Red” Witt, who performs sensationally over the second half.

Skinner proves that his hot hitting of 1957 was no fluke. Thomas delivers the best season of his career. The forkballing Face leads the majors in saves. The workhorse Friend leads the majors in wins. Jones emerges as a brilliant ace at the age of 32: his major-league-leading strikeout total of 223 is the most by any National League pitcher since 1936.

Our hitting isn’t great, but it’s good. Our pitching is genuinely great: our staff ERA+ of 120 is the best in the major leagues by a wide margin.

For the actual Pirates, 1958 was a breakthrough season, as they vaulted from the depths of the league into second place behind the Milwaukee Braves—a distant second, but second place nonetheless.

That was good. We’re better. We’re no longer just a competitive team. We’re a terrific team. Unless we significantly underperform against our Pythagorean record of 95-59, we’ll capture the first Pittsburgh pennant since 1927, and get that long-awaited World Series rematch against the Yankees.

All righty then

Let’s recall the bold assertion we set out to test ourselves against in this exercise:

It’s a ridiculous notion that it was necessary for the Pirates to field laughably incompetent ball clubs for the first half of the 1950s, and drive their attendance completely into the ground, in order to emerge with a core of strong talent. That a team in need of rebuilding, as the Pirates were in 1950, must choose between short-term and long-term improvement is a false dichotomy: It can and should manage both.

One can fairly question the extent to which we achieved short-term improvement with these Pirates, as it might be more accurate to say that in the short term we successfully avoided degeneration, but little more than that. But our “holding steady” results in our first several years were incomparably superior to the performance of the actual Pirates of the early-to-mid-’50s.

And we very definitely achieved long-term improvement, attaining middling status by 1956 and dangerously-good status by 1958.

   Actual Pirates  Virtual Pirates

    W    L Pos  Year    W    L Pos
   64   90  7   1951   66   88  7
   42  112  8   1952   65   89  7
   50  104  8   1953   64   90  7
   53  101  8   1954   66   88  7
   60   94  8   1955   68   86  7
   66   88  7   1956   76   78  4
   62   92  7T  1957   79   75  4
   84   70  2   1958   95   59  1

References & Resources
* Unlike current-day rules, which require each team to cut down to a 25-man active major league roster as of Opening Day, in this period the rules allowed teams to carry up to 28 players for the first 31 days following their first game. Thus the final “cut-down day” took place in mid-May, and is the explanation for countless releases, waiver claims, and other transactions that occurred in the early weeks of May in the 1940s/50s.

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Comments

  1. Steve Treder said...

    Yeah, but one of the interesting things to ponder is:  what about the Frank Thomas trade?  In real life, before the 1959 season the Pirates traded Thomas to Cincinnati for Don Hoak, Smoky Burgess, and Harvey Haddix.

    Our version of the Pirates already has Haddix.  But might the Reds have come up with someone else to complete that package?  Would our Pirates make such a deal?

    I’ve always considered that trade a really interesting one, from both the Pittsburgh and Cincinnati vantage points.  I’m not sure I would have made the deal from either perspective.  Anyway, in real life it turned out to be a steal for the Pirates, as Thomas got hurt and bombed in Cincinnati.

  2. John said...

    Impressive to say the least. The Pirates won a championship two years sooner than in real life, and with that team’s construction, they’re far more likely to stay on top once they got there.

    I would suspect they would repeat in ‘59, when the Dodgers won with a bunch of spare parts and 86 wins, and of course they’d win in ‘60, since they did in real life with less talent. They even match up better with the Yankees, with deeper pitching and they have Arroyo, instead of the Bombers.

  3. Red Nichols said...

    Yeah, but Steve, how about The Kitten against the Braves that night in ‘59? Don’t think the Bucs ever regretted making that deal. Hoak & Smoke helped fans forget about Thomas, in a hurry.
    Very interesting series of speculations.  Thanks, Steve.  As one of the few readers who actually remembers most of these deals, I thoroughly enjoy your spin on the game’s history

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