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The Grilli question … And are the Pirates middle class?


PNC PARK – Pirates manager Clint Hurdle often says “feelings aren’t facts.”


The Pirates have strong feelings of loyalty when it comes to Jason Grilli. In the first half of the season, Grilli was the best closer in the game. He’s been a good teammate and was really the face of the team’s first half success – the face of the bullpen.


But the unfortunate facts are Grilli has not looked like his pre-injury self since returning.


His fastball velocity has been down since returning. It sat at 91 mph on Friday night. Grilli’s fastball is averaging 93.5 mph this season.


His slider is inconsistent. While Grilli began the seventh by generating two strikeouts with the pitch Friday, he walked Luis Valbuena with a slider and Anthony Rizzo followed by homering on a flat slider.


Grilli has only made four appearances since returning from the DL. It’s understandable that he’s not immediately dominant. But time is not on his side to get right.


Hurdle thinks Grilli is “close.” Grilli thinks he is close. And there’s no doubt the Pirates’ best bullpen situation is when a 100 percent Grilli takes the ninth-inning and allows Mark Melancon to be a high-leverage setup arm.


But how long can the Pirates wait for Grilli to get right?


There’s only two weeks in the regular season. And while Hurdle said Grilli needs work to get right, allowing him to get work against Rizzo – who is batting .178 against left-handed pitching – cost the Pirates a critical game.


The Pirates can’t be experimenting with bullpen roles in October. They are better with Grilli in the ninth. But they are running out of time – and margin for error – to get him right and move Melancon out of the end-game role.




I know at least one of the faithful reader of this blog has distaste for my labeling of the Pirates as a “small-market’ team.


The truth is the Pirates have been a small market team for at least the last several decades. After all, small-market realities were one salient reason the Pirates broke up their last winning team. It’s one reason why Barry Bonds left for the bay.


And the painful truth of the matter is the Pirates will never have the wherewithal to match the top spenders no matter how much success they have. It’s simply a matter of population, eyeballs on televisions, etc.

But fear not, there is some upward mobility possible in baseball and I wonder if it will soon be possible to place the Pirates among baseball’s middle class.


Consider this information released from Major League Baseball on Thursday:


*The Pirates’ merchandise sales are up 55 percent this season. That’s an amazing number. I was in Dick’s sporing goods in Mt. Lebo the other day and there was a ton of Pirates merchandise by the registers. Not Steelers gear. It’s September.


*The Pirates’ local television ratings are up 15 percent and their average rating (7.6) ranks third in major league baseball.


*Pirates’ attendance is up 5 percent and the club is on pace to draw 2.3 million fans to PNC Park, second most in park history. The attendance ranks 19th in baseball, but the Pirates have had a strong attendance surge in the second half after disappointing attendance to begin the season. Pirates president Frank Coonelly said the club is projecting 2.5 million in attendance next season. That would be a PNC Park record.


The Pirates are having, say, 15 percent growth. If they were an emerging economy, that would be quite a number. A sustainable number?


Now it’s true the Pirates are locked into one of the worst local cable deals for the next six years, which is a major handicap.  It’s true merchandise sales will not increase by 55 percent every year.


But what we’ve seen this year is if the Pirates build it. Build a winner. Fans will come. And they will buy stuff. (The park and its surroundings have enjoyed something akin to a college football atmosphere in the second half of the season.) If the Pirates continue to win, they’ll be able to enjoy a much better TV contract within the decade.


Why is all this significant?


It’s about buying power of course. Most owners won’t operate from deficits. The Pirates will never be competing for top free agent targets but being middle class better allows the club to keep its own talent, fill holes with significant free agents, and spend liberally when required in the amateur markets.


Is it sustainable?


It is … if the Pirates win. The Pittsburgh community has shown it will support a winner. Pittsburgh is not a transient market which means there is much better brand loyalty here than, say, in the Florida or Atlanta pro sports markets. Pound-for-pound, per capita-for-per capita Pittsburgh is  one of the better pro sports towns in the country. Just look at the local market NHL ratings, even the NBA finals ratings for a city that doesn’t have an NBA team.


The Pirates can shed the “small market” label if, IF, they keep winning. Upward mobility requires sustained success.


– TS



  1. Sisyphus says:

    Pittsburgh can shed the “small market” label by increasing the metro area’s population by about 50%. You may not like the label, but the fact is that Pittsburgh is one of the smallest markets in baseball, no matter how many buy the t-shirts or watch the games on TV.

  2. Yokesoverez says:

    Yea, being a small-market professional franchise is a terrible label to have, just as the folks in Green Bay.

  3. Dan Finnegan says:

    Hasn’t been a problem of late for the Steelers and Pens, of course, they’ve been winning championships of late as well.

  4. jtp2106 says:

    Pittsburgh’s market size is comparable to St. Louis and Cincinnati, so it’s not as if they shouldn’t be spending up to their level. The biggest factor in the Pirates climbing into the middle class would be their TV contract. We’re in the middle of a regional sports TV bubble, but the Pirates made their TV deal before all these other deals skyrocketed. Now they’re stuck in their deal for another six years while a lot of other teams are locking up ridiculous deals.

    Carrier fees are reaching their breaking points right now and cable companies are going to start playing hard ball. It happened here in NY where MSG was blacked out during the Jeremy Lin era. Carriers are passing those costs on to subscribers, which explains why I’m paying more for my cable bill even though I’m not getting more channels. MLB teams are using money from those TV deals to sign players to long term contracts (Joey Votto in Cincy and the Dodgers recent attempt at becoming the Yankees). I’m afraid that by the time the Pirates get to negotiate a new deal, the bubble will already have burst.

  5. Vic says:

    Both NFL and NHL have salary caps. Big difference. Steelers and Pens don’t get outspent 2 to 1.

  6. Jim S. says:

    No salary cap in baseball makes a big difference compared to NHL and NFL. The Steelers really do operate from a similar budget to most other NFL franchises, and the same is true for the Pens. The Bucs, even with revenue sharing, do not generate near the revenue of MLB teams in larger population markets. Local TV, as Travis points out, is the big differentiator in MLB. And, even with the smaller population in Pittsburgh, the Pirates apparently negotiated a horrendous deal for their local rights. It is similar, in fact, to the one inked by the Tampa Bay Rays, from what was stated when it was signed. There was no reason for such a poor TV contract then, even before this team had turned the corner to respectability.

    The question is, knowing that the Pirates and ROOT sports are likely to remain partners for the foreseeable future, is there the possibility of renegotiation of this contract, given what is taking place now in other MLB markets? It seems to me that if this contract is as one-sided as it appears in favor of ROOT, and ROOT wants to remain a true “partner” to the Bucs, they might at least want to consider a market adjustment of the contract at some point. I’m not saying ROOT must do that, only that partners who want a good relationship to continue for many years often consider such things. At some point, the advantage could shift and ROOT may be asking for concessions from the Bucs. Just something to look out for down the road.

    The other point I wanted to make regards attendance for MLB. The key to the Bucs reaching 2.5 million and above is advanced ticket sales in pre-season. If people are excited about the team’s prospects going into a season, they are more likely to feel the need to buy tickets for September games and weekday games throughout the season before the season starts. Pre-season demand is what sustains attendance in markets like Chicago and now Milwaukee, who are able to maintain attendance pretty well in down years. There are plenty of empty seats these days at Wrigley and Miller Park, even though many of the tickets have still been sold. If fans don’t feel the desire and, more importantly, the need to buy late season tickets in March, it is difficult to attain high attendance late in the season – even in a pennant chase year like this one in Pittsburgh. The Pirates have sold a great deal of tickets as the season has gone on, but the goal for next year will be to be assured of well over 2 million in attendance prior to the start of the regular season. I believe they will do that, and will have very few games all season with individual game attendances of less than 20,000. If the team advances far into the 2013 playoffs, excitement will be very high, and I believe 2.5+ miilion can be attained.

    But, there is only so much discretionary money from the public in a market, and as has been stated, Pittsburgh is a small market by professional sports standards. This market sustains 3 franchises, where some others in MLB only have 2 – as in the case of Cincinnati. Or, call it 2.5 in the case of Milwaukee. It is, therefore, easier for those markets to reach higher attendance numbers than the Pirates. Neither of those markets has to contend with an annual championship run from another pro franchise in the spring. It will be interesting to see what will happen to the ticket demand situation for both the Bucs and Pens if their fortunes on the field are less than stellar in the next year or two, while the Pirates’ fortunes continue to surge. My guess is much of the discretionary spending in the market will tilt toward the Bucs, as has already happened in merchandise sales this summer.

    Great topic to kick around!

  7. John says:

    Always disagreed when people would say “Pittsburgh is not a baseball town”. You are seeing this year they are a baseball town especially when they have a good team.

  8. ed simmons says:

    Hey John,. I have a question for you. If Pittsburgh is such a great baseball town, why was it on a Friday night only 27, 000 fans were in the ballpark in the middle of a pennant race. Most of the homestand wasn’t a sellout until Friday. The announcers like Neverett say nights are a sellout when we can clearly see the stands aren’t even filled. Lots of empty seats. It is not a baseball town. Next year when the Pirates go back to their losing ways we will see just how big of a baseball town Pittsburgh is. That’s when you can tell if a town is a baseball town or not. Chicago is a baseball town. Despite their losing the stands remain near full. They are 25 games out of first. Look at the average attendance over the past few years. When the pirates started to slide last year and the year before the attendance went down significantly. So that’s a baseball town?. Please. Pittsburgh is not and will never be a baseball town because the ownership is only going to bring in talent when its apparent they are having a winning season. PITTSBURGH IS NOT A BASEBALL TOWN. Sorry to burst your bubble

  9. Buster Griffing says:

    The NFL network contracts make the small-market, large-market labels/facts much less meaningful than they are in baseball. The percentage of total revenue for teams that depends on the size of the local market is much larger for baseball than it is for football. Thus, Green Bay and the Steelers have a better chance of competing with the large-market NFL teams.

  10. Chuck H says:

    About Grilli, on his return from DL-he is not the same pitcher he was before the injury, so
    Hurdle should not use him in a close game. Now if the Bucs have a 3 or 4 run lead, then
    put him in for the purpose of getting him closer to what he was before.
    In today’s game with the Cubbies, Hurdle probably cost Liriano a win, because everyone
    except Hurdle saw that Liriano was tiring and needed to come out after he surrendered
    the first hit by the Cubs. Hurdle has been guilty of this blunder all season long, and he
    isn’t about to change his ways. GO, BUCS!!!

  11. Mark says:

    Yea, MLB and the NFL are the same. There is substantially more sharing of the revenue pie in the NFL. And…they have this thing called a salary cap.

  12. Mark says:

    The Penguins and Pirates should have their own network ala the Yes Network.

  13. NMR says:

    Pretty clear that the ” “‘s indicate Travis was speaking of more than strictly population.
    Very well done, Travis. Upward mobility? Somebody keeps up on their economics.

  14. Leo Walter says:

    Ed,what makes you think that you have the right answers regarding attendance ? Where are you from ? Clebveland or Cinncinnatti ?

  15. NMR says:

    Grilli’s injury has shown what a small drop in “stuff” does to a pitcher with very little command.
    Those fastballs left up in the zone at 94 mph generated swings and misses. They generate line drives when they’re 91 mph.
    Those sharp sliders dropping out of the zone generate swings and misses. Those flat ones are taken for balls.
    The Bucs have shown that they CAN do without Grilli. I’m not sure if they can do without Grilli AND Justin Wilson, though.

  16. Jim S. says:

    I live in Chicagoland, Ed. Sorry to burst your bubble, but there are 8 million+ people in this metro area, and probably 2/3 of them skew toward the Cubs. That’s quite a lot more potential game attendees than for the Pirates. If you notice, the White Sox generally draw in the same neighborhood as the Bucs, and even less this year. They are a much more comparable franchise to the Bucs. I think you rightly pointed out that Chicago is a better baseball town, but trying to portray the Cubs and Pirates as being on equal footing is not realistic.

  17. Jim S. says:

    Good points, NMR. There is indeed a fine line in “stuff” between a swing and miss pitcher and one who gets tattoo’d.

  18. Jim S. says:

    One other thing, Ed. The Pirates attendance was 35,962 on Friday night. Where did you get the 27,000 figure? They are now averaging 28,000 per game for the season.

  19. Joe says:

    The Pens and Pirates could get together and at least leverage their TV contract next time around. One problem is the two contracts don’t expire at the same time.

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