First Pitch: Projecting 81-84 Wins for the 2013 Pirates Using ZiPS
Today the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates ZiPS projections were released on FanGraphs. The projections included WAR estimates for every player. It’s difficult to get a season projection out of these results. The playing time for each player isn’t exactly accurate. For example, Clint Barmes, Chase d’Arnaud, Josh Harrison, and Jordy Mercer are all projected for 475+ plate appearances. Based on last year’s totals, those guys might combine for 900 plate appearances, with half coming from Barmes and the other half coming as a combo from the other guys. Once we adjust the playing time for Mercer, d’Arnaud, and Harrison, we also have to adjust the WAR.
I wanted to get an estimate of the 2013 record using the ZiPS projections. This estimate is based on the projected Opening Day roster, and isn’t exactly set in stone. As you can see in the title, the projection I got was 81-84 wins. The difference depends on whether the Pirates sign Francisco Liriano (83), Shaun Marcum (84), or neither (81). Below is what I used for each position to get the results.
Generally the accepted baseline for a team of replacement level players is anywhere from 45-50 wins. The average usually falls around 48. So we’ll start with that figure before we look at any individual players.
WAR: +48.0 (48.0)
Russell Martin was signed over the off-season to be the primary catcher. ZiPS has Martin with a 2.3 WAR and 466 plate appearances. The playing time sounds about right, as Martin had 485 PA in 2012 and 476 in 2011. Also, Martin had a 2.2 WAR in two of the last three seasons (3.0 in the other), so the WAR figure seems dead on.
Michael McKenry will start the year as the backup catcher. ZiPS has McKenry at a 1.1 WAR, but 335 plate appearances. Last year McKenry had 275, and that was with a struggling Rod Barajas. If we’re going with 466 PA for Martin, we’d have to reduce McKenry’s time. I estimated two-thirds of his playing time, and took 0.3 WAR off, leaving him with 0.8 WAR as the backup catcher.
Last year he had a 1.9 WAR with his 275 plate appearances, so this is an area where the Pirates could see a slight improvement on the ZiPS projections. Using the ZiPS projections, the Pirates should see 3.1 WAR from the catcher position.
WAR: +3.1 (51.1)
Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez are expected to platoon at first base, with Jones seeing the bulk of the playing time. ZiPS has Jones projected for a 1.2 WAR and 530 plate appearances. The playing time might be a bit high, since Jones had 515 plate appearances in a similar role last year. We’ll stick with 530 for now. This is another case where ZiPS is looking pretty accurate, since Jones averaged a 1.45 WAR over the last two years.
Sanchez is projected for a 1.5 WAR and 541 plate appearances. The playing time won’t happen. I could see Sanchez getting half of that, so we’ll make it simple and give him an 0.7 WAR. That would give the Pirates a combined 1.9 WAR from the first base position.
WAR: +1.9 (53.0)
This one is simple. Neil Walker is projected for 617 plate appearances and a 2.9 WAR. Walker had a 3.3 WAR last year and a 3.1 in 2011. The big question is whether he can stay healthy.
WAR: +2.9 (55.9)
Clint Barmes is projected for 475 plate appearances and a 1.9 WAR. That’s similar to last year, when he had a 1.7 WAR and 493 plate appearances.
As I mentioned earlier, ZiPS projects a lot of playing time for some other infielders. Chase d’Arnaud is projected for a 1.7 WAR and 532 plate appearances. Jordy Mercer is projected for 500 plate appearances and a 1.0 WAR. Josh Harrison is projected for a 0.8 WAR and 481 plate appearances.
Last year the middle infielders combined for a little over 400 plate appearances. I think that’s reasonable for this group out of the backup infield spot. So we’ll go with the messy approach of averaging their WAR total (which is based on around 500 plate appearances), then taking 80% of that total to get them down to 400 plate appearances. That projects to a 0.96 WAR.
Last year Mercer and Harrison combined for an 0.7 WAR, while Chase d’Arnaud and Brock Holt were replacement level. With some more experience from Mercer, I don’t think the rounded 1.0 WAR from this group is far-fetched. That would give the Pirates a 2.9 WAR from Barmes and the bench infielder.
WAR: +2.9 (58.8)
Another situation that is pretty simple. Pedro Alvarez is projected for 610 plate appearances and a 2.7 WAR. That seems accurate, since he was at 586 PA and a 2.9 WAR last year.
WAR: +2.7 (61.5)
Starling Marte is the top option of all the corner outfielders. ZiPS has him with 578 plate appearances and a 2.6 WAR. I think the playing time should be accurate, since he should be a regular starter with that production. Things will get complicated when we get to the other corner outfield spot.
WAR: +2.6 (64.1)
Another easy one. Andrew McCutchen is projected for 673 plate appearances and a 5.3 WAR. That might be a little low considering he had a 7.4 WAR in 2012 and a 5.8 WAR in 2011. I don’t think we could project an MVP-caliber season, but he could see an additional win. For these purposes, we’re sticking with the 5.3.
WAR: +5.3 (69.4)
The Pirates have a lot of corner outfield options. Travis Snider seems to be the leader of the group, with Jose Tabata, Alex Presley, and Jerry Sands falling behind him. ZiPS ranks them as Presley, Tabata, Sands, and Snider. One of these guys will start in right field, with the other two projected for bench roles.
Last year the Pirates combined for 1422 plate appearances from the corner outfield spots. We’ll add in 150 for pinch-hitting, DH, and the occasional backup in center field. Then subtract the 578 we’ve got for Marte. That gives about 1000 plate appearances for this group, with 500 coming from one player, and the other 500 coming off the bench from two other players.
The simple way to do this would be to pro-rate all of the plate appearances and WAR totals to 500 plate appearances. That gives a combined WAR of 3.9 for all four players over 2000 plate appearances. We only need 1000, so we’ll cut that in half and give this group a 2.0 WAR. That’s for the right fielder and the two bench positions.
Obviously this is an area where the Pirates have some breakout potential. All four players have upside, but none of them are guarantees. I think a 2.0 WAR is pretty safe. That’s not exactly inspiring from a starting corner outfield spot and two bench spots. If one of these guys breaks out, the Pirates could see an increase of a few wins.
WAR: +2.0 (71.4)
The ZiPS projections for the starters aren’t pretty. This is also an area where it will be difficult to determine playing time. To make it easy, I looked to last year’s innings totals from the starters. The Pirates had 934.2 innings from starters last year. Here are the current projected starters, their WAR projections and their innings projections.
SP: A.J. Burnett (172.1 IP, 1.5 WAR)
SP: Wandy Rodriguez (180.1 IP, 2.7 WAR)
SP: James McDonald (150.2 IP, 1.2 WAR)
SP: Jeff Karstens (121 IP, 0.9 WAR)
SP: Kyle McPherson (116 IP, 0.6 WAR)
That gives us 740.1 innings and a combined 6.9 WAR. From there we need to fill 194.1 innings.
Gerrit Cole is the top option to join the team mid-season. He’s projected for 133.1 innings and a 1.1 WAR. That takes up the bulk of the remaining innings. Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke should also get playing time, although both are around replacement level so we’ll just add 0.1 WAR for the remaining innings.
The total WAR from this group would be 8.1. This is an area where the actual results could change. The Pirates are currently in limbo with Francisco Liriano, and they’ve also expressed interest in Shaun Marcum. ZiPS projects Marcum at a 3.0 for the 2013 season in the Milwaukee projections. Dan Szymborski posted on Bucs Dugout that Francisco Liriano projected for a 2.0 WAR in Pittsburgh. If the Pirates actually add one of these pitchers, that will add 2-3 wins to the total.
The performances of James McDonald, Kyle McPherson, and Jeff Locke could also change. McDonald looked like an ace in the first half of 2012, and looked like a 4A pitcher in the second half. His ZiPS projection seems like a conservative spot in the middle, but the actual results could vary depending on which pitcher shows up. McPherson and Locke are both unproven. Their ZiPS projections seem to reflect that. In a best case scenario I could see another two wins from this trio. Again, for these purposes, we’re just sticking with the actual ZiPS projections.
WAR: +8.1 (79.5)
Just like the starters, I looked at the 2012 innings pitched out of the bullpen. The 2012 team had 498.2 innings. Here are the projected relievers, their innings, and their WAR.
CL: Jason Grilli (53.2 IP, 0.6 WAR)
RP: Mark Melancon (59.2 IP, 0.4 WAR)
RP: Tony Watson (59.1 IP, 0.3 WAR)
RP: Jared Hughes (75.2 IP, 0.2 WAR)
RP: Chris Leroux (70.2 IP, 0.0 WAR)
RP: Bryan Morris (80.2 IP, -0.7 WAR)
RP: Vin Mazzaro* (65 IP, 0.3 WAR)
*ZiPS projected Mazzaro with a 0.6 WAR in 129.1 innings. I cut his innings in half as a reliever, and did the same with his WAR.
That group left 34 innings remaining in the bullpen. I plugged Jeanmar Gomez in for the final 34. He has a 0.0 WAR in the ZiPS projections, so he didn’t add anything. That gives the bullpen a combined 1.1 WAR.
Jeff Karstens could join this group if the Pirates add Liriano or Marcum. I’d say he’d account for half a win in a reliever role, based on his projections.
I think there could be a chance for an extra win or two from the group above. One win would come if Morris wasn’t the disaster that ZiPS projects (4.80 ERA, 4.48 FIP in 80.2 IP). Another win could come from Grilli and Melancon. They combine for a 1.0 WAR in the projections. Grilli had a 1.1 WAR last year and Melancon had an 0.8 WAR in 2011. If they can live up to those performances, that would add another win.
WAR: +1.1 (80.6)
Rounding up, the projected record using the ZiPS figures is 81-81. That’s not a bad place to start. Adding Liriano or Marcum to that group could push the Pirates to 83-84 projected wins. There are also spots where the Pirates could pick up a few extra wins, as I noted above. The flip side is that there will be injuries, and some players won’t play up to their projections. Having a projection around .500 is a good place to be. That puts the Pirates in position to contend, although they’d need one of the right field options to step up, some good results from the rotation, and a limit to the injuries and below-expectation performances.
Like any projection, this is all for pre-season entertainment. So many things can change once the season begins, whether it’s injuries, players playing above or below their expected productions, or unseen additions to the team (mid-season trades, waiver claims, free agent signings that haven’t happened yet). We already saw that today. I finished this article before Jeff Karstens was signed. The projection prior to his addition was 80-83 wins.
I think the 81-84 wins area (depending on if they sign one of Liriano or Marcum) is a good place for the Pirates to be pre-season. It puts them in contending range if more things go right than wrong. That’s not something Pirates fans are used to, especially after the second half finishes in the last two seasons. Looking at it objectively, and removing the “things don’t go right for the Pirates” feeling, I’d take an 81-84 win team, with a lot of upside guys in right field and in the 4-5 spots in the rotation.
Links and Notes
**The 2013 Prospect Guide is now available. Go to the products page of the site and order your copy today!
**The eBook version of The 2013 Prospect Guide is also available through our publisher. They also have a discount code during the month of January that allows you to save 20%. Use the code JANBOOKS13 to get the discount. This code is only valid on the eBook on the publisher’s web site, and not the books on the products page of the site.
**Baseball America will release their top ten Pittsburgh Pirates prospects tomorrow.
**Friday is the day for teams to exchange arbitration figures with eligible players. The Pirates have four eligible players: Garrett Jones, Neil Walker, James McDonald, and Gaby Sanchez.