We haven’t posted a Pittsburgh Pirates Seasons article recently, but I wanted to do something different to mark the passing of Roberto Clemente 49 years ago today. We skip the Card of the Day article for one day, so we can look at Clemente’s MVP-winning 1966 season. This is his second appearance in this series, following his 1967 season, which was also extremely impressive. Only Arky Vaughan has had two Pittsburgh Pirates Seasons articles before today, and just like Clemente, you don’t have to do much searching to come up with a great season for either player.
Coming into the 1966 season, the 31-year-old Clemente was an All-Star selection in six straight seasons. He received MVP votes in all six of those seasons, finishing as high as fourth place in 1961. He also won five straight Gold Glove awards. In 1965, he hit .329/.378/.463 in 152 games. He won his third batting title since 1961 during that season. You already should know the 1967 season was a special one, otherwise it wouldn’t have been included in this series. Here we take a look at some of the highlights, streaks, monthly and full year stats from his 1966 season.
The 1966 season opened with a 13-inning win for the Pirates, with Clemente picking up two hits. It was the first of 54 multi-hit games that year, which was exactly 1/3rd of the season, though he played 154 games that year. He then went hitless in back-to-back games, which didn’t happen often during the season. That was followed by at least one hit in each of the final 12 games of the month of April. He batted .353 during that stretch to close the month out.
Clemente extended his hitting streak to 13 games in a big way, with four hits, two doubles, two RBIs and a walk on May 1st. That was followed by two straight games without a hit, then he hit his second homer on May 5th. He had three hits on the 7th, a homer on the 14th, then three more hits on May 20th. There was a bit of a rough patch after that, including a game in which Don Drysdale struck him out in four straight at-bats. It was the only regular season game in his entire career in which he struck out four times in a row, a dubious feat that he also managed to do during the 1967 All-Star game.
After play on May 29th, Clemente had a .285 average and a .739 OPS, with three homers over the first 41 games (37 games played for Clemente). I’m not going to pretend any of those are bad numbers, but let’s just say that if those same averages played out over the course of the season, people would think that Clemente’s performance was starting to fall off. Clearly the final 121 games of the season were collectively strong for the Great One, otherwise this season wouldn’t be an article subject.
Clemente’s season got better on May 30th when he homered in both games of a doubleheader. He then finished the month by going 3-for-3 with a double and a walk on May 31st, giving him respectable Clemente-like numbers just two days after that 41-game mark I chose to focus on. He finished May with a season slash line of .304/.339/.470 in 40 games.
Clemente started off June with two hits, then went 0-for-3 with two walks in the next game. He followed with a nice multi-hit streak of two hits on June 3rd, followed by three hits in each of the next three games. He homered in the second and third game of that three-game streak. A 1-for-3 game on June 8th kept his average at the .328 mark, then he went 3-for-4 with his third home run of the month on June 9th. After a hitless day on June 10th, Clemente collected at least one hit in 23 of the next 24 games. It wasn’t exactly an exciting stretch, as his season average actually dropped from .330 to .324 during those games, but he was contributing something in nearly every game. After finishing May with an .809 OPS, he had that mark up to .890 by the end of June.
That 24-game streak mentioned above took us into a doubleheader on July 4th. Clemente failed to collect a hit in the second game. Two days later, he went 3-for-5 with a homer and five RBIs, which was a season high, but not the only time he would reach that mark. From July 6th through July 24th, Clemente put together a 17-game hit streak in which he would bat .386 with 20 runs scored and 17 RBIs. He went 2-for-16 over the next four games, then finished the month with another three-hit game. His final line through the end of July was .328/.368/.911 in 96 (out of 103) games.
In August, Clemente started the month with three hits on the 1st, including a triple. He then went 3-for-20 in five games before having his best day of the season. On August 7th against the Cincinnati Reds, he went 4-for-5 with two homers and five RBIs, though the Pirates lost that day 9-7. Three days later he had another three-hit game, then raised his average to .333 with two hits on August 11th. That would be the high point for the final two months of the season. Clemente didn’t exactly slump, but the end of the season was quite similar to the start. In 69 games from May 30th to August 11th, he had a .359/.402/.630 slash line, with 16 homers and 63 RBIs.
While August 11th was the high point for batting average for Clemente, the following day was actually his high point for OPS. He went 1-for-5 that day, but the one hit was a homer, giving him a .931 OPS, which was his best OPS on any given day for the entire season. That August 11th game was followed by a 5-for-34 stretch in eight games. On August 21st, he had two hits, including a homer. On the 22nd, he had three hits. Clemente homered in the next game and drove in three runs. Two games later, he went 4-for-4 with two walks, reaching base in all six plate appearances in a 7-4 road victory over the St Louis Cardinals. He picked up hits in each of the next three games as well. On August 30th, he had three hits against the Houston Astros at Forbes Field. Clemente finished the month with a .327/.370/.535 slash line.
In September, Clemente started the month with four straight games in which he had one hit. He had a walk the next day and left early in a one-sided game, but failed to get a hit. That was followed by an eight-game hitting streak. In that streak, he had another four-hit game against the Cardinals. The rest of the month was just Clemente plugging away with one and two-hit days mixed in. The Pirates played a doubleheader on October 1st against the San Francisco Giants. He went 3-for-3 with a double, homer and a walk in the first game. The final two games of the season went by quietly, with an 0-for-8 showing to finish the season.
Clemente hit .317/.360/.536 in 1966, with 105 runs scored, 202 hits, 31 doubles, 11 triples, 29 homers and 119 RBIs. He set career highs in runs, homer and RBIs that season. His .896 OPS was just the fifth best of his career. Somewhat surprisingly, he set a career high in strikeouts that year (109), though he also set a career high with 638 at-bats, so that contributed to the higher total.
The Pirates were a strong team in 1966, finishing with a 92-70 record. They have made the playoffs three times in their history with worse records, but in 1966, that mark was good enough for a third place finish.
Back at that time, the MVP award often went to a player from a first place team. The practice of giving it to the best overall player even if his team wasn’t good, is a more modern definition of the award. Basically, recent/current writers changed the way the award was handed out. Many of the perceived mistakes of the earlier years of voting, weren’t mistakes, they just don’t fit with the changed standards of voters. That can also be said about Hall of Fame voting, but that’s a different topic. That all being said, Clemente was so good in 1966 that he won the MVP award, the only one of his career. However, he put up better cases for the award in 1967 and 1968, when he finished second in WAR in the National League each year.
If you go by WAR, Clemente was the sixth best player in the National League in 1966. I believe what set him apart in 1966 is that he carried the Pirates. The best position player that season was Willie Mays, but Juan Marichal had the best overall WAR in the league. The fact that they both played on the 93-win San Francisco Giants, showed that they helped get the team there together. They combined for 18.7 WAR that year. Clemente’s best teammate in 1966 was Gene Alley. This is in no way a knock at his 5.3 WAR that season (it would have been the best on the Pirates in 47 seasons throughout the years), but it’s a far cry from Clemente finishing at 8.2 WAR. Ron Santo was the only other position player to put up better WAR than Clemente in 1966, and Santo played for a tenth place team that went 59-103. Basically, he wasn’t winning the award, even if he finished first in WAR, which obviously didn’t exist back then.
Clemente was an All-Star and a Gold Glove winner in 1966. He would win six more Gold Gloves, make five more All-Star teams, and get MVP votes in five more seasons. Surprisingly, he got no MVP support in 1968 when he had the highest WAR among all position players. The Pirates finished in sixth place that season, so it’s not a surprise that he didn’t win the award. During the 1966-68 seasons, Clemente put together 25.3 WAR. Just those three seasons alone would rank him tied for 24th among all Pirates for career WAR with the team. Only Barry Bonds (1990-92) and Honus Wagner (numerous combos from 1903-10) have put together better three-year stretches in franchise history.