Comparing the 1917 Pirates to the 2021 Pirates

Before I get into this 1917 vs 2021 comparison, let me start by saying that I don’t think Mitch Keller will be as good as Wilbur Cooper and I don’t think that Ke’Bryan Hayes will follow Max Carey to Cooperstown someday. It’s a nice dream, and both are young and talented, but let’s not get that far ahead of ourselves right now. However, Keller and Hayes could very well be this year’s version of the 1917 Cooper/Carey combo. I’m sure most of you need much more information before you can fully digest that statement.

Besides Honus Wagner retiring, the 1917 season wasn’t a year to remember in Pittsburgh Pirates history. Perhaps it should be though for how much value they got from the two best players on a very bad team. The Pirates finished 51-103 that season. Now the 2021 comparison is starting to make a bit more sense to you, right? You wouldn’t expect a lot of good to come out of a season where your team finished 52 games under .500, but Wilbur Cooper and Max Carey provided some excitement that year.

Cooper managed to compile a 17-11 record on the mound. If you’re not a math major, let me do the work for you. The team went 34-92 when he didn’t get a decision. Carey batted ,296 with a league-leading 46 stolen bases, while scoring 82 runs and driving in 51 runs. He hit just one homer, so he was part of 132 runs scored that year. The team scored just 464 runs total. It was after all, the deadball era, so runs were at a premium, but the Pirates had a lot of trouble getting them when Carey wasn’t part of the equation. He was also a strong defensive player, which helped his overall value.

Carey and Cooper that year combined for 12.6 WAR. The rest of the team (39 players) had 7.4 WAR combined. Cooper finished second only to Hall of Famer Grover Alexander in WAR for National League pitchers that year. Carey ranked sixth among all NL position players in WAR. The only NL team that had a pair of batter/pitcher teammates with more WAR was the Philadelphia Phillies with Alexander (the league’s win leader) and Gavvy Cravath (the league’s home run leader). The Phillies finished second in the NL, 37 games ahead of the Pirates in the NL standings.

One of the strangest coincidences here is that Carey and Cooper would also combine for 12.6 WAR during the 1922 season for the Pirates, with both players just 0.1 off from their 1917 seasons, in different directions obviously. The 1922 Pirates finished with an 85-69 record, while getting the exact same WAR value from these two players.

Their supporting staff is clearly to blame and credit, so here are the top ten WAR players besides Cooper and Carey each year:


  1. Elmer Jacobs 3.4
  2. Bob Steele 2.5
  3. Hal Carlson 1.8
  4. William Fischer 1.8
  5. Frank Miller 1.3
  6. Elmer Ponder 0.8
  7. Doug Baird 0.5
  8. Walter Schmidt 0.3
  9. Tony Boeckel 0.3
  10. Bunny Brief 0.1

Yes, Bunny Brief is a real player, but that’s not his real name. You can find his bio on this site if you search. Here’s the 1922 supporting cast:

  1. John Morrison 5.9
  2. Babe Adams 4.6
  3. Carson Bigbee 4.2
  4. Reb Russell 2.7
  5. Cotton Tierney 2.6
  6. Earl Hamilton 2.2
  7. Johnny Gooch 2.1
  8. Rabbit Maranville 1.5
  9. Whitey Glazner 1.3
  10. Clyde Barnhart 0.6

That 1917 group had 12.8 WAR, just 0.2 ahead of Cooper/Carey. The rest of the team dragged that group down to that 7.4 mark. The 1922 group combined for 27.7 WAR. The rest of the 1922 team (22 other players) had -0.5 WAR. So not only were the ten major supporting staff players much better (27.7 vs 12.8) in 1922, the worst players were also much better (-0.5 WAR vs -5.4 WAR).

The main point of that coincidence and comparison is to show that you really need talent around you to win. This isn’t basketball, your team can’t win with two great players surrounded by mediocrity. We could see big seasons from Ke’Bryan Hayes and Mitch Keller this year and it won’t mean a thing in the standings…unless they’re so good that they cost the Pirates the first overall pick, then it will mean something towards building for the future. You need other really good players to win, but it also helps when the bottom half of your big league roster has talent.

The 1917 Pirates had just five players still on the team in 1922, not including Babe Adams, who spent the entire 1917 season in the minors trying to regain his form. Carey and Cooper were big parts each year, but that 1917 team had just three other players around five years later helping them to a strong finish. Carson Bigbee had 0.0 WAR in 1917 and 4.2 in 1922. Hal Carlson was a 25-year-old rookie pitcher in 1917 with 1.8 WAR, who got roughed up in 1922 to the tune of a -0.2 WAR. Catcher Walter Schmidt was basically league average each year, compiling 0.4 WAR during those two season combined.

I’m not suggesting that five years from now, just three players along with Keller/Hayes will still be around on a good team, but would anyone really be surprised with how the farm system is stacking up now with lower level talent? But also, let’s hope it doesn’t take five years to reach that point…though the Pirates did win it all in 1925, so 2029 World Series title here we come? I’ll stop there to save your sanity.

The Keeler/Hayes comparison with Cooper/Carey works well here because they are the two players who have the best chance to outdistance their teammates in WAR in 2021. They could also do it while the Pirates still finish with a winning percentage similar to the .331 mark put up in 1917 (53-54 wins over a 162-game schedule). It’s just too bad that the 2021 Pirates don’t have an all-time great to follow this season to lend some added interest.