For the past few years, I’ve done a pre-season projection of the Pirates using ZiPS player projections and my read on the depth chart and playing time. This projection always comes in much higher than other projections of the team record, but always end up the same or lower than the actual team record.
This year’s ZiPS projections came out in December, well before the Pirates’ roster was set. Since that point, they’ve added Ryan Vogelsong to the rotation, added Neftali Feliz to the bullpen, added David Freese to the bench and to start before Jung-ho Kang returns, removed Ryan Vogelsong from the rotation, and made a bunch of other smaller moves. I did an article before all of those moves, but with all of the changes, and with the season starting tomorrow, I wanted to take another look at the projections.
Before we begin, I will point out again 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)
This hasn’t changed from December. ZiPS had Francisco Cervelli at a 2.5 WAR over 326 plate appearances. I didn’t want to adjust that up to reflect his 2015 playing time, since that’s banking too much on him being healthy all year once again. So this projection comes with room for improvement, and the chance to be a 4+ WAR player if he stays healthy again.
Chris Stewart has an 0.5 WAR in 201 plate appearances. Last year the Pirates had 668 plate appearances behind the plate. The current projections leave them 141 shy. Giving those to Elias Diaz, and prorating his playing time and 0.6 WAR gives us another 0.2 WAR for the catcher total. Once again, this projection goes up if Cervelli stays healthy.
WAR: +3.2 (51.2)
The original article was written before John Jaso was signed, which definitely changes things (I originally had Michael Morse as the placeholder everyday first baseman). Jaso is projected for 269 plate appearances and an 0.8 WAR. I think he could get close to 500 plate appearances this year. First base will keep him healthier than catching, and the Pirates gave Pedro Alvarez 491 plate appearances last year in the same role, with horrible defense. That makes his total a 1.5 WAR.
This still leaves 181 plate appearances remaining, which would go to the right-handed options. David Freese will be the primary guy at the end of April, after Jung-ho Kang returns. It’s really difficult dividing this all up between Freese, Morse, and Jason Rogers. Freese will also get playing time at third, and the other two could get time elsewhere. I’m going to give two-thirds of this time to Freese (120 plate appearances) and the remainder to Morse (which doesn’t amount to anything, since he’s projected for an 0.1 WAR over half a season).
Freese is projected for a 1.3 WAR over 487 plate appearances, so his prorated portion here is an 0.3 WAR. That brings the total at first base to 1.8.
I do want to point out that ZiPS projects Josh Bell lower than Jaso and Freese, so if Bell comes up mid-season, the projections go down. Likewise, ZiPS has Jason Rogers higher than Morse, so if they somehow go with Rogers, then the projections go up slightly.
WAR: +1.8 (53.0)
Josh Harrison will be the regular second baseman. He’s getting a 2.2 WAR over 480 plate appearances, which is slightly higher than the 449 plate appearances he received last year. I’m giving him that full projection.
As for the remaining 235 plate appearances, the infield bench spots will be tricky, so I’m going to save them for shortstop.
WAR: +2.2 (55.2)
Jordy Mercer is projected for 472 plate appearances and a 1.1 WAR. This is another area where I’m taking the projection with no adjustments.
This also leaves 253 plate appearances, which combined with the second base leftovers gives us 488 plate appearances to work with. Then it’s just a question of which prospects from Indianapolis get the time, along with factoring in Sean Rodriguez and possibly Cole Figueroa.
Rodriguez had 240 plate appearances last year, and is projected for 250 by ZiPS, and an 0.1 WAR. I’m going with that projection, leaving 238 PAs remaining.
The rest of this is going to be a bit sloppy. I’m going to divide the plate appearances in half, giving half to Alen Hanson, and the other half to the remaining infield options.
Hanson is projected at a 1.7 WAR over 547 plate appearances. The prorated portion gives him an 0.4 WAR.
Guys like Figueroa, Max Moroff, and Adam Frazier are all around an 0.3 WAR over 450-500 plate appearances. This gives 0.1 WAR for the remaining playing time.
I’m going this route with the infielders for two reasons. One is that it’s impossible to predict how much playing time each person would get, or who would actually get the call. Two, Hanson’s projection is way up there, and this seems like a fair method to limit his value, rather than just giving him all of the remaining time.
Overall, there would be 1.7 WAR from shortstop and the infield bench.
WAR: +1.7 (56.9)
Jung-ho Kang will be the regular here when he’s healthy. ZiPS has him with a 2.3 WAR over 497 plate appearances. I think that’s fair, since the expected return is mid-to-late April. Last year he wasn’t a starter at the beginning of the year, and managed 467 plate appearances. So I could see him getting the full amount. The WAR is lower than his 2015 totals, but I think it’s smart to go conservative here with him coming off a major injury.
There are 158 plate appearances remaining, and I’m giving all of those to David Freese. This gets him around 300 plate appearances (when counting first base time). The extra time here adds another 0.4 WAR.
WAR: +2.7 (59.6)
Starling Marte is projected for 620 plate appearances and a 3.8 WAR. The Pirates had 723 plate appearances last year in left field. The extra playing time in the outfield will be addressed in the right field position.
Marte’s projection in ZiPS tends to be lower than his actual results. That’s not the case when you compare this year’s projection and his results last year (3.6 WAR). But if you look at the previous two years (4.6 WAR average), then there is room for improvement here.
WAR: +3.8 (63.4)
Andrew McCutchen is projected for 651 plate appearances and a 5.6 WAR. This is another area with possible bonus potential. Last year was McCutchen’s worst year since 2011, and he had a 5.8 WAR. He had a 6.8 WAR in 2012 and 2014, and an 8.2 WAR in 2013. The 5.6 projection looks like the floor for McCutchen. You don’t want to project an MVP season like 2013, but it’s very possible you could see an extra 1.0 WAR or more here.
Once again, extra playing time will be factored into the right field mix.
WAR: +5.6 (69.0)
Gregory Polanco is projected for 627 plate appearances and a 2.2 WAR. Polanco actually had a 2.3 WAR last year, and has some breakout potential, so this could be a huge area of improvement.
The outfield had 2,186 plate appearances last year, and the current trio is 288 plate appearances shy. There are also 315 plate appearances remaining from pinch-hitting and the DH. That gives 603 plate appearances remaining off the bench.
I’ve already factored in Sean Rodriguez and Chris Stewart from the bench. Matt Joyce and Michael Morse still need playing time, and neither player is rated highly in ZiPS, with about 0.1 WAR over half a season. So I’m going to take 300 plate appearances, apply 0.1 WAR, and count that for both players (Morse also had time at first).
That leaves 303 plate appearances, and Cole Figueroa has been factored in somewhat in the middle infield. I think Jason Rogers will get a lot of time this year as a top bench guy. He’s projected for an 0.9 WAR in 392 plate appearances. That would be an 0.7 WAR if you give him the rest of the time here. I’d factor in Figueroa and drop it, but we’re talking about maybe 0.1-0.2 WAR less. So we’ll stick with 0.8 WAR from the bench.
This section includes 2.2 WAR from Polanco, plus 0.8 WAR from the bench. There’s room for a lot of improvement if Polanco breaks out, plus most of the bench guys are projected really low.
WAR: +3.0 (72.0)
ZiPS has had an interesting recent history with the Pirates’ rotation. I got an 8.1 WAR with this article three years ago, and the rotation actually put up a 12.3 WAR. Two years ago 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. Last year the rotation projections were a bit more optimistic at a 10.4 WAR, and the rotation had a 16.9 WAR.
Here are the projected Opening Day starters, and their inning and WAR totals. The interesting thing here is that I had Juan Nicasio projected for the rotation when I first did this exercise, as Ryan Vogelsong wasn’t signed yet. So not much changes there. There’s also the factor of adding in the prospects, which I’ll get to in a bit.
SP: Gerrit Cole (190.0 IP, 4.3 WAR)
SP: Francisco Liriano (166.3 IP, 3.2 WAR)
SP: Jon Niese (157.7 IP, 1.8 WAR)
SP: Jeff Locke (162.7 IP, 1.4 WAR)
SP: Juan Nicasio (101.7 IP, 0.8 WAR)
That gives us 778.1 innings and a combined 11.5 WAR, which is already higher than last year’s projection. From there we need to fill 189 innings to get to the 2015 starting pitching total of 967.1 innings.
I usually include a disclaimer here about adjusting playing time for pitchers. Sometimes a guy will have low innings, and sometimes his innings will look high. I don’t adjust innings up, as injuries happen. Looking at the current group, I can’t see any massive increases that would be needed. Francisco Liriano’s projection is lower than his 2015 total. The same goes for Jon Niese, who could easily end up in the 180-190 inning range. In these cases, the Pirates would obviously see a big value boost if they got the extra innings.
There is also the issue of Jeff Locke. I don’t see him getting 162.2 innings, as the Pirates will have prospects arriving by mid-season. But this falls along the same category. Pitching is unpredictable. On paper, you can imagine Locke staying in the rotation until June 15th, and then being replaced by Glasnow the rest of the season. But in reality, Locke could get some extra starts if the above guys actually fall short from their career best innings totals. There’s also the new delivery factor, which could lead to better results. So we’ll also keep Locke’s totals the same.
The extra 189 innings will go to the prospects for now. Tyler Glasnow will be the top guy, arriving by mid-season. He’s projected for a 1.2 WAR over 116 innings. I think that’s possible over about four months of the year. That leaves 73 innings remaining. We’ll give all of that to Jameson Taillon, who has lower ratings than other options, but is the more realistic choice. That adds an extra 0.4 WAR, and plenty of room for improvement if Taillon exceeds his ZiPS projections.
Taillon and Glasnow add an extra 1.6 WAR to the rotation, giving a total of 13.1 WAR. Once again, this will probably change when the Pirates add another starter.
WAR: +13.1 (85.1)
This area is much different from the projections in December, as Neftali Feliz, Cory Luebke, and Ryan Vogelsong have been added to the mix. I left Jared Hughes in there, and will factor in guys like Kyle Lobstein later. I took the 522.1 innings pitched by the bullpen in 2015, and used that for the playing time here. For the main relievers, I kept their actual playing time, with the exception of Ryan Vogelsong and Cory Luebke, who I adjusted to their current totals.
CL: Mark Melancon (68.0 IP, 1.2 WAR)
RP: Tony Watson (70.0 IP, 0.9 WAR)
RP: Neftali Feliz (50.7 IP, 0.3 WAR)
RP: Arquimedes Caminero (73.3 IP, 0.2 WAR)
RP: Jared Hughes (62.7 IP, 0.0 WAR)
RP: Cory Luebke (52.0 IP, 0.3 WAR)
RP: Ryan Vogelsong (70.0 IP, 0.4 WAR)
There were 75.2 innings remaining. Kyle Lobstein will be in the bullpen at the start of the year, and should factor in the rotation a bit. I’m giving him 30 innings, which is an 0.3 WAR at his prorated ZiPS value. I’m going with an 0.3 WAR for the final 45.2 innings, figuring that will come from the prospect group in Indianapolis (they might get starts, with some of the starters above getting some of their projected innings in the bullpen).
This year’s projection is at 3.9 WAR, which is the same as last year’s projection.
WAR: +3.9 (89.0)
EARLY 2016 PROJECTION
The Pirates are projected for an 89-73 record, which is actually one win lower than their projection last year. The projection is actually 1.6 WAR lower than the December projection, for the following reasons:
**Alen Hanson has a high projection. At the time, it looked like Hanson would get a lot of playing time this year. Sean Rodriguez is now factored in the mix, and the other bench guys like Morse and Joyce are near replacement level.
**A lot of the projections went down from the initial posting. For example, the starting outfield alone went down 0.8 WAR from the initial posting. I’m not sure what led to this. There were some guys who went up, but it was mostly guys dropping down.
There are several areas where these projections could improve. I’ll detail that in tonight’s First Pitch. For now, this is a good area to be in, as projections are usually conservative, and in many cases here, they happen to be very conservative compared to recent history.
If I had to go with a non-calculated/projection based approach to predict the amount of 2016 wins, then my personal projection would be 94 wins. I think the projections are low here — not just for the starters, but for some of the bench players too. I also think the prospects will make a big impact throughout the year. What would your projection be?