Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 17 – The Pittsburgh Pirates
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.