Every year at the start of the season, I take the ZiPS projections, apply those to the projected playing time for each player and position throughout the year, and use that to come up with a projected record. The method tends to be more optimistic than most projections, and in previous years, that made it more accurate than those projections, which had the 2013-2015 Pirates around a .500 club.
This year, the projection ended up with an 89-73 record, which if that would have played out, would have resulted in the Pirates hosting the NL Wild Card game once again on Wednesday night. Obviously they fell well short of that projection. I’ve written before about how there are many reasons why the Pirates struggled this year. Tonight I’m going to take a look at those pre-season expectations, compared to the end of the season results, and see what went wrong with each player and each position.
The catchers were projected for a combined 3.2 WAR at the start of the season. This included 2.5 WAR from Francisco Cervelli, 0.5 from Chris Stewart, and 0.2 from the backups, based on the projections from Elias Diaz.
Unfortunately, all three of these guys were injured, and at one point the Pirates had a starting catching combo of Eric Fryer and Erik Kratz. Cervelli and Stewart each fell short of their projections, while the bad depth situation ended up with a -0.4 fWAR. The result was that the catchers in total fell shy of their projections by 1.9 WAR.
I’m not going to break down each position here, but I’m going to list all of the projections and provide a summary.
John Jaso: 1.5 WAR projected/0.7 fWAR
Josh Harrison: 2.2/1.5
Jordy Mercer: 1.1/1.3
Jung Ho Kang: 2.3/2.4
David Freese: 0.7/1.8
Sean Rodriguez: 0.1/2.0
I had projections for other infielders, mostly looking at prospects like Alen Hanson or depth players like Cole Figueroa. I didn’t really include Josh Bell in the pre-season projection, as he was projected to be a downgrade over John Jaso at first base. That ended up being somewhat true, as Bell had a -0.2 fWAR, while Jaso had an 0.7 fWAR, with the defense being a big factor for each.
Overall, the infield didn’t struggle too much. Mercer and Kang both matched their projection. Jaso and Harrison combined to fall short by 1.5 WAR. But the off-season additions of David Freese and Sean Rodriguez more than made up for that, with a boost of 3.0 WAR over the projections. That also helps to make up for the catchers. When you combine all of the players above, you get to a -0.1 WAR difference between the projections and the actual results.
Andrew McCutchen: 5.6/0.9
Starling Marte: 3.8/4.0
Gregory Polanco: 2.2/2.7
Matt Joyce: 0.1/1.2
The glaring issue here is Andrew McCutchen’s down year. That lost the Pirates 4.7 WAR from their pre-season projections. Marte and Polanco each slightly outplayed their projections, while Matt Joyce provided a nice boost in value. But even with those factored in, the Pirates were missing 2.9 WAR from this group. Add in the guys above, and the Pirates were 3.0 WAR shy of their projections, without considering the bench depth, or the pitching staff. And most of that is on McCutchen.
I will also note that while Polanco exceeded his projections, he had a disappointing second half. He started off strong, with a .287/.362/.500 line in the first half, but slumped to a .220/.267/.414 line in the second half. That really went down in September, when he posted a .191/.245/.266 line. In fact, after the month of May, he didn’t have a single month with an OPS above .800 the rest of the season. The hope early in the season was that he was having a breakout season, although that wasn’t sustained. He showed his potential if he does break out, but the 2016 season didn’t see that full breakout.
The key members of the bench (Freese/Rodriguez/Stewart/Joyce) were mentioned above. This area covers the depth with all of the other players. In the pre-season projection, the rest of the bench players were projected for 1.2 WAR. Alen Hanson, Adam Frazier, and Max Moroff were combining to get most of the value off the bench as depth options, with a combined 0.5 WAR from those guys.
Adam Frazier provided the biggest spark as a depth option, being worth 0.8 fWAR this year. However, his value was negated by negative value from other players. Josh Bell factors in here with his -0.2 fWAR. Alen Hanson, Michael Morse, and Cole Figueroa all had the same as Bell, and collectively, they wiped out Frazier’s value. The depth options ended up with a -0.3 fWAR combined, which was a drop of 1.5 fWAR.
Overall, the position players fell short of their projections by 4.5 WAR.
Gerrit Cole: 4.3/2.5
Francisco Liriano: 3.2/-0.3
Jon Niese: 1.8/-0.4
Jeff Locke: 1.4/0.2
Juan Nicasio: 0.8/1.3
I’m going to start off with the Opening Day rotation before I get to the rest of the options. Every single starter here ended up well short of their projections. The one exception was Juan Nicasio, although most of his value came in the bullpen.
The biggest problem in the off-season was that Neal Huntington didn’t add a good starter to the back of the rotation, instead going with Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and Ryan Vogelsong/Juan Nicasio (Vogelsong fell shy of his projection by 0.3 WAR, but we’ll get to that later). It certainly didn’t help that Niese and Locke then combined to fall short of their projections by 3.4 WAR. The plan was projected to get some value from the back of the rotation, and it ended up getting none at all.
Players will fall short of projections, although maybe not to the extent that we saw from the Pirates’ roster this year. But when those projections are starting out low, you’re not leaving much room for value. Gerrit Cole fell short of his projections by almost two wins, and he was still more valuable than Niese or Locke were projected to be. Meanwhile, Niese and Locke ended up as replacement level players, because they weren’t falling from a high projection to begin with.
So while Huntington’s plan wasn’t supposed to be this bad, these results say something about shooting higher. If you go for a better projected pitcher and he falls short of projections, you at least get some value. But in reality, Huntington could have added J.A. Happ last off-season (who was actually projected for 1.3 WAR by ZiPS, but ended up with 3.2 fWAR), and it still wouldn’t have made up for the loss of 8.7 WAR from these four starters. Huntington had a bad off-season with the pitching staff, although you add three extra wins from Happ, and this team is still a .500 team, falling several games short of the playoffs. So while he gets some blame for this season, it’s hard to objectively place most of the blame on him.
Outside of the above starters, the remaining starting pitching innings were projected for 1.6 WAR. This was mostly Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon, with Glasnow getting the higher projections pre-season. As it turned out, the Pirates got 1.7 fWAR alone from Taillon. They also got 0.9 fWAR from Chad Kuhl, 0.1 from Glasnow, and 1.9 from Ivan Nova after the trade.
There’s two things about this. First, Huntington did make up for his bad off-season a bit by getting a huge addition in Nova down the stretch. That helped to off-set some of the loss in value from the first half. The other thing is that the prospects did provide the boost the Pirates were hoping for, with Taillon and Kuhl getting the bulk of the impact with a combined 2.6 fWAR in half a season each. I don’t think this justifies building an approach around waiting for the prospects to arrive, as the first few months of the season matter. But once again, I don’t think another starter in the first half year really impacts the overall results.
In total, the rotation combined for a negative 5.2 WAR. That includes Nicasio’s results (which mostly came in the bullpen) and the impact of Nova and the prospects providing a boost outside of the Opening Day rotation. Those two factors added 3.5 WAR here, helping to make up for the top four rotation spots on Opening Day.
Mark Melancon: 1.2/0.9
Tony Watson: 0.9/-0.1
Neftali Feliz: 0.3/-0.1
Arquimedes Caminero: 0.2/-0.2
Jared Hughes: 0.0/-0.4
Cory Luebke: 0.3/-0.2
Ryan Vogelsong: 0.4/0.1
Other Relievers: 0.6/0.4
Relievers generally don’t provide a lot of value in terms of WAR. The top two guys in the bullpen generally do, but everyone else is mostly around replacement level. Several of the guys in the bullpen (Feliz, Caminero, Hughes, Luebke) fell short of that, having negative value. What hurt even more was that Tony Watson was yet another player who had a down year, getting negative value and losing 1 WAR from his projection.
The other relievers fell short, which was pretty amazing, considering A.J. Schugel and Wade LeBlanc combined for 0.9 fWAR. They fell short due to so many pitchers who provided replacement level value or lower in their short times in the bullpen. These were all depth options, and the Pirates just didn’t have good relief depth this year, outside of Schugel.
The bullpen in total ended up falling short of their projections by 3.5 WAR. That means the pitching staff in total fell short by 8.7 WAR.
A Disaster Year
The pre-season projection had the Pirates with an 89-73 record. Instead, they finished 11 wins short of that projected record. The team finished 13.2 WAR shy of their projections. It’s hard to look at those two numbers and not draw a connection between the players almost universally struggling, and the team having a down year. I don’t want to say that the entire blame rests on the players, since you’re inevitably going to have some players who fall short of their projections.
In previous years, the Pirates always exceeded other projections (although they were usually closer to this one than others). There are a lot of reasons they fell short this year, between injuries and players having down years. But one factor was that they didn’t have as many high beta guys as in the past. Their second half was a bit more like the 2013-2015 teams, with high beta guys that paid off like Taillon, Kuhl, Nova, and even their bullpen approach of adding a lot of guys in September and ending up with an 0.3 fWAR from Wade LeBlanc as a result.
It’s unfair to say that Huntington didn’t add any of these guys before the season. The three guys who exceeded their projections the most were Sean Rodriguez, David Freese, and Matt Joyce. That gave the Pirates 4.1 WAR that was unexpected before the season. You can only imagine where the Pirates would have been this year without those three additions (probably picking in the top ten of next year’s draft).
But it didn’t seem like there was a lot of upside on the pitching side of things. Even if Niese, Locke, and Vogelsong/Nicasio worked out, you were still looking at a low upside. I pointed out a flaw in that above, where shooting for a lower upside means you get no value if the pitcher struggles. But there’s also the flaw that by not going for higher upside pitchers, you have almost no chance of making up lost value when other players struggle. And there will definitely be lost value somewhere on the team.
Unfortunately, this year’s team had way too much lost value to possibly expect the Pirates to make up for it all with a better starting pitcher. But hopefully they don’t repeat the same off-season mistake this year, as it’s very unlikely that they’ll see another year next year where almost every single player on the roster falls short of his projections.
**Should the Pirates Trade Andrew McCutchen This Off-Season? Today’s article took a look at whether Andrew McCutchen should be traded this off-season. My opinion is yes, if they can upgrade their rotation in the trade.