Bucs have uphill battle

The recent decline in youth baseball players might be directly linked to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ offense.

While numbers in all sports have dropped off considerably as today’s children have greater access to technology and other activities, baseball has taken the biggest hit. According to a story published this week in The Wall Street Journal, enrollment in youth baseball leagues has dropped by more than three million over the past 15 years. Now, about 5.3 million children nationwide are playing baseball, as opposed to 8.8 million back in 2000.

You can form your own conclusions as to why there is such a dramatic drop off. The top reason I’ve long heard about apathy in baseball is the notion that it is a boring sport. I disagree, but it’s sort of true. Hitting a baseball is that hardest aspect in all sports. Kids want action and they won’t get that playing in the field against fellow 6, 7 and 8 year olds swinging an aluminum bat for the first time.

It’s certainly a game of development, a process that can take a full playing career; it’s a progression that is never fully mastered.

Case in point: the 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates.

As of today, the Pirates rank near the bottom of the MLB in every every offensive category including home runs (23rd with 32), batting average (19th with .242), RBI (20th with 149), walks (24th with 99) and on-base percentage (26th with .301). The Pirates are piling up one stat at an alarming rate – runners left on base. In Wednesday’s heartbreaking, 13-inning loss to the Minnesota Twins, Pittsburgh left nine on base. In its last seven games, the club has stranded a total of 58 runners.

It’s not that the Pirates are suffering from a lack of offense, like the plague that threatens the sandlots across the country, it’s that Pittsburgh can’t get the proper runs across to keep up with baseball’s offensive trends.

When commissioner Rob Manfred assumed the role at the beginning of this season, he pined for an increase in offense at the big league level. So far, the Pirates are averaging just 3.85 runs per game. The Toronto Blue Jays lead the majors scoring 5.5 runs per game.

But surprisingly enough, the Pirates hold a higher winning percentage than the Blue Jays (.442 to .450).

That’s not enough to hold weight in the National League Central Division, though. Not with the St. Louis Cardinals running the show. The Pirates sit 8.5 games back of St. Louis in the standings. Yes, it’s still early in the season. No, the Cardinals likely won’t suffer a breakdown like the Brewers did last year when they went from having the best record in baseball to not making the playoffs.

The Pirates didn’t expect to be at this point of mediocrity at this point. Andrew McCutchen, Jordy Mercer, Gregory Polanco, Pedro Alvarez and Josh Harrison are severely underachieving at the plate. Starling Marte is the only player living up to expectations and Korean import Jung Ho Kang might actually be exceeding his projections, but it’ll take more than a breakout season from the eastern import to make this campaign a success.

With 122 games to go, Pittsburgh will likely have to go 72-50 if it wants to catch the Cardinals and win the division. After all, that was the said goal for this club after simply earning a Wild Card playoff berth in each of the past two seasons. It can be done, but it’ll take total turnarounds for the currently struggling sluggers.

More importantly, it will take a little luck. After falling to the Twins in the last game, the Pirates are now 0-6 in extra inning contests. Also, Pittsburgh is 6-9 in one-run games, three of those losses came against the Cardinals. A key hit here or there, and one or so less runners stranded on base, could have been the difference. That tide needs to turn in the Pirates’ favor to complete this uphill battle for the rest of the season.

They’ll have to make things exciting in an otherwise “boring” sport. As the Pirates run production falls, so does interest in baseball at the youth level. These Pirates aren’t out to save the sport, but they do need to improve their dignity.

(Peaslee, a Weirton resident, is a sports writer for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He can be contacted at mpeaslee@heraldstaronline.com and followed on Twitter at @thempeas)