Last night’s walkoff victory against the reeling Cubs aside, the Pirates are mired in a deep funk. They started the second half in free fall, going 6-25 as they’ve dipped from the fringes of the playoff race to (at one point) twenty games under .500. The Pirates have been involved in multiple on-field conflicts, with manager Clint Hurdle stealing focus as he spars with other managers within the NL Central. Hurdle has a well-known strategic proclivity towards pitching up and in – with which certain managers haven taken issue when Pirates hurlers struggle with their command. As a team, they rank 24th out of 30 in BB/9 with a team average of 3.58 BB/9.
Perhaps more worrying to the organization, in-fighting has become a hallmark of this Pirates squad, per The Athletic’s Rob Biertempfel. Mercurial reliever Keone Kela is the source of at least some of the conflict. Kela not only inspired the trade deadline fracas with the Reds by throwing behind Derek Dietrich, but he also took a two-game suspension earlier this season for his part in a clubhouse altercation with performance coach Hector Morales. The Buccos explored trading Kela, but ultimately failed to find a suitable deal, and it’s safe to wonder whether his trade worth took a hit, either from recent suspensions, injury history, or a reputation as a difficult clubhouse personality.
On the field, Kela missed too much time to raise his stock, returning from the injured list for just four appearances before the deadline. That put him at 18 appearances on the season with a 3.45 ERA and 17 strikeouts over 15 2/3 innings. Fine numbers not far off from Kela’s career norms, but clearly not compelling enough to drive significant trade interest.
Only a week after Kela’s incident, bullpen coach Euclides Rojas drove a pre-game on-field dust-up with reliever Kyle Crick. The incident nearly turned physical before the two men were pulled apart. Crick had been publicly bemoaning perceived preferential treatment given to closer Felipe Vazquez by the coaching staff.
Birtempfel notes that the clubhouse lacks the veteran leadership provided over the years by vets like A.J. Burnett, David Freese, Josh Harrison and Andrew McCutchen, or more recently from Jameson Taillon and Francisco Cervelli, who have been absent due to injuries.
It’s not all doom-and-gloom for the Pirates, however, as Crick insists there’s a growing camaraderie among this exceptionally young group of Pirates players.
The depth of conflict reported here certainly pulls back the curtain a touch further than usual. Not necessarily evidenced here, however, is the Pirates clubhouse being any more or less destructive than a typical clubhouse enduring a tough stretch on the field. Fangraphs Ben Clemens recently wrote this of the 5-24 stretch that opened the Pirates’ second half:
“Think of it this way: the worst team in baseball since World War II, by winning percentage, was the expansion New York Mets of 1962. They were cover-your-eyes awful, going 40-120, a .250 winning percentage. Let’s assume, despite its absurdity, that the Pirates suddenly transformed to a team with a .250 winning percentage overnight. Their odds of going 5-24 or worse over a 29-game stretch would still only be 23%. Even the worst team in baseball history, in other words, would be unlikely to look this bad over a month of play.”
Any clubhouse might struggle with a degree of in-fighting while losing at that rate. Still, the Pirates seem more combative than your average team. Hurdle seems to set the tone there, and though the team could very well emerge from this season more galvanized as a unit, it’s a troubling environment in which to see the indoctrination of young stars like Bryan Reynolds and Mitch Keller.