Every year when FanGraphs releases the ZiPS projections for the Pirates, I do an article where I take the WAR projections, combined with my analysis on the expected playing time, and come up with an expected win total. This process started in 2013 and continued each season after that. The projections always came in higher than most other projections, but were usually the same or lower than the actual win total by the end of the season.
That was true at least for the first three seasons. Last year’s projection had 89 wins, and almost everything possible that could have gone wrong went wrong. That’s part of what makes a projection system so good though. At the end of the season, we were able to look back and see who fell shy of their projections (Summary: 90% of the team), and how that impacted the team record.
The ZiPS projections for the 2017 season were released today, which means it’s time for that annual projection for the team record. Once again, the end result is probably going to be higher than most projection systems, and hopefully the 2013-15 trend holds up where the projection ends up being the same or lower than the actual win total. I tend to go conservative with this approach, letting ZiPS do the talking in terms of value, and trying to keep a reasonable grasp on playing time. That leaves room for improvement, or just room to counter any players who fall short of their 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)
Francisco Cervelli is projected for a 2.0 WAR and 349 plate appearances. I don’t like to adjust his playing time up, due to his injury history. I will point out that he had 393 plate appearances last year in a season that had a few injuries, so the 349 number seems very realistic, and something he could build upon with a healthy season. He also had a 1.7 fWAR last year, so the projection doesn’t seem too far off the mark.
The Pirates had 646 plate appearances behind the plate last year. ZiPS has Chris Stewart projected for 170 and an 0.3 WAR. Again, I don’t like adjusting the playing time for Stewart, since he’s injury prone. That addition to Cervelli gives the Pirates 519 plate appearances, leaving them 127 short. I’ll give those to Elias Diaz, who is projected for 274 plate appearances, and looks like the better backup option in the ZiPS projections with an 0.7 WAR. The pro-rated amount gives another 0.3 WAR.
That makes the total for the three catchers a 2.6 WAR. The Pirates could get more if Cervelli stayed healthy and put up playing time closer to his 2015 season (although expecting those exact numbers would be expecting too much).
WAR: +2.6 (50.6)
First base is a bit tricky this year. Josh Bell is going to be the starter, but David Freese will get time there, and John Jaso will factor in the mix. The Pirates had 721 plate appearances at first base last year, and Bell has 612 with a 1.6 WAR in the projections. I’m guessing Bell could get a bit of time in the outfield, but we’ll assign all of his time to first base for now. That leaves 109 plate appearances, which will go to Freese. This adds another 0.4 WAR to the position.
I’ll factor Jaso in when we get to the bench, and Freese will get more time in the third base projections.
WAR: +2.0 (52.6)
Josh Harrison will be the regular second baseman. He’s getting a 2.2 WAR over 517 plate appearance. This is a bit optimistic, considering he had a 1.5 fWAR in 522 plate appearances last year, and 1.3 in 449 the year before. I’m giving him the full projection.
The Pirates had 701 plate appearances at second base. They have 184 remaining after Harrison. I’m going to save those and combine them for the bench section.
WAR: +2.2 (54.8)
Jordy Mercer is projected for 521 plate appearances and a 1.4 WAR. I used his full projection.
The Pirates had 674 plate appearances last year at shortstop. This leaves 153 remaining after Mercer. The thing about the shortstop position is that it’s difficult to assign those extra plate appearances to the infield bench in general. And they no longer have Sean Rodriguez as a utility infielder and the primary backup. I’ll move those plate appearances to the bench section for now, but will revisit this situation.
WAR: +1.4 (56.2)
Jung Ho Kang is projected for 458 plate appearances and a 3.2 WAR. I’m going to avoid any speculation on legal issues, and just go with the projections for now. The obvious disclaimer here is that the Pirates could see a hit if he has to miss time for any reason.
The Pirates had 704 plate appearances at third base last year, leaving 246 remaining here. I’ll give all of those to David Freese, adding another 1.0 WAR. That brings the third base total to 4.2 WAR.
WAR: +4.2 (60.4)
Starling Marte is projected for 585 plate appearances and a 3.8 WAR. The Pirates had 718 plate appearances last year in left field. The extra playing time in the outfield will be addressed in the bench section.
I’ll point out two things here. First is that ZiPS is often low on Marte. He’s averaged about 4.2 fWAR over his four full seasons in the majors. He was projected for 3.8 last year and had a 4.0 fWAR, and that was in an injury filled season. So there could be room for improvement here.
There’s also the outfield situation, where Marte could move to center, with Andrew McCutchen moving to one of the corners. That will probably end up in a net positive for the team. I’m only including Marte at this spot because that’s where ZiPS has him projected.
WAR: +3.8 (64.2)
Andrew McCutchen is projected for 641 plate appearances and a 4.1 WAR. This is a big drop from the previous projections, with McCutchen being projected for a 5.6 WAR heading into last year. I think this projection is fair, as it factors in the risk from his down year, but doesn’t drop him down too low.
There were 737 plate appearances in center field last year, and the extras will go to the bench.
WAR: +4.1 (68.3)
Gregory Polanco is projected for 612 plate appearances and a 2.6 WAR. I think there’s a lot of room for improvements here, as I am still waiting on and believing in a Polanco breakout. He was projected for a 2.2 WAR last year, and had a 2.5 WAR, even though his second half was pretty bad, with some injuries involved. I think the ZiPS projection this year represents the floor for what we can expect.
Right field had 706 plate appearances last year, and the remaining spots will go to the bench.
WAR: +2.6 (70.9)
There were 660 plate appearances left over from above. The Pirates also had 336 plate appearances last year from pinch hitters and from the DH. So we’ve got 996 plate appearances remaining.
First, we’ll start with David Freese, who is projected for 469 plate appearances, and who had 492 last year. He’s at 355 right now, and I think that’s a good number. He’d get more time if there was an injury to Kang or Bell. So the Pirates will have some good depth to provide some security for those two spots. He won’t factor into the bench any further to keep this projection conservative.
Adam Frazier should have an inside track for a bench spot. I’ll give him 300 plate appearances, which adds 0.3 WAR.
John Jaso should get some time at first base, along with a bit of time in the outfield. I’ll put him at 200 plate appearances, which adds 0.4 WAR. I’ll also note that if Jaso is moved, or doesn’t get this time, it would probably go to one of the guys projected higher or around the same level of production as him.
Alen Hanson is the final bench guy to focus on. He always gets a high ZiPS projection, and is at 1.5 WAR this year in 533 plate appearances. I’ll give him 200 plate appearances, since the Pirates haven’t shown a lot of faith in him so far. This adds 0.6 WAR.
The final 266 plate appearances will go to Austin Meadows. This adds another 1.2 WAR to the bench.
Finally, a note on the shortstop position. I think Adam Frazier or Alen Hanson could be backups in a pinch, with Frazier probably getting the priority. I don’t know if Kang will get time at the position, due to his knee injury from 2015. So I think the backup is on the roster right now. But if it’s the second half, the backup could be Kevin Newman, who is projected for 1.7 WAR over 434 plate appearances. That’s a high rate, and if I went with Newman over Frazier/Hanson/Freese (with Freese stepping in at third if Kang moves over), then the results would either be about the same, or better. I’m mostly focused on value right now, and keeping a conservative projection, so I’ll leave Newman out.
The overall bench combines for another 2.5 WAR.
WAR: +2.5 (73.4)
ZiPS has a track record of being down on the Pirates’ rotation. They’ve out-performed projections in each of the last few years, with the exception of 2016, when nearly everyone performed below expectations. The projections are low this year, and I could see a move back to the norm, with the Pirates exceeding expectations.
First, I want to stray a bit from my normal routine. I usually take a conservative approach with starting pitching innings, and don’t adjust them at all. However, there are a few that I feel need to be adjusted. The two guys I will adjust are Jameson Taillon and Ivan Nova. Taillon has 112.1 innings, despite pitching 165.2 innings last year in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery. I’m going with the 165.2 number. And Ivan Nova had 162 innings last year, which isn’t totally out of the question for him, so I’m going with that number.
Here are the projections for the expected Opening Day rotation.
SP: Gerrit Cole (159.3 IP, 3.1 WAR)
SP: Jameson Taillon (165.7 IP, 2.7 WAR)
SP: Ivan Nova (162.0 IP, 2.0 WAR)
SP: Chad Kuhl (143.7 IP, 1.0 WAR)
SP: Steven Brault (144.3 IP, 1.4 WAR)
That gives us 775 innings and a combined 10.2 WAR. The starters last year had just 865.2 innings, although the rotation was pretty horrible. The previous two years, they were around 970 innings. We’ll go with that figure, giving them 195 innings remaining in the rotation.
The big beneficiary here is Tyler Glasnow, who is projected for 122.1 innings and a 2.1 WAR. I don’t have Glasnow projected for the Opening Day rotation, but I think he could be up and make an impact with some additional work in Triple-A on his command and a third pitch. The ZiPS numbers would be what you’d hope for, with Glasnow being just as good as Gerrit Cole when he’s pitching in the big leagues (granted, the version of Cole above is down a bit from previous projections). So if Glasnow pitches more innings, the Pirates obviously see a benefit, as those innings would replace guys like Steven Brault or Chad Kuhl, who have lower projections.
I’ll give the remaining innings to Drew Hutchison. This adds another 0.4 WAR, which in addition to Glasnow’s 2.1 WAR and the 10.2 from the Opening Day rotation, gives us 12.7 WAR from the starters.
WAR: +12.7 (86.1)
The bullpen isn’t the strongest area on the team. ZiPS projects a bounce back from Tony Watson, and good numbers from Felipe Rivero. The projections for Daniel Hudson seem low, with ZiPS calling him a replacement level player, despite an average of 0.65 WAR in each of the last two seasons. The projections on Wade LeBlanc and Lisalverto Bonilla seem high, on the other hand. When you factor those three together, I think 1.0 WAR combined would sound right, although I’d give most of the production to Hudson, rather than LeBlanc and Bonilla.
I adjusted some of the innings, specifically going with 58.1 innings for Juan Nicasio, since that’s what he threw in his last full season as a reliever.
CL: Tony Watson (65.3 IP, 0.9 WAR)
RP: Felipe Rivero (66.3 IP, 0.6 WAR)
RP: Daniel Hudson (51.0 IP, 0.0 WAR)
RP: Juan Nicasio (58.3 IP, 0.4 WAR)
RP: Jared Hughes (63.3 IP, 0.3 WAR)
RP: Wade LeBlanc (50.0 IP, 0.6 WAR)
RP: Lisalverto Bonilla (50.0 IP, 0.4 WAR)
There were 270.2 innings remaining. This is where the starting rotation depth could come into play. I gave Nick Kingham his full 74 innings and 0.4 WAR. I gave A.J. Schugel his full 67.1 innings, and his 0.3 WAR. For the remaining innings, I added 0.4 WAR, since most of the remaining options came out to that amount. Trevor Williams would be the main guy I would look at for a placeholder, if you want a name.
This year’s projection is at 4.3 WAR.
WAR: +4.3 (90.4)
The Pirates are projected for an 90-72 record, which is one win higher than their projection at the start of last year. I can’t imagine they’ll have a season like last year where everything went wrong. You also can’t project that everything will go right. But I think there’s still some room in these projections for improvement.
That said, some of the expected or possible improvements are already built-in. Tyler Glasnow is projected to be the second best starter by WAR/IP. Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole are projected to bounce back, along with Tony Watson on a smaller scale. So there’s not as much upside as some of the years like 2013 or 2015, where a 90 win projection could become 94 wins or more if all goes right. While this projection is conservative, the ZiPS projections are high on the chances of certain players doing well or bouncing back, which means the Pirates already have that bonus built-in.
The end result should make the Pirates a contender, and that shouldn’t be a surprise. I know they’re coming off a 78 win season, but once again, a lot had to go wrong for that to happen. The projections heading into 2017 don’t anticipate a repeat of those struggles, leading to another season where the Pirates project to contend.