Yesterday, Baseball Prospectus released their PECOTA projections, and the results weren’t favorable for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They had an 80-82 projected record, finishing third in the NL Central, behind the Cardinals and the Cubs. That projected record has actually changed today, moving to 81-81 after the Travis Snider trade (and the Pirates improving in projections after trading Snider away is a totally different subject that I plan to write about soon).
The projections for the Pirates are disappointing after two straight playoff appearances. That doesn’t mean the projections are telling the entire story. I’m not here to criticize the PECOTA projections or say that they’re worthless. They definitely provide some value, and give an idea of what to expect in most cases. You just need to dig deeper and realize some of the limitations with those projections.
Last year, PECOTA projected the Pirates at 78-84, following their first playoff appearance in 20 years. The Pirates obviously did much better than those projections, finishing with 88 wins. Even before the final results came out, it appeared the projections were missing one key thing: the way the Pirates managed to get the best results out of their reclamation pitching projects.
The Pirates have developed a pattern the last few years. They’ve focused on catchers with strong pitch framing and defensive skills, which has helped to lower some walk rates. They’ve focused on defensive shifts. They have targeted ground ball heavy pitchers, or made adjustments with pitchers to have them throwing a two-seam fastball more often, aimed at getting more ground balls. That plays into the defensive shifts.
A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Edinson Volquez are all examples of the same success story. They all had some of the worst numbers, from an ERA standpoint, in the game prior to joining the Pirates, while also having some horrible control numbers. After joining the Pirates, the control improved, and their end results were fantastic. In some cases, that didn’t look legit. Volquez had a FIP that was closer to a number four starter, but an ERA that was closer to a number two starter. I’d have to believe part of that was due to outside factors, such as the shifts and framing. Some luck had to be involved too, so that Volquez could benefit from this a bit more than other starters in the rotation.
The PECOTA projections last year were down on the rotation. It looks to be the same story this year. The Pirates are projected for 687 runs scored this year, compared to 682 last year. The biggest difference is they are projected to give up 692 runs this year, after giving up 631 last year.
The rotation looks very similar to last year. The key difference is that Edinson Volquez has been replaced by A.J. Burnett. Both guys had similar FIP numbers for most of the season last year, with Volquez seeing his ERA benefit more due to the team he was playing for. So that shouldn’t be a big difference.
The bullpen struggled last year, but came together in a big way at the end of the season, and was one of the best in baseball in September. The biggest difference between that September bullpen and the current one is that Justin Wilson has been replaced by Antonio Bastardo. The other changes to the final spots are usually minimal, and wouldn’t help contribute to an increase in 60 runs.
Keep in mind that the 631 runs allowed last year included some struggles from Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole in the first half, and a horrible bullpen performance, outside of Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, and Jared Hughes, during that time. You could argue that the pitching will be better this year, although 631 seems like a conservative number.
So why are the Pirates projected for 61 additional runs in 2015?
Digging deeper into the projections, the individual player projections tell the story. Specifically there are the numbers for A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton, and Vance Worley. All three have a negative WARP, and all three have an ERA in the 4.20-4.55 range. That makes sense in terms of projections, since projections reflect historical results. The problem is that the projections and the historical results don’t tell the story about these players right now.
Let’s start with Burnett. He’s projected for a 4.30 ERA. Last year he had a 4.59 ERA. His xFIP has been 3.69 for his career, and was 3.95 last year. If you only looked at his 2014 season, and assumed he’d put up the same numbers going forward, then the PECOTA projection might make sense. But if you look at what he did with the Pirates in 2012-13, you’ll see a different story. He posted his best two seasons in the last seven years while with the Pirates. That included his two lowest walk rates, his best strikeout season, the only two years with an ERA below 4.04, and his two best ground ball ratios since 2005 (which was the only year he generated more ground balls).
Low walk rates. High ground ball rates. More strikeouts. Strong overall numbers.
Then there’s Charlie Morton, who is a very polarizing topic in Pittsburgh. The PECOTA projections give Morton a 4.55 ERA, which lines up with his career 4.50 ERA. He also has a career xFIP of 4.11. Those career numbers happen to be very misleading, since Morton is a totally different pitcher now than he was pre-2011. In fact, just looking at the last two years, he has a 3.52 ERA and a 3.74 xFIP. He has posted his best two strikeout numbers of his career. His walk rates have been lower than his career average. And he continues to post extreme ground ball rates, which didn’t exist pre-2011.
Low walk rates. High ground ball rates. More strikeouts. Strong overall numbers.
Finally, you’ve got Vance Worley, who is projected to have a 4.20 ERA. Worley had good numbers in his first few years in the majors, but suffered an injury in 2012. When he returned in 2013, the injury caused him to change his mechanics, and the results were a disaster. The Pirates got him for nothing last Spring, and proceeded to fix his mechanics, reverting them back to where he was when he had success early in his career, along with the other usual changes they make with pitchers. The results? His lowest walk rate ever, his highest ground ball rate ever, an increase in strikeouts compared to where he was with the Twins, and his best ERA and xFIP combo of his career.
Do I need to repeat the growing trend?
There are things that a projection system can’t pick up. For as much as we’ve learned about catcher pitch framing (and Baseball Prospectus has been a leader in this analysis), I don’t think we can project the impact of a good pitch framer on an individual pitcher’s projections. The Pirates have focused heavily on pitch framing, and that’s probably a reason why their pitchers consistently post some of their best strikeout numbers and some of their lowest walk rates. The PECOTA projections seem low on all three of the above pitchers in walks and strikeouts, compared to their recent seasons with the Pirates. At best, the PECOTA projections match the results from these players in their time with the Pirates.
Likewise, I don’t think the impact of shifting can be found in the projections. Recent mechanical adjustments also aren’t represented. The Pirates have combined adjustments with defensive shifting. Their approach has led to some of the best ground ball rates of each pitcher’s career, which combined with the shifting helps lead to much better overall results.
That’s why the Pirates are going to be showing underwhelming results in most projection systems. It’s because the Pirates have found success with a specific approach that the projections don’t recognize. This doesn’t mean the projections don’t have value. It just means you need to combine the projections with further analysis to fill the gaps that they miss, rather than taking them at face value.
**Pittsburgh Pirates 2015 Top Prospects: #7 – Alen Hanson. The number six prospect is tomorrow, followed by the top five next week. The entire top 50 in the Pirates’ system is exclusive to the 2015 Prospect Guide, along with 200+ reports on every prospect in the system.