By Stuart Wilkinson

The Pittsburgh Pirates are making a run at history. If you take their record at face value, this team just looks like a standard addition to the Pirates record-breaking eighteen year losing streak. Nothing to see here, move along.

If you take a deeper look at MLB’s standings, however, something should pop out at you. The Pirates have won 14 games on the road this year. They’ve played 67. That means the team is clicking along at a road winning percentage of 0.209. That means for every ten games the Buccos play on the road, they win two. That’s not going to get it done in the juggernaut-laden NL Central.

I don’t blame this team for playing poorly away from the friendly confines of PNC Park. There are some tried and true explanations for the poor road performance: young players, lack of talent, Bob Nutting being evil, etc. What interests me is how this record of futility stacks up against other bad road teams in the history of baseball and what it means for the team’s future.

As it turns out, the record stacks up pretty well. Using Wikipedia’s invaluable “List of worst Major League Baseball season records” and I created a spreadsheet showing the road records of baseball’s worst teams ever. The Pirates are flirting with a winning percentage of under 0.200, something that has not been done since 1935. See for yourself:

My two favourite non-Buccos facts associated with this list:

  • The number one team, the Cleveland Spiders of 1889, played over 100 road games. The owner gutted the team, and apparently they were so bad that fans stopped coming, causing other teams to refuse to play games in Cleveland. This story was later turned into the famous documentary Major League.
  • Philadelphia absolutely dominates this list, which is unsurprising. Everyone knows that Philadelphia’s fans are supportive enough to lift even their worst teams to decent performances at home.

So as you follow the Pirates over their last few games, remember that you are following history. A team this bad doesn’t come around very often, so we should savour their final few games. This will not last forever.


Hope for the Future

Nobody will argue that the Buccos have been a smashing success on the road in 2010. I am, however, prepared to argue that this year’s ineptitude on the road is a precursor to a return to greatness. Serious investment in young talent and the fact that the team has been due for a winning season for the last decade point towards a turnaround in the near future, however the real smoking gun in the case for the Pirates winning a pennant sooner rather than later comes from going deep inside the numbers.

From my sample above, only two teams posted road winning percentages of less than 0.250 since Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier. The 2003 Detroit Tigers set the standard for the new millennium by going 43-119 overall and posting a road winning percentage of 0.2469. The 1962 New York Mets (40-120, 0.225) are generally considered to be the cream of the historically bad baseball teams crop.

The 2003 Tigers and ’62 Mets share the shame of being the worst teams in baseball’s modern era. The 2006 Tigers and ’69 Mets, however, share something else entirely. Both those teams went to the World Series, with the Mets actually winning it all. Every modern era team that won less than 25% of its road games in one season went on to win the pennant in seven years or less.

(Edit: The 1952 Pirates (Robinson debuted in 1947) also had a road winning percentage of less than 0.250. In 1960 the Pirates won the World Series.)

It follows that in approximately seven years (but probably fewer) the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to go from a historically bad road team to representing the National League in the World Series. Unless, of course, they screw everything up and win seven more road games this year, putting their road winning percentage over that magic number of 0.250.

The Buccos have fourteen road games left. Simple math shows that they need to go less than 0.500 in their remaining road games in order to clinch a place in history. As a fan of the team, I’m going to say that’s a goal that’s right in our wheelhouse.

Raise the Jolly Roger