The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 17 – The Pittsburgh Pirates

Three Rivers Stadium

Image via Wikipedia

Let’s subtitle this post, “Mad Dog and the Candy Man.”

It’s been a while, of course, since the Pittsburgh professional baseball franchise has sniffed respectability.  But there was a time a few decades ago when the Pirates were a team to be feared.

In the decade that lasted from 1970-79, the Pirates won their division six times, finished 2nd three times, and finished as low as third only once.  They won two World Series Championships during that era, both times defeating the Orioles in seven games (1971, 1979.)

One of the most famous Pirates teams of the last 30+ years was the 1979, WE ARE FAM-A-LEE  version.  With their horrendous yellow and black uniforms, they looked like an ornery swarm of wasps darting around Three Rivers Stadium.  But this highly talented team, which featured N.L. Co-MVP Willie Stargell*, howitzer-armed right fielder Dave Parker, and submarine closer Kent Tekulve, defeated the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the Fall Classic.

Two of the key members on this team were pitcher John (The Candy Man) Candelaria and third baseman Bill (Mad Dog) Madlock.

Let’s take Madlock first.

Madlock was obtained in a timely trade with the Giants in June, 1979.  He had already won two batting titles while playing for the Cubs before he ended up with the Giants, and would win two more during his tenure with the Pirates.  At the time of the trade, Madlock was hitting only .261 for San Francisco, but after joining Pittsburgh, he hit .328 for the remainder of the season.  His hot bat was one of the reasons why the Pirates won the N.L. Pennant and World Series.

But the purpose of this post is not to review and analyze the Pirates ’79 franchise.  It is to examine the Best Forgotten Baseball Season for both Bill Madlock and John Candelaria, each of whom just happened to be members of the ’79 team.

Bill Madlock’s Best Forgotten Season for the Pirates was 1982.

Madlock was a stocky, 5’11”, 180 pound, 32-year old third baseman, coming off the strike-shortened 1981 season in which he had won this third batting title with a .341 average. Two years later, in ’83, he would win his 4th and final batting title.

So why not choose either ’81 or ’83?  In 1981, due to the strike, Madlock only played in 82 games and garnered 279 at bats.  Despite putting up excellent stats, Madlock played what amounted to a half season.  Therefore, I have ruled out the ’81 season as legitimate in this context.

How about 1983, when Madlock won his fourth batting title?  Because other than winning the title, most of his numbers were actually inferior to his 1982 statistics.

Specifically, Madlock batted .319 in ’82, second best in the league, and just four points lower than he would hit the following season.  But in ’82, Madlock reached career highs in home runs (19), RBI’s (95), Runs Scored (92), and Total Bases (277).  He also compiled his second highest hit total (181) and doubles total (33).

Madlock also enjoyed career highs in Intentional Walks (16) and Sacrifice Flies (13).  His 154 games played tied his career high, and he also topped 600 plate appearances for only the second time in his career.  His WAR was 5.9, also a career high.

Finally, Madlock also finished in the top ten in the N.L. in OPS (.856) and in Runs Created (103).

For his accomplishments, Madlock finished in eleventh place in the N.L. MVP voting in 1982.

Interestingly, Bill Madlock, despite four batting titles in a 15-year career, barely topped 2,000 career hits (2,008.)  He is also the only player in baseball history to win as many as four batting crowns while scoring fewer than one thousand runs in his career (920.)

But Madlock was certainly a key, underrated cog in the formidable Pirates teams of the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, as was his teammate, John Candelaria.

John Candelaria was a big, left-handed pitcher (6’7″, 205 lbs.) from New York City when he first broke in with the Pirates at age 21 in 1975.  The following season, Candelaria established himself in the rotation with a 16-7 record, 220 innings pitched, 11 complete games and four shutouts.  His ERA was a solid 3.15.

Best of all, he knew how to throw strikes, surrendering just 60 walks in his first full professional season.  The following season, however, the Candy Man really broke out.

1977 was John Candelaria’s Best Forgotten Baseball Season.

In ’77, on a Pirates team that finished in 2nd place to the Phillies in the N.L. East, Candelaria posted an excellent 20-5 record, resulting in a league best winning percentage of .800.  He also led the N.L. in ERA at 2.34, and in ERA+ at 169. His WHIP (1.071) was second best in the league.

Interestingly, he also served up the most home runs of any N.L. pitcher (29).  But because he walked just 50 batters all season, he greatly limited the damage that could have resulted from all of those homers.  In fact, his 2 walks per nine innings represented the best mark in the league.

But John Candelaria’s career trajectory pointed gradually downward for the remainder of his career.  Although he had several more productive seasons, including a 14-9 record with a 3.22 ERA for the ’79 team,  only once did he win as many as 15 games in a single season after 1977.

Nevertheless, he did post nine more double-digit win seasons after 1977, resulting in a modest career win-loss record of 177-122.  Candelaria enjoyed a long career, beginning when he was just 21 and ending nearly two decades later when he was 39-years old.

In the first ten seasons of Candelaria’s career, all spent with the Pirates, he finished only one season with a losing record.

Candelaria, like Madlock, was not a superstar.  But their accomplishments were instrumental in enabling the Pirates to enjoy one of the greatest runs in team history.

* Keith Hernandez of the Cardinals was the other N.L. Co-MVP in 1979.

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4 thoughts on “Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 17 – The Pittsburgh Pirates

  1. I was a big Tekulve fan back in the day. Liked Candelaria, but wasn’t much of a Madlock fan. Always thought Parker should have been better than he was. I remember he had drug problems. As for Willie Stargell, well who didn’t like “Pops”? I thought he should have beaten Hernandez rather than tied for MVP in ’79. Loved the stars on the hats.
    Thanks for reminding me of them.

    • I agree with you that Co-MVP’s are kind of pointless. Choose one or the other. Funny how you never heard much about how “small market teams” can’t compete with the Big Guys back in the ’70’s. But those Pirate teams sure were a lot of fun, even for non-Pirates fans like me. As always, I appreciate your kind words. Take care, Bill

  2. The ’79 Pirates are one of my all time favorite teams! I guess I’m in a distinct minority in that I was, and am fond of those old bumblebee unis. They suited the character of that team. Stargell was my favorite player at that time, along with Reggie Smith of the Dodgers. I wasn’t too crazy about Candelaria but that could be because he no-hit the Dodgers back in 1975 or ’76, if memory serves.

    Amazing that Madlock finished so low in the MVP voting for ’82. Who won? Was it Schmidt? I wonder what 10 players the voters thought had better seasons…

    • Hi Keith, Although I was already a Mets fan by then, I rooted for the Pirates in the World Series against the Orioles. I was thrilled that they came back from a 3-1 deficit to win the Series in seven games. The uniforms fit the era; that’s for sure. I, too, loved Stargell. I got to see him play at Shea Stadium back then.
      As far as the players who finished ahead of Madlock in MVP voting, here is the complete list:
      1) Dale Murphy
      2) Lonnie Smith
      3) Pedro Guerrero
      4) Al Oliver
      5) Bruce Sutter
      6) Mike Schmidt
      7) Jack Clark
      8) Greg Minton (!)
      9) Steve Carlton
      10) Bill Buckner
      11) Bill Madlock

      Interestingly, Madlock’s WAR (5.9) was tied with Lonnie Smith. It was also higher than five players ahead of him on this list. Both saves and RBI’s were highly overrated back then, as they still are in some quarters today. Schmidt had far and away the best OPS (.949) and WAR (7.9), but his 87 RBI’s just didn’t impress the voters very much. For Dale Murphy, it was the first of two consecutive MVP Awards.
      Coincidentally, I’ve already written blog-posts for this series on Lonnie Smith (Braves) and Bill Buckner, and I almost chose Jack Clark over Ted Simmons for the Cardinals post.
      Thanks for reading and for leaving the comment, Keith. Hope you are settling into your new digs out west. Bill

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