Over the last six years, the Pirates have been one of the Cardinals’ biggest rivals. In 2011, they were having a great season until a rough second half did them in. 2012 was a similar story. The next three years, the Cardinals and Pirates battled for the N.L. Central division crown. In 2016, with the new Cubs lapping the competition, the Cards and Pirates both compete for a Wild Card spot.
Unlike most rival teams though, I feel no animosity towards the Pirates, and I wondered why that may be. Maybe it’s because their star player, Andrew McCutchen, has been one of the best players in baseball over that span and seems like a class act. He’s had some struggles this year, but when he's at the top of his game he is a pleasure to watch. Maybe it’s because I respect their front office so much; they’re a team that has to spend at the bottom of the league but they’ve still put together a competitive team year in and year out. Like the Cardinals, they routinely turn prospects into cheap major league talent. They also have a tendency to make some of the best moves of the off-season.
Maybe those two play a part, but I think I found the main reason: It’s been an awfully long time since the Pirates have had a better record than the Cardinals. Closing up on seventeen years in fact. Yep, the last time the Cardinals finished the year with a worse record than the Pirates was 1999. People were worried about Y2K. Will Smith was still a rapper, kinda, with a number one hit in "Wild Wild West", supporting a movie starring him by the same name. It also apparently won an award for Worst Original song of the year, for what it’s worth. Livin’ la Vida Loca was also a thing, as much as we all collectively try to forget it.
Here's the two teams' win totals over the last 16 seasons side by side, taken from each teams' year-by-year records:
So, it's been a long time. Not 1908 long, but still. This streak has seen two major phases of Pirates teams. From 2000 to 2010, the team was just awful. How awful? Well, they were more bad than the Cardinals were good. Buoyed by two seasons which count among some of the best regular seasons in Cardinals history (2004 and 2005, 105 win and 100 win seasons respectively), the Cardinals averaged 90.8 wins per season, or nearly nine games over .500. The Pirates, on the other hand, averaged 67 wins a season, or 14 games below .500.
The Cardinals were one of the best teams in baseball over that time frame, and the Pirates were one of the worst. Both teams were so consistent in their performance that the Pirates never placed above the Cardinals in the division standings at the end of the year. However, change was coming. The first fruits of Pirates' GM Neal Huntington’s rebuilding efforts were seen in 2010, with Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata making their MLB debuts. McCutchen was not acquired under Huntington, but hit well in his sophomore campaign, to the tune of a 124 wRC+. They cashed in on their last truly awful season by taking their current ace Gerrit Cole number one overall in the 2011 draft.
In 2011, the Pirates led the division at the All-Star Break, but then fell apart in the second half, losing ten straight as part of a 3-16 stretch. They made some noise though, and they started to become a popular sleeper pick from then on out. The following off-season the Pirates moved to sign McCutchen to a 6 year/$51.5M deal, with an option year that could push the total to $65M. Without that extension, "Cutch" would have been a free agent in the last off-season.
2012 was a similar story. On August 7th, the team was 62-46, but finished the season 17-37, making for a 20th consecutive losing season for the Pirates. 2013 was finally for real though, and the Pirates won 94 games, which is usually enough to win a division. The Cardinals outdid them by just three games, relegating the Pirates to the Wild-Card play-in game.
2013 started a trend. Next year, the Pirates won 88, and the Cardinals won 90, again winning the division and sparing the Pirates just home-field advantage in a one-game playoff. In 2015, the Birds won 100 to the Pirates’ 98. The Pirates’ third consecutive first Wild Card spot has led some to nickname the N.L. Wild Card game the "Pittsburgh Invitational".
Though the Pirates had already went through 13 consecutive years of posting a worst record than the Cardinals, the three after that must have been excruciating for Pirates fans. Seven more wins over a period of 486 games is all the difference between the Cardinals and Pirates. Yet, the Cardinals accumulated three division titles, while the Pirates earned three Wild-Card berths. Only once did the Pirates advance past the Wild-Card game, and when they did, the Cards dispatched the Buccos in a thrilling best of five series.
It bears pointing out that the Pirates are the team that have been hurt the most by the creation of the second Wild Card and the Wild-Card game. Under the previous rules established in 1994, just the first Wild-Card made the playoffs, and didn’t have to deal with a one game playoff. Unless you're extremely new to baseball, you remember this older system. With three consecutive seasons of being the first Wild-Card, the Pirates would have had three trips to the NLCS, but instead they’ve only had one.
From 2013 to 2015, the Pirates accumulated the second most regular season wins in baseball, but didn’t even get the chance to play in a best of seven playoff series. That's pretty sick. That’s largely due to playing in the Cards’ division in the era of the Wild-Card game, and also just due to a little bad luck in one-game playoffs and the 2013 NLDS. The Pirates have played in eight playoff games, in which the team went 3-5.
Of course, while the Cardinals and Pirates were competing for the division year in and year out, the Cubs were essentially losing on purpose in order to build their current super-team. OK, they weren’t throwing games or anything, but they were trading every current piece of MLB value for prospects, which also had the benefit of giving them high draft picks several years in a row. Don’t get me wrong; it was a smart strategy, and so far it looks like it was executed brilliantly. I’m just appreciative of the fact that the Cardinals haven’t had to do that.
Thanks to the Mets and the Giants being right in the mix, the Cardinals and Pirates' Wild Card chances aren't necessarily mutually exclusive: Both the Cardinals and Pirates could win a Wild Card, or neither could. But you can’t help but excuse Pirates’ fans if they have some ill will towards the Cardinals at this point. It also kind of explains how this guy can be so cranky:
Please don’t misconstrue this as me taunting Pirates fans. I have a lot of respect for their organization, and I think the brains of their Front Office will keep them competitive for a long time, despite a lot of fans not being very happy with them right now. With the presence of the Cubs and the fact that the Brewers' rebuild is going so well, I'd like to think that they're about to fall off, just so I'd have one less team to worry about. However, I'm certainly not banking on that. A lot of Cardinals fans are starting to consider the Pirates to be an afterthought at this point. While they may have had a rough season, they're way too close and way to savvy not to be considered part of the mix again next year.
Excuse me though if I continue to keep tabs on this streak. Seventeen years is a long time for anything in baseball, and with the Cardinals and Pirates continuing to develop quite the rivalry, the Birdos continue to come out better in the end (unless you count the Jung Ho Kang acquisition). As a Cardinals’ fan, that makes me very happy.