In each of the last two years, whenever the ZiPS projections came out, I did a separate article using those projections to get an overall projection for the Pittsburgh Pirates that year. In 2013, that projection had the Pirates at 83 wins. That was low, since they ended up with 94 wins, although the projection was much higher than every other projection out there. Last year I did the same process, and projected the Pirates for 88 wins. That was once again higher than most projections, and they ended up with exactly 88 wins (only not in the way they were projected, and I’ll discuss that later).
The 2015 ZiPS projections were released this afternoon, so it’s time for the 2015 projection. One thing about the ZiPS projections is that they give an impossible amount of playing time to the entire team. In order to get an estimate for what a team can do, you need to guess who will get playing time and only include their pro-rated projections. That has been my approach every year with this article. I took the current projected 25-man roster, took their expected playing time, and used the ZiPS WAR numbers to project 90 wins for the 2015 season. Once again, this will probably be higher than a lot of other overall projections.
Before we begin, I will point out that the disclaimer in ZiPS is that you shouldn’t total all the WAR on the depth charts to get a team WAR. I’ve had that mentioned in the past in regards to this article, but I don’t think that applies. I believe that disclaimer is for all of the projections on the ZiPS page, which would result in a WAR that would be impossible to obtain, due to the unrealistic amount of playing time projected for each team. The approach I’m taking is much more calculated and more accurate. It’s also an approach that you could use with any projection system, since the main focus is figuring out playing time, then applying a projection to that playing time. There’s also the disclaimer to add that this is just for entertainment.
Now, here are the projections.
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)
The Pirates will go with a starting combination of Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart. Tony Sanchez will be the third catcher to start the year, and Elias Diaz could factor into the mix. For this projection, I’m only going to focus on the first three.
The big question here is whether Cervelli can stay healthy. ZiPS projects 211 plate appearances for him, which I think is conservative, since he has only topped that in one season. He has an 0.9 WAR in that time. Chris Stewart is projected for an 0.5 WAR and 223 plate appearances. That gives the combo a 1.4 WAR, but only 434 plate appearances. The Pirates had close to 700 plate appearances at catcher last year. I filled in the rest with Tony Sanchez, who is projected for an 0.8 WAR over 403 plate appearances. I didn’t use that many, and pro-rated him to an 0.5 WAR. Sanchez and Cervelli are close enough in the projections that there won’t be much of a difference if Cervelli stays healthy.
A big factor here is pitch framing and catcher defense, which I’m not sure a projection system can fully appreciate. There’s also the potential for a breakout if Cervelli carries his offense from last year over to this season, and stays healthy. For now, the group combines for a 1.9 WAR.
WAR: +1.9 (49.9)
Pedro Alvarez will be the starting first baseman, and Corey Hart will step in against left-handers. Alvarez is projected for a 1.9 WAR over 523 plate appearances, which I think works well. That’s about what Garrett Jones received when he was in a first base platoon. Hart is projected for 415 plate appearances and an 0.4 WAR. I’m going to give him half of that at first base, and decide how to apply the other half in the outfield. That gives this combo a 2.1 WAR.
WAR: +2.1 (52.0)
Neil Walker is at a 3.2 WAR with 573 plate appearances. I think that’s a good number, since he had 571 plate appearances last year. Jung Ho Kang is projected for a 1.5 WAR over 502 plate appearances. I pro-rated that number to 200 plate appearances, gives him an 0.6 WAR. The combination has the second base position at a 3.8 WAR.
WAR: +3.8 (55.8)
Jordy Mercer is projected for 504 plate appearances, which might be a bit low, since he is the starting shortstop and had 555 plate appearances last year. I increased his playing time to last year’s total, taking him from a 1.9 WAR to a 2.1 WAR. I gave the rest of the playing time to Sean Rodriguez, who received a pro-rated 0.3 WAR. The combo gives the shortstop position a 2.4 WAR.
It’s possible that Kang could get some time at shortstop. It’s also possible that Rodriguez will get some time at second base. For the purposes of this article, I’m trying to distribute potential playing time. I’ve got Kang with 200 plate appearances in the middle infield, and Rodriguez with a little over 100. That split seems about right.
WAR: +2.4 (58.2)
Josh Harrison is the starting third baseman, and could be moved around to other positions. ZiPS only has him with 482 plate appearances, which I think is low, considering he had 550 last year, and wasn’t a starter the first month of the season. Considering his versatility, and his starter role from day one, I’m bumping him up to 550, which takes his 3.0 WAR to 3.4. That still leaves room for some extra playing time, which I gave to Kang. His pro-rated time at third base amounted to an 0.5 WAR.
WAR: +3.9 (62.1)
Starling Marte is projected for 607 plate appearances and a 3.6 WAR. That seems a bit high for Marte, who has averaged 555 plate appearances the last two years as a starter. I went with the 555 number, giving him a 3.3 WAR.
One thing to consider here is that Marte has put up a 4.6 and a 4.1 WAR in each of the last two years. So it seems that the projections here are low. That seems to be a common theme with projections and Marte. Maybe it’s due to the defense. But you can probably expect some extra production from left field.
The extra playing time in the outfield will be addressed in the right field position.
WAR: +3.3 (65.4)
Andrew McCutchen is projected for 659 plate appearances and a 6.3 WAR. This is another area with possible bonus potential. He had a 6.8 WAR in 2012 and 2014, and an 8.2 WAR in 2013. So it seems likely that he will either meet or exceed his projection, with a good chance that he exceeds the projection by at least half a win.
WAR: +6.3 (71.7)
Gregory Polanco is projected for 612 plate appearances and a 3.3 WAR. If you look at the Pirates last year, only McCutchen finished with over 600 plate appearances. Everyone else from the full-time starter list (catcher excluded) was around 545-571. So I’m adjusting Polanco down to 550 plate appearances. That gives him a 3.0 WAR.
Last year the outfield had 2156 plate appearances. So far in this projection they’re 392 plate appearances short. That time will be split between Andrew Lambo, Corey Hart, and Sean Rodriguez for this projection. I’ll give Lambo 200, Hart 100, and Rodriguez 92. Overall that would add an extra 0.6 WAR from the outfield.
This is another area where the actual playing time is probably accounted for elsewhere. Josh Harrison could get some time in the outfield, as an example. However, I’m focused on total playing time, and not as much on the specifics of where everyone will get all of their time. In this case, Lambo finishes with 200 plate appearances, Hart with 300, and Rodriguez with about 200. That seems about right.
WAR: +3.6 (75.3)
ZiPS has had an interesting recent history with the Pirates’ rotation. I got an 8.1 WAR with this article two years ago, and the rotation actually put up a 12.3 WAR. Last year I got a 9.3 WAR in this article, which seemed low when you consider the previous year’s actual results. They ended up with a 7.4 WAR. Here are the projected Opening Day starters, and their inning and WAR totals. I’m considering Charlie Morton and Vance Worley as Opening Day starters, even though there is a chance that Jeff Locke could replace Morton for the first few weeks.
SP: Francisco Liriano (163.7 IP, 2.8 WAR)
SP: Gerrit Cole (170.7 IP, 2.8 WAR)
SP: A.J. Burnett (179.3 IP, 1.6 WAR)
SP: Charlie Morton (127.3 IP, 1.1 WAR)
SP: Vance Worley (132.3 IP, 1.1 WAR)
That gives us 773.3 innings and a combined 9.4 WAR, which is already higher than last year’s projection and last year’s actual results. From there we need to fill 197.7 innings to get to the 2014 starting pitching total of 971 innings.
Now we get to the disclaimer about the above innings totals. I think some of these totals are low. Gerrit Cole was injured last year, but pitched close to 190 innings the year before. Charlie Morton has been around 157 innings in each of the last two seasons. Vance Worley threw 156.2 innings last year between Triple-A and the majors, and that was after spending a month in extended Spring Training. A.J. Burnett threw 213.2 innings last year while pitching hurt.
In this projection, I don’t increase the playing time for pitchers. Injuries happen. Poor performance happens. If I increased the time for these guys, then I’d just be taking the best case scenario. I think that leaving the innings low adds that injury factor, and forces the projections to go to the number six and seven starters. If the above guys do stay healthy, then the Pirates obviously get a bonus.
The additional starters will include Jeff Locke, Nick Kingham, and Jameson Taillon. Locke will be ready at the start of the year, and should get most of the innings. I’ll give him 80 innings here, since he’ll also get some time in the bullpen. That gives him a pro-rated 0.4 WAR.
Next is Kingham, who I think will be the most likely prospect to receive a mid-season promotion. I’m giving him shy of 100 innings total, which is an 0.4 WAR. The final innings will go to Taillon, who I think the Pirates will delay at the start of the season, so that he can pitch at the end of the year in Pittsburgh. That gives an extra 0.2 WAR. If Taillon doesn’t pitch, then I think this number could easily be replicated by someone like Adrian Sampson or Brandon Cumpton.
WAR: +10.4 (85.7)
I took the 485.1 innings pitched by the bullpen in 2014, and used that for the playing time here. For the main relievers, I kept their actual playing time, with the exception of Locke and Liz, who i adjusted down. In Locke’s case, he gets a total of 120 innings between the rotation and bullpen.
CL: Mark Melancon (66.7 IP, 1.2 WAR)
RP: Tony Watson (66 IP, 0.8 WAR)
RP: Antonio Bastardo (54 IP, 0.6 WAR)
RP: Radhames Liz* (70 IP, 0.4 WAR)
RP: John Holdzkom (37.3 IP, 0.2 WAR)
RP: Jared Hughes (65.3 IP, 0.2 WAR)
RP: Jeff Locke (40 IP, 0.2 WAR)
There were 86 innings remaining. I always have a hard time deciding who to give the extra innings to, since this is a hard area to predict. Since so many relievers are in the 0.2-0.4 WAR range, I ended up just going with an extra 0.3 WAR. I also figure that there’s a good chance John Holdzkom could get the bulk of these innings, which would make it easy for that 0.3 WAR to be obtained.
Overall, the bullpen struggled last year with an 0.7 WAR. That included a combined 3.2 WAR from Melancon and Watson, showing how terrible the rest of the bullpen was.
This year’s projection is at 3.9 WAR, which is 0.1 shy of last year’s projection. There is room for improvement, since Melancon and Watson are projected for a combined 2.0 WAR, and obviously did better last year.
WAR: +3.9 (89.6)
Rounding up the figure, the Pirates are projected for an 90-72 record. They would have tied for first place in the NL Central last year. A very optimistic view would add a few extra wins from guys who seem to be under-performing in projections, such as Starling Marte, Melancon and Watson, and even Andrew McCutchen. You could probably add 2.5-3 extra wins for those guys, based on their historical numbers. We also don’t know how the catcher defense and pitch framing will impact things, as that is something that could boost the win total.
On the other side of things, injuries will happen and players will under-perform. Some of that will be countered by other players stepping up and out-performing their projections. I think the above projection is a conservative one, and I wouldn’t want to add potential injuries or potential gains to that. Just look at last year’s article for a reason why. The article projected the Pirates for 88 wins, and they finished with 88 wins. The pitching under-performed the projections, but other positions like catcher and left field out-performed projections. I like to take the neutral stance that the unexpected gains and losses will balance out, and the 90 win projection above will serve as a good mid-point. And that’s not a bad projection to have at all.