Stats Geek: While Pirates languish, most others thrive

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Losing for 20 consecutive seasons is bad enough, but does every other team in baseball have to make the playoffs as the Pirates extend their historic futility?

With the Washington Nationals in the playoffs, that leaves the Pirates and Kansas City Royals as the only two of baseball's 30 teams to miss postseason play in the past 20 seasons. Four of those teams didn't exist the last time the Pirates had a winning season.

We still hear sometimes that the Pirates' plight is the fault of Major League Baseball, that small-market teams can't compete. That case gets thinner each year. Sure, the New York Yankees have a decided advantage -- just as they did in your father's, grandfather's and great-grandfather's day. These days, though, the Yankees don't win as many championships because there are so many playoff rounds to trip them up.

Consider these facts from the past 18 seasons of postseason play. (There was no postseason in 1994, the strike year.). This era, in which the Pirates have never managed to win even one more game than they lost, has been one of extraordinary flag-passing.

• Most teams have reached the World Series. Ten of the 16 National League teams and nine of the 14 American League teams have been to the Series since '93. If the Nationals, Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles or Oakland A's make it this year, then two-thirds of baseball will have been to the sport's October showcase while the Pirates have flailed through a score of summers. (The other teams to miss the Series are the Royals, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners.)

• Every NL team except the Pirates and Nationals (nee Montreal Expos) has been to the playoffs at least twice since '93.

• Every team in the playoffs, all 27 of them, has won the first round at least once.

• Of the 10 NL teams to make the Series, the St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies have led with three appearances. Of the six NL teams to win a World Series, the Cardinals and Miami (nee Florida) Marlins each have two, and the Braves, Phillies, San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks one.

• Five AL teams have won 10 World Series during the Pirates' span of futility. The Yankees have five, the Red Sox two, and the Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Angels and Toronto Blue Jays one apiece.

• Baseball reflects American life in the sense that the rich have a head start. Yet five of the 10 smallest baseball markets, with populations of 1.7 million to 3 million, have sent teams to eight of the past 18 World Series. Those are the Cardinals, Cleveland Indians, San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies and Tampa Bay Rays.

• The Pittsburgh metro area is larger than Cincinnati or Milwaukee and not much smaller than St. Louis. Those teams will have 15 playoff appearances among them since '93, assuming the Cardinals hold off the Dodgers and earn a wild card. The Cardinals have won two of the three World Series in which they played.

Does this make baseball fair? No. Neither baseball nor life is fair. Though the Yankees aren't quite the juggernaut many thought or feared they'd be when they began winning again in the late '90s, they remain a team apart, having missed the playoffs twice in the past 19 opportunities. In that stretch, they've won at least one round nine times, have been to seven World Series and won five. No other team can match any of that.

But the Pirates don't play in the Yankees' division nor play for a division crown against large metro areas such as Los Angeles, Baltimore-Washington, San Francisco-Oakland, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, Dallas, Toronto or Atlanta. The two large metro areas in the NL Central have been Chicago and Houston. The Chicago Cubs haven't won a World Series since '08 or been to one since '45. The Houston Astros, moving next year to the American League West, have never won a World Series in their 51 seasons.

The fact is three of the Pirates' four division rivals hail from metro areas more or less Pittsburgh's size. Some fans might think of St. Louis as a big market because of its payroll and its success, but it's the 19th largest metro area in baseball. Pittsburgh is 22rd, Cincinnati 23rd and Milwaukee 26th. On opening day, though, the Cardinals payroll was $110 million, the Brewers $98 million, the Reds $82 million and the Pirates $63 million.

As a baseball team the Pirates can't win, but as a business they can't lose. Though attendance is 23rd, the 2 million-plus coming through the gates this season will be the second-highest total in the 131-year-history of the franchise.

Eight of the 12 highest totals in team history have come since 2000, when fans began buying season tickets in anticipation of PNC Park's opening.

That's the prettiest park on the continent, and it was designed to end any and all excuses for failure. Meantime, the Rays, with the lowest attendance in baseball, in its crummiest stadium, and in the Yankees' division, just missed making the playoffs for the fourth time in the past five seasons.

pirates

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1947.


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