Pittsburgh Pirates Battle of 98-win teams: 1991 vs. 2015

It is going on 40 years since the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates won a World Series and that number doesn’t look to end anytime soon under current owner Bob Nutting. Since the Pirates last won the World Series, professional franchises with even longer championship droughts came to an end such as: the Chicago Cubs, the Boston Red Sox, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Houston Astros, the New Orleans Saints, the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Pirates last World Series championship was in 1979. The years 1990-1992 and 2013-2015 were the only seasons the Pirates made the playoffs since 1979, only to come up agonizingly short each time. Within each of those three consecutive playoff years, the team’s high point was a 98-win season. Those two 98-win teams were the best Pirate teams in the past 40 years. In a seven-game series, which would prevail: The Pittsburgh Pirates of 1991 or the Pittsburgh Pirates of 2015?

How did both teams get there?  The 1991 Pirates were the National League Eastern Division champs but lost to the Atlanta Braves four games to three in the NL Championship Game Series. The Braves starting pitchers of Steve Avery, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine silenced the Pirates bats in the series.  The 2015 Pirates finished second to the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central Division and lost the Wild Card Playoff Game to the 97-win Chicago Cubs and that year’s National League’s Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta.

The Pirates from 1990-92 won the NL Eastern Division each year with 95, 98 and 96 wins respectively. The Pirates from 2013-15 finished as a Wild Card each season, finishing second each year in the NL Central Division with 94, 88, and 98 wins respectively. How do the teams compare position by position? 1991 as compared to 2015:

Catcher –  Mike LaValliere vs. Francisco Cervelli

LaValliere hit .289 in 108 games behind the plate for the ’91 Buccos. Cervelli had taken over the catching position in 2015 as Russell Martin left via free agency and turned out to be more than an adequate replacement for the departed Martin. Cervelli hit .295 and provided a little more pop in his bat than LaValliere. Slight Edge: ‘15

First Base –  Orlando Merced vs. Pedro Alvarez

Merced hit .275 with 10 home runs and 50 runs batted in to Alvarez’s .243 and even though Alvarez struck out 131 times in 2015, his 27 home runs led the Pirates in that category and he drove in 77 runs that year. Edge: ‘15

Second Base – Jose Lind vs. Neil Walker

Lind had superior range defensively than Walker did at second base, but the analytics worked so well positioning Walker that he wasn’t a liability in the field. At the plate, Lind hit .265 and Walker .269 but the edge in power numbers belong to Walker, 16 home runs to three, and 71 runs batted in to Lind’s 54.  Edge: ‘15

Shortstop – Jay Bell vs. Jordy Mercer

If one didn’t look at their respective season’s statistics, one would think this one is even, but Bell scored 96 runs, hit 16 home runs and drove in 67 runs hitting .270 in 1991. Mercer scored 34 runs, hit three home runs, drove in 34 runs and hit .244 in 2015. Edge: ‘91

Third Base – Jeff King vs. Jung Ho Kang

Bonilla played the most games at third base for the ’91 Pirates with 67 and while King only played 33, Bonilla saw action in right field in 104 games. That is why for this comparison, Bonilla is listed in right field and King at third base. In 2015, in the 126 games that Kang played, Kang showed the Pirates flashes of what he might one day be capable of. Kang had 24 doubles and 15 home runs driving in 58 runs and hitting a solid .287. King’s batting average was .239 in 1991.  Edge: ‘15

Left Field –  Barry Bonds vs Starling Marte

1991 was another great year for Bonds. He scored 95 runs, hit 25 home runs, drove in a team high 116 runs, stole 43 bases and hit .292 on the year. Marte was no sloth for the 2015 Pirates. Marte stole 30 bases, hit 19 home runs and drove in 81 runs and hit .287. However, one can’t deny the edge here goes to Bonds. Edge: ‘91

Center Field – Andy Van Slyke vs Andrew McCutchen

In 1991, fan favorite Andy Van Slyke hit 17 home runs, drove in 83 runs and hit .265, but he wasn’t Andrew McCutchen.  2015 was another year the Pirates came to expect from Cutch. He scored 91 runs, hit 23 home runs, drove in 96 runs and hit .292 while patrolling spacious center field at PNC Park. Edge: ‘15

Right Field – Bobby Bonilla vs Gregory Polanco

Bonilla led the Pirates with 44 doubles and 102 runs scored, and he also hit 18 home runs, drove in 100 runs and hit .302 on the year.  Right Field at PNC Park belonged to Gregory Polanco in 2015 and he hit nine home runs, driving in 52 runs and stole 27 bases with a .256 batting average. Edge: ’91

Bench:  Gary Redus, Don Slaught, Gary Varsho, Curt Wilkerson, Lloyd McClendon, Steve Buechele and John Wehner vs. Josh Harrison, Sean Rodriquez, Aramis Ramirez, Chris Stewart, Mike Morse and Travis Ishikawa.

Redus hit .246 for the ’91 Bucs, and Don Slaught gave Leyland a right-handed bat when spelling   LaValliere and hit a solid .295 that year. Varsho hit .273, Wilkerson only .188, McClendon .288 and Buechele .246 and Pittsburgh-native Wehner hit .340 in 106 at-bats.

Harrison was a catalyst for Hurdle’s club filling in all over the field hitting .287. Rodriquez gave Hurdle a tremendous amount of flexibility as well. Rodriquez could also play a lot of positions but he hit only .246. Ramirez’ fine career was coming to a close as he hit only .245. Stewart’s hitting was a pleasant surprise as his batting average was .289 in 2015. Morse saw playing time at first base and hit .275 and Ishikawa hit .224.  Edge: ‘91

Starting Pitching –  John Smiley, Doug Drabek, Zane Smith, Randy Tomlin and Bob Walk vs. Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton and A.J. Happ.

Smiley was the ace of the staff winning 20 games and losing only eight with a 3.08 ERA, Smith went 16-10 with a 3.20 ERA and Drabek was 15-14 with a 3.07 ERA. Walk won nine while losing only two with a 3.60 ERA and Tomlin was 8-7 with a 2.98 ERA to round out the starting pitching for the ’91 Bucs. Having your fifth starter with an ERA under three says a good bit about  the depth of the 1991 Pirates starters.

Cole was the ace of the 2015 Pirates pitching staff with a 19-8 record, and a 2.60 ERA. At times, Liriano looked like an ace and had a 12-7 record and 3.38 ERA. Burnett was 9-7 with a 3.18 ERA, Happ was outstanding with 7-2 and a 1.85 ERA, Locke was 8-11 with a 4.49 ERA, and Morton was 9-9 on the year with a 4.81 ERA.  As their records would indicate, Locke and Morton were inconsistent and if needed to be called upon in this series, could be a liability for the 2015 Pirates.  Edge: ’91

Bullpen – Neal Heaton, Bob Patterson, Bob Kipper, Stan Belinda and Vicente Palacios vs. Tony Watson, Arquimedes Caminero, Jared Hughes, Vance Worley and Astonio Bastardo.

Belinda was 7-5 with 16 saves for the ’91 Bucs with a 3.45 ERA. Heaton was 3-3 with a  4.33 ERA, Patterson 4-3 with a 4.11 ERA, Kipper 2-2 with a 4.65 ERA and Palacios was 6-3 with a 3.75 ERA for the ’91 Bucs.

Watson was exceptional out of the bullpen with a 4-1 record and 1.91 ERA in 77 appearances. Caminero was 5-1 with a 3.62 ERA, Hughes was 3-1 with a 2.28 ERA and Bastardo had a 4-1 record with a 2.98 ERA. Worley was 4-6 and had eight starts in 2015 with a 4.02 ERA. Significant Edge for the ’15 Bucs.

Closer – Bill Landrum vs Mark Melancon

Landrum was 4-4 with a 3.18 ERA with 17 saves. Melancon appeared in 78 games for the Bucs in 2015, with a 2.23 ERA and 51 saves. Big Edge: ‘15

Manager – Jim Leyland vs. Clint Hurdle

Leyland would go on to win a World Series with Florida and was named Manager of the Year three times. Hurdle has not won a World Series and likely never will while managing for Pirates owner Bob Nutting.  Edge: ‘91

The edge clearly belongs to the 2015 Pirates if they can get the lead to their bullpen of Watson and Melancon. Could Leyland get enough offense from Bonds, Bonilla and Van Slyke against the 2015 Pirates starters?

So how does this series play out?  This would be a tight, low-scoring seven-game affair with the seventh game tied at two and the 2015 Pirates batting in the bottom of the ninth. With two outs and no one on base, Neil Walker battles Bill Landrum fouling off four two-strike pitches before doubling into right center. With the potential series-winning run at second base, Leyland plays a hunch and decides to bring in Stan Belinda. The raucous, blackout-clad crowd at PNC Park greet Belinda with chants of, “Stan-ley, Stan-ley, Stan-ley.”

With only one left-handed batter on the bench, Hurdle chooses to send up Ishikawa to pinch hit for a struggling Polanco in this series. Trying to pull the ball, Ishikawa fouls off a couple of fastball offerings from Belinda. After laying off two outside pitches, Ishikawa is just trying to make contact and keep the inning going. Ishikawa reaches on another outside offering from Belinda and connects getting the ball gets past Pirates shortstop Jay Bell into left field!

Inexplicably, LaValliere lines up a few steps up the first-base line rather than in front of home plate or on the third base side to force Walker to go through or around him. With Sid Bream-like speed, Walker lumbers around third! Bonds charges the ball and looks and throws to where LaValliere has positioned himself up the first base line. The throw is just a step offline to the right of where LaValliere had positioned himself. LaValliere reaches right, catches the throw, dives back, the hometown-kid slides……

What do you think would be the result of a 7-game series between the 1991 Pirates and the 2015 Pirates?

Barry Bonds Photo credit: Oldmaison on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

Andrew McCutchen Photo credit: Keith Allison on Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

Read about the match-up of Pittsburgh Pirates World Series Champions 1971 versus 1979 that can be found at: https://johnbaranowski.wordpress.com/2019/04/27/pittsburgh-pirates-battle-of-world-series-champions-1971-vs-1979/

John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites. This and other articles written by him can be found on his blog:




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