Pittsburgh Pirates: understanding who’s running my team

New Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
New Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images) /

One of a series of articles looking at the front office structure of each major league team. Today, we take a closer look at the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • Chairman of the Board: Robert Nutting
  • General Manager: Ben Cherington

The general housecleaning Nutting executed this past fall was unusually aggressive by the standards of his 13-season tenure running the Pittsburgh Pirates. He removed both field manager Clint Hurdle, with nine seasons of seniority, as well as general manager Neal Huntington, a 12-year veteran. In fact, Huntington was one of Nutting’s first hires, replacing Dave Littlefield just one season after his own arrival in January of 2007.

So Cherington became only the second GM ever hired by Nutting, and Hurdle’s successor, Derek Shelton, is the fourth manager, following Jim Tracy – axed with Littlefield – John Russell and Hurdle.

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Life running the Pirates is inevitably a financial high wire act, and not always a successful one, as evidenced by the team’s record. Since Nutting took over, the franchise is 99 games under .500 – that’s a .474 winning percentage – with just four plus-.500 seasons, three of them in succession between 2013 and 2015.

On the plus side, those three along with the 82-79 finish of 2018 are the only four plus-.500 seasons on the franchise’s record over the past 27 years. The 2013-15 post-season appearances are also stand-alones for that era.

Unfortunately, the team’s post-season record through those three appearances is 2-5. In fact the Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t won a post-season series in four decades, since the 1979 World Series championship.

A newspaper executive, Nutting led a family group that purchased the team from a group headed by Kevin McClatchey. Forbes puts the franchise’s value at $1.8 billion, ranking 20th among the 30 teams. Relative to its fellow franchisees, that value has actually risen significantly since the Pirates stood 30th in value in 2010.

The bad news is that a disproportionate amount of the growth has come from external sources, namely MLB. Pittsburgh’s cut of revenue sharing amounts to $551 million, the eighth largest slice in baseball and more than 43 percent of overall value.

By contrast, the $542 million received by the St. Louis Cardinals constitutes only 26 percent of that team’s value, and the $552 million received by the Dodgers amounts to just 17 percent. The MLB average is 30 percent.

The Pirates play in PNC Park, a facility universally lauded for its scenic beauty and functionality. What PNC Park has not done for the Pirates is generate revenue, a little-discussed but vital requirement of any modern stadium.

In 2019 the Pirates derived $170 million in stadium-related revenue. Again comparisons can provide context. That figure ranks 25th in the game, ahead of only the stadiums serving the Reds, Orioles, Rays, A’s and Marlins.

The Milwaukee Brewers, in a market containing 800,000 fewer people, harvested $69 million more from their home park than did the Pirates. The average ballpark produces 18 percent of its home team’s value; in Pittsburgh, it’s 13 percent.

That has forced Pirates management to lean relatively heavily on its fandom for support. The average fan coughs up $60 to attend each Pirates game, equaling Seattle as the 11th highest requirement in baseball.

That dunning of the fan base has helped keep Pirate profits above water. The team grossed $254 million overall in 2019, the game’s 26th highest figure but still representing about a 7.5 percent growth rate over the decade.

Fan interest has fallen, although that’s probably more attributable to team performance than price point. From a franchise record 2.498 million fans in 2015, just 1.49 million took in a PNC Park game in 2019.

What Nutting has been able to do is turn a profit. The team cleared close to $40 million in gross operating income last year and has averaged a steady $25 million on Nutting’s watch.

He has not, however, been able to improve the team’s scrape-by salary structure. At $84.76 million, the team ranked ahead of only the Marlins in 2019 player spending.

Cherington comes to the Pittsburgh Pirates with a track record. Holder of a master’s degree in sports management from UMass Amherst, he worked his way up through the ranks of the Boston Red Sox front office to become an assistant general manager under Theo Epstein. When Epstein left for Chicago, Cherington succeeded him as general manager, lasting four seasons and overseeing construction of the 2013 World Series Champions.

But when midway through the 2015 season upper-level administration hired Dave Dombrowski as a sort of Cherington overseer, the GM rebelled and submitted his resignation, opting to teach a sports management class at Columbia University instead. He was a senior advisor for the Blue Jays when Nutting hired him for Pittsburgh.

Projections of how Cherington will operate in Pittsburgh based on how he operated in Boston are hazardous; the circumstances and financially are simply different. For what they are worth, however, here’s a synopsis of his Boston performance line:

  • He did not generally win the bulk of his player transactions with other GMs…trades, sales, and waiver deals. Based on Wins Above Average, the net impact on the Red Sox of all the players involved in those transactions averaged -4.7 games*.
  • Operating on the free-agent market, Cherington fared decidedly better. His signings of available players, combined with his release of players who subsequently signed with other teams, impacted the Red Sox by an average of +6.85 games per season.
  • Cherington’s farm system callups produced -9.1 games of impact on the Red Sox. But that included several guys you’ve heard of who became productive legacies for Cherington’s successors, among them Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts and – in 2014 – Mookie Betts.

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*This calculation is obtained by determining the net impact of all player transactions on team performance for the season(s) in question. Wins Above Average is a zero-based offshoot of Wins Above Replacement; thus, the final figure suggests the degree of positive or negative movement in the standings attributable to front office moves.