The Best Hitter in Pirate History? You might not like this.

Pirate history is renowned for its excellent hitters. The names, for the most part, are familiar. But one of the most overlooked – and even forgotten – may have been the best of them all.

Here’s a comparison of his Pirate numbers with those of Andrew McCutchen:

The Great Unknown  /   McCutchen

PA:    3,141  /   3,171

BA:   .308    /   .296

OBP: .426   /    .380

SLG:  .591   /    .489

OPS:  1.017 /   .869

HR:  165      /    103

BB%: 16.7% /   11.4%

K%:   10.9% /   16.7%

It isn’t close.

And it gets better.

Here are his numbers compared to those of Hall-of-Famer Paul Waner:

The Great Unknown  /  Paul Waner

PA:    3,141 / 9,532

BA:   .308   / .340

OBP: .426   / .407

SLG:  .591  /  .490

OPS:  1.017 /  .897

HR:     165   / 109

BB%:  16.7% /  9.5%

K%:   10.9% /   3.4%

Yes. It is possible that the teams of the Pirates lost generation had the best hitter in the 131 year history of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club.

Brian Giles.

Here are the Pirates all-time OPS leaders:

1. Brian Giles 1.018
2. Ralph Kiner .971
3. Jake Stenzel .958
4. Kiki Cuyler .912
5. George Grantham .901
6. Paul Waner .896
7. Jason Bay .890
8. Willie Stargell .889
9. Arky Vaughan .887
10. Barry Bonds .883

* Table from baseball-reference.com

But OPS only measures on-base percentage and slugging percentage – and there is more to hitting productivity than those two statistics.

Some may also contend that Giles numbers are inflated by the high-scoring era in which he played.

Well, there are sabermetrics to account for those factors. Runs Created measures a player’s total hitting performance. And weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) converts Runs Created into a stat that also measures players against the league averages for the years in which they played.

(League average for wRC+ is 100 and each point above or below 100 represents the percentage by which the player was better or worse than league average.)

Here are the Pirates all-time leaders in wRC+:

1. Brian Giles  156

2. Ralph Kiner  154

3.  Honus Wagner  151

4.  Willie Stargell  145

4.  Barry Bonds  145

6. Arky Vaughan  144

7.  Jake Stenzel  140

8.  Andrew McCutchen  139

9.  Paul Waner  138

10.  Kiki Cuyler  137

10.  Richie Zisk  137

Some may suggest that Giles stats are better than those of some other great Pirate hitters because he played in PNC Park, which (though it mildly favors pitchers) is a better hitters’ park than Forbes Field was. That can be addressed by a statistic called Adjusted OPS Plus. It modifies OPS according to ballpark and measures players against the league averages during the years in which they played.
Here are the Pirates all time leaders in Adjusted OPS Plus:
Rank Player Adjusted OPS+ PA
1. Brian Giles 158 3114
2. Ralph Kiner 157 4732
3. Honus Wagner 154 10220
4. Barry Bonds 147 4255
Willie Stargell 147 9027
Jake Stenzel 147 1987
7. Arky Vaughan 141 6182
8. Andrew McCutchen 139 3171
9. Richie Zisk 137 2240
10. Fred Carroll 136 2518
Fred Clarke 136 6368
Mike Smith 136 3443
Paul Waner 136 9536
* Table from baseball-reference.com
Another protest may be that Giles had significantly fewer plate appearances as a Pirate than did some of the teams’ other great hitters. However, while it is true that Giles’ Pirate career was shorter than those of Stargell, Kiner, Waner, and Wagner, his 3,174 plate appearances is not a small sample size – and he did play five seasons with the Pirates.
Brian Giles may or may not be the best Pirate hitter of all time, but any discussion of the issue that does not intensely consider Giles is a failed debate. Regardless of Giles ranking in team history, his seasons cannot be ignored. They were truly great.
And National League pitchers knew that Brian Giles was one of the best hitters they had ever seen. They walked him 135 times in 2002.

 

170 thoughts on “The Best Hitter in Pirate History? You might not like this.

  1. No doubt Giles was a terrific hitter. Not sure it an apples to apples comparison though between other Pirate greats. Giles spent only his prime years ages 28-32 in Pittsburgh. McCutchen is just entering his prime now. Bonds was gone before he really got into his prime. Even catching just the beginning of his prime, Bonds had a 154 wRC+ in his final 5 years as a Pirate. Those were his age 23-27 seasons. Stargell and Wagner played really long careers with the Pirates. Some of those seasons towards the end of their careers pull down their overall numbers. Wagner’s wRC+ during his age 28-32 seasons was 164. Extend it out even further from 1902-1909 and Wagner had a wRC+ of 171 during that period. Stargell had a 6 season stretch from 1969-1974 in which he posted a wRC+ of 162.

  2. SB

    Nice piece. You’re right. I don’t like it. Rooted for the Bucs and Giles and Brian was a bright spot in a dark period for the Pirates. My only pause is that I believe Brian Giles was juicing.

    I’m not sure if his numbers took dramatic turns over time. He was remarkably consistent and he WAS in his prime during his time with the Bucs. And one doesn’t like to find players guilty by suspicion. But I’m suspicious of Brian Giles.

    Wabbit

    • Many have the same suspicions. That era of the game is forever tainted. I have been dealing with the steroids/stats issue by assuming an impact only if a player tested positive. But we will never really know.

      Hidden Vigorish makes a good point about Giles’ Pirate career numbers getting a boost because all of Giles time with the Pirates was in the prime of his career,

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