Cueeeto. Cueeeto. Cueeeto.
The chanting started quietly but quickly became audible on the television broadcast. The crowd at McFadden’s, a bar just across the street from PNC Park, joined in. I started to tense up as I was behind enemy lines and did not have much ammunition with the Reds facing an early 1-0 deficit.
Cueeeto. Cueeeto. Cueeeto.
Ball two to Russell Martin. Acquired by the Pirates in-part due to his undervalued pitch-framing abilities, Martin was fresh off a resurgent 2013 campaign both behind and at the plate. As Martin sized up the next pitch, the chant intensified. My stress level was rising.
Cueeeto. Cueeeto. Cueeeto.
As Cueto readied himself on the mound, the ball inexplicably escaped from his glove, almost in an impossible way that could only happen in the Pirates’ first postseason game in over 20 years. The scene had officially been set. The crowd’s chant was reverberating throughout the entire stadium. The bar was deafening. My cover was officially blown with nowhere to hide. I braced myself for the upcoming pitch, but it was no match for what came next.
Martin launched the next pitch, a fastball right down the middle, into the seats in left field. The stadium erupted as possibly the most insurmountable two-run lead of all-time had just been built. I tried to maintain my composure as chaos ensued around me. The game carried on and eventually ended in defeat as the Reds season and competitive window slipped away. The Pirates, meanwhile, appeared to be on the brink of return to competitive baseball with more postseason wins to come.
Fast forward four and a half years and the Pirates have won exactly as many playoff series as the Reds. Sure, they made three-straight postseasons and even posted a 98-win campaign in 2015. Even that, however, was only good enough for a third straight wild-card game. 78 and 75-win seasons followed. Andrew McCutchen’s collapse, Starling Marte’s PED suspension and Jung Ho Kang’s legal issues are some notable problems that contributed to this decline. The 2018 squad that is projected for around 77 wins is a mere shell of the team that put Pittsburgh back on the map just four seasons ago.
I did not live in Cincinnati between 2010 to 2013 and did not witness firsthand the rise of the Reds back to national prominence. Living in Pittsburgh from 2013 to 2015 was unique and fascinating to me as the city became alive with a great passion for baseball after over 20 years without a playoff appearance. Enduring through one of the most intense atmospheres I have ever seen (and I was only in the bar across the street) and pairing that with the Reds’ fall from the top, I became captivated by the rise of the Pirates.
The book Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak by Travis Sawchik was published in May of 2015 and captured everything that I had witnessed in that Pirates team but with an analytical perspective that I had not yet been introduced to. Valuing the pitch-framing abilities of Russell Martin or revitalizing the careers of pitchers like Francisco Liriano by inducing more ground balls were eye opening to me. Add in the run prevention philosophies embraced by the entire organization and I longed for more analytically-minded decision makers in the Reds front office. To me, Neil Huntington and Clint Hurdle had it all figured out. I thought the Pirates were back for good.
What I had not accounted for though, was the wild card. Not the recently introduced Wild Card game which includes more teams in the postseason. This wild card was what could take a 98-win team and send it free-falling to a fourth-place finish two years later. Despite Huntington and Hurdle’s advanced and innovative strategies, wild cards such as McCutcheon’s down year or Marte’s suspension are devastating to small market clubs who cannot spend like the Dodgers or Red Sox.
Similar to the Pirates in 2015, the Reds saw everything come together in 2012 on their way to 97 wins, their highest total since 1976. Aside from a few innings, only five starters were used all season, which has only happened six times since 1993. The Reds built a strong team and caught the right breaks for one year, only to have it fall apart shortly after. The causes were a series of injuries (Ryan Ludwick, Joey Votto, Homer Bailey, Devin Mesoraco) leading to unproductive contracts (Bailey and Mesoraco) as well as inactivity in the front office (2013 LF). The breaks are not always going to come, and the Reds were not prepared when they starting turning against them. The 2013 playoff game was not the only wild card loss that has led to the current state of the Reds.
It is no secret that analytics are being championed by all organizations, big and small, leading to an even smaller margin of error for teams like the Reds and Pirates. Aside from bad luck with performance or eligibility, trends within the game can change on a dime and hamstring teams without a proper alternative. For the Pirates, this manifested itself through increased launch angles that in recent years has neutralized the club’s ground ball run-prevention approach. Meanwhile, Walt Jocketty and the Reds seemed to be lagging behind in their use of analytics altogether, a philosophy that almost assuredly contributed to the team’s lack of resiliency amid turmoil.
As great as this era of data and analytics is for fans, the implications for small market teams can be shorter competitive windows and tougher, longer stretches of losing baseball. While it is not impossible to breakthrough with a World Series Championship like the Royals in 2015, it is certainly not getting any easier.
I do not know if Neil Huntington is a better General Manager than Walt Jocketty or Dick Williams. I do not know if Clint Hurdle is a better manager than Dusty Baker or Bryan Price. What I do know is that both organizations saw their time come and go because they could not navigate the treachery of the wild cards that lay waiting in the landscape of professional baseball.
As the season series with the Buccos begins tonight, just four seasons removed from that inaugural Wild Card bout, both organizations have seemingly dropped the ball. Despite what seemed like a promising future for the Pirates, they find themselves not far off of a Reds team who has been at rock bottom and is hoping for their current wild cards to start breaking in their favor.