Mark Madden: Francisco Cervelli’s hero status with Pirates a joke | TribLIVE.com
Pirates/MLB

Mark Madden: Francisco Cervelli’s hero status with Pirates a joke

Mark Madden
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The Atlanta Braves’ Francisco Cervelli hits a two-run double against the New York Mets during the second inning Aug. 24, 2019, in New York City.

When your team is awful, heroes have to be invented.

Such was the case when catcher Francisco Cervelli ended his tenure in Pittsburgh.

The Pirates are 11-30 since the All-Star break and are too frequently routed. They have sustained losses of 7-1, 11-1, 13-0 and 7-1 in the past nine days. Their three-game sweep of Cincinnati was equivalent to slapping a butterfly stitch on a shotgun wound.

A vast majority of big-league teams would fire the manager. But Clint Hurdle is signed through 2021, owner Bob Nutting won’t pay him to not work and the Pirates are only technically big-league.

The Pirates aren’t rebuilding. They certainly aren’t contending.

There seems no plan besides showing up at the ballpark and collecting the hundreds of millions even the worst small-market teams get to be patsies for the well-heeled. Occasionally a traditional have-not rises up to win the World Series, like Kansas City in 2015. That promulgates the illusion.

Small-market owners won’t fight for a salary cap. They just roll over and play dead, and the hearse gets driven straight to the bank.

The Pirates won 98 games in 2015 but dismantled that team for the sake of greater profit. The Pirates’ payroll has been cut each year since. It was $99.4 million (23rd in MLB) in 2015. It now ranks 29th at $71.3 million.

That ‘15 team couldn’t have been exactly maintained. But the Pirates likely would have made the playoffs a fourth straight year by spending astutely to keep key players.

They didn’t. Instead, their current payroll is $62 million below the MLB average.

Ownership and management camouflage their intent. The Pirates have slick PR, but their sole purpose is to bleed every penny possible out of you, Pittsburgh and that free stadium.

And so we celebrate the career of Cervelli, who at one point said he would never catch again but caught Saturday night for Atlanta.

Cervelli is being feted for his videotaped dating advice, his expertise with wine and food, the way women swoon over him, and being a great guy. Tributes pour forth, from the local stooge baseball media and from fans on social media.

But Cervelli was no Manny Sanguillen. Or Russell Martin. Or even Milt May, a catcher who played 212 games for the Pirates from 1970-73 but had the winning pinch-hit in Game 4 of the 1971 World Series. (Cervelli lost his only playoff game as a Pirate.)

Cervelli had an above-average year in 2015, playing 130 games with a slash line of .295/.370/.401.

But his numbers dwindled after, as did his participation: Cervelli never played more than 104 games after 2015. His Pirates career saw him on the injured list 10 times, seven times with concussions.

Cervelli’s salary this season is $11.5 million. That’s 16% of the Pirates’ payroll. He only batted 123 times.

The slash line for his Pittsburgh tenure: .264/.362./.374. He topped seven home runs only once.

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s mediocrity.

But Bucco fanboys, while stopping short of erecting Cervelli’s statue next to Honus Wagner’s, dig out fancy stats by way of christening Cervelli one of MLB’s best catchers over the past five seasons. Between wRC+ and fWar, it appears Cervelli is Johnny Bench dipped in Mickey Cochrane. (Great pitch-framing and flipping counts, too!) The Pirate staff’s ERA also was lower with Cervelli catching. (Who was throwing the ball, them or him?)

If one stat doesn’t validate your favorite player’s quality, keep looking: You’ll find one that does.

The slash line used to be paramount but makes Cervelli look average (which he is). So don’t look here. Look over there.

However much Cervelli helped, it wasn’t enough.

The Pirates stink. Diehards, shills and the franchise itself have to find ways to prop up the Pirates’ credibility, so thank you, Cervelli. But his performance was reflective of the team’s. His hero status is manufactured and bogus.

But Cervelli isn’t the most shocking example of counterfeit accomplishment in recent Pirates history. Sean Rodriguez was, even after hitting .167 in both 2017 and ’18.

Sadly, the Braves don’t visit PNC Park during the remainder of the season. What a love-fest it would have been.

It could still happen if Cervelli plays in MLB next year. (The chances seem 50-50.)

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