Where the 1984 Pittsburgh Pirates were at in the historical arc of their franchise was a pertinent question coming into the season. They won the World Series as recently as 1979. Their only losing season since 1968 was in the strike-shortened year of 1981. They had been in first place as late as September in 1980, 1982 and 1983, even if they ultimately fell short.
On the other hand–those three most recent contenders all ended up in the low 80s for wins. Dave Parker left after 1983 via free agency. There were few pieces left from 1979. So where exactly was this team? The ‘84 Pirates decisively answered the question–and not in a way that anyone in the Steel City appreciated.
Pittsburgh struggled offensively all year. The biggest reason was down years from two good players at the corner infield spots. Jason Thompson had been a reliable power hitter with a good batting eye. The batting eye stayed good in 1984 and Thompson’s on-base percentage was .357. But his slugging percentage was a woeful .389. Even though he was only 29-years-old, his career decline had begun and he was out of baseball two years later.
Bill Madlock was at third base. A man who won four batting championships in his career struggled to an awful stat line of .297 OBP/.323 slugging. Even though Madlock was 33-years-old, it wasn’t the end for him. He had good seasons ahead of him. But they wouldn’t be in Pittsburgh and certainly did the Pirates no good in 1984.
It’s not that no one had good years with the bat. Second baseman Johnny Ray hit .312. Lee Lacy, the 36-year-old outfielder hit .321. Jim Morrison slugged .454. Tony Pena was at least a respectable bat behind the plate with a stat line of .333/.425. But without Thompson and Madlock’s production, the Pirates couldn’t score enough runs. And they finished 10th in a 12-team National League at doing so.
Another reason for the poor offense was the offseason trade of Mike Easler, a good lefthanded bat. But that at least brought back lefthanded starting pitcher John Tudor, and it signaled that the ‘84 Pirates would be built on their arms. Tudor made 32 starts and posted a solid 3.27 ERA. And he was just one of several success stories in the rotation.
Rick Rhoden finished with a 2.72 ERA in his 33 starts. Larry McWilliams went to the post 32 times and his ERA was 2.93. John Candelaria’s ERA was 2.72. Jose DeLeon, the talented second-year righthander had the “worst” ERA of the rotation and that was still a respectable 3.74.
Even more important, these five arms were healthy and combined for 153 starts. It eased the burden on a bullpen that was good in its own right. Kent Tekulve and Don Robinson shared closer duties in an era where a relief corps didn’t have to be nearly as deep as they do today.
Pittsburgh finished with the best staff ERA in the National League. If the adage that baseball is 90 percent pitching were true, they would have been home free. Unfortunately, the ‘84 Pirates proved that you do need to occasionally score some runs.
Seven losses in the first ten games dug a quick hole and by Memorial Day, the Pirates were 17-24. They were in last place in a six-team NL East that included the Phillies, Mets, Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals), Cubs and Cardinals. Pittsburgh was 7 ½ games off the pace in an era when only the first-place team could qualify for the postseason. They had to get their act in gear.
They didn’t. In early June, 14 games against NL East rivals produced a 3-11 record. The Pirates played well against the Cubs, winning four of seven against the eventual division champs. But they went to the West Coast and lost nine of eleven going into the All-Star break. They were 32-52, 16 ½ games out and the only NL East team that wasn’t at least hovering near .500.
Pittsburgh picked up the pace out of the break, playing those same West Coast teams (Dodgers, Padres, Giants) at home and going 10-4. But they couldn’t make a dent in the divisional margin. Any hope of a late summer surge was further put to rest with five losses in eight games with the Mets, the team that would finish second to Chicago.
The Pirates were back to twenty games under .500 by September 18, with a record of 65-85. They finished the season with a flourish that included sweeping the Cubs in Wrigley. The final record was a respectable 75-87.
But there was no doubt that this Pirate team was no longer a contender. For anyone who still harbored doubt, 1985 ended it when Pittsburgh lost 104 games and fired manager Chuck Tanner. An era of rebuilding had to begin.