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 the real value here is that you can look at the individual projections at the end of the season and pinpoint where things really went right or wrong.
Unfortunately, the last two years have led to a practice where we’ve been looking at all of the things that went wrong, and very few things that went right.
The projections for the 2018 season were released yesterday, which means we get that early baseline that we can go back and analyze later. The fun part of these projections coming at the start of the offseason is that we can look at them again before the season starts and see how the outlook for the 2018 season changed, depending on what offseason moves were made. They also give us an idea of whether the Pirates should even be trying to compete in 2018, or whether they should sell.
I tend to go conservative with this approach, letting ZiPS do the talking in terms of value, and only providing my analysis on the depth chart and playing time. This leaves a margin for error on both sides, as it doesn’t include extreme injuries, better than expected health, players playing above or below their projections, or any other factor that isn’t projected or anticipated.
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 in terms of playing time. 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 1.3 WAR and 364 plate appearances. I don’t typically adjust his playing time up, since he has a lengthy injury history. Last year’s projection was 349 plate appearances, and he finished with a 304. He had an 0.9 fWAR last year, so a 1.3 with his current projected time assumes he’ll be the same type of player. This is a drop in value from last year, when he had a 2.0 WAR projection.
The Pirates had 641 plate appearances at catcher last year. ZiPS has Elias Diaz projected for an 0.9 WAR and 396 plate appearances. The pro-rated amount of 277 plate appearances gives him an 0.6 WAR, and gives the Pirates 641 plate appearances between the two catchers.
Jacob Stallings is the third catcher, and is projected for an 0.8 WAR in 267 plate appearances. So ZiPS isn’t projecting a big dropoff if (when?) Cervelli gets injured and Diaz/Stallings take over. However, considering the projection has the catching position at a 1.9 WAR, I don’t think this is necessarily a good thing.
WAR: +1.9 (49.9)
Josh Bell is projected for 621 plate appearances and a 1.7 WAR. There were 698 plate appearances at the position last year. I’m going to give Bell all of his appearances, since he has become an everyday and nine inning player in the last year. I’ll save the remaining plate appearances for the bench.
WAR: +1.7 (51.6)
Right now I’m going with Josh Harrison as the regular second baseman. He’s projected for a 2.1 WAR and 534 plate appearances. There were 705 plate appearances at second base last year. I’ll save the rest for the bench.
WAR: +2.1 (53.7)
Jordy Mercer is projected for 528 plate appearances and a 1.5 WAR. I used his full projection. There were 643 plate appearances from shortstop last year, with the rest going to the bench.
WAR: +1.5 (55.2)
This is the biggest hole and the biggest question mark for the offense. I’ve got David Freese as the starter here, even though he has shown he isn’t a starter. He’s projected for 459 plate appearances and a 1.3 WAR. Third base had 694 plate appearances last year, and the rest will go to the bench.
WAR: +1.3 (56.5)
Starling Marte is projected for 504 plate appearances and a 2.6 WAR. The Pirates had 725 plate appearances last year in left field, and the extras will go to outfielders on the bench.
I’ll point out here that Marte has exceeded this projection every year from 2013-2016. He missed time due to a PED suspension last year, but looked like his old self in September. At the least, I’d expect him to be a 3.5-4.0 WAR player in 2018, so this is an area where I could see some improvement over the ZiPS projections. I’m only going with the ZiPS projections here.
WAR: +2.6 (59.1)
Andrew McCutchen is projected for 630 plate appearances and a 3.4 WAR. He has dropped in his projections from 5.6 to 4.1 to 3.4 in the last three years. Considering he had a 3.7 fWAR last year in 650 plate appearances, I’d say this projection is fair. There is obviously the hope that he can improve on that and get closer to the 5+ WAR player he was pre-2016. I think those chances are slim.
There were 706 plate appearances in center field last year, and the extras will go to the bench.
WAR: +3.4 (62.5)
Gregory Polanco is projected for 534 plate appearances and a 2.3 WAR. If you’re only looking at last year’s numbers, this is an improvement. But these figures line up almost exactly with what he did in 2015-2016. So ZiPS is projecting that 2017 is an outlier, which is good. The bad is that they aren’t projecting improvements on the 2015-2016 numbers. The hope here is that Polanco can finally break out and become more than a league average starter.
I’d address the injury concerns, but I feel they’ve been addressed. He had 652 plate appearances in 2015 and 587 in 2016. He had 411 in an injury filled 2017. Giving him the 534 seems fair, with the hope that he stays as healthy as he was in 2015-2016, and avoids the injuries of 2017.
Right field had 685 plate appearances last year, and the remaining spots will go to the bench.
WAR: +2.3 (64.8)
I’ve saved a lot for the bench here. There are 1365 plate appearances remaining. That breaks down in the following way:
DH/Pinch Hit: 319
I’m going to start with the outfield, because it is easier. I think Jordan Luplow will be the fourth outfielder. He is projected for 523 plate appearances and a 1.1 WAR. I’m going to give him 350 plate appearances, which would prorate to an 0.6 WAR.
I’m going to give Austin Meadows 200 plate appearances. He’s projected for 401 and a 1.8 WAR, so that gives him a prorated 0.9 WAR. This covers the outfield, while borrowing about 100 plate appearances from the DH/PH group.
Next we’ve got the infield. Adam Frazier is projected for 472 plate appearances and a 1.3 WAR. He had 454 and a 1.1 fWAR last year, so I’d say this is in line with what we’ve seen. I’m giving him the full projection.
Frazier would be the top bench option across the board. Sean Rodriguez would be next, and he’s projected for 244 plate appearances and an 0.4 WAR. I’m giving him the full amount as well.
This leaves about 100 plate appearances remaining for Max Moroff, between the infield and DH/PH sections. Moroff is projected for 0.4 WAR over 474 plate appearances, which means his prorated amount adds 0.1 WAR.
The overall bench combines for another 3.3 WAR.
WAR: +3.3 (68.1)
ZiPS has been low on the Pirates’ rotation in the past. They out-performed projections from 2013-2015, but fell short of those projections in 2016, with a lot of pitchers having down years and injuries. The projections last year were almost right on the mark for the rotation. Here was the comparison:
Gerrit Cole: 3.1 projection vs 3.1 fWAR
Jameson Taillon: 2.7 / 2.9
Ivan Nova: 2.0 / 1.9
Chad Kuhl: 1.0 / 1.9
Steven Brault (Trevor Williams actual): 1.4 / 2.3
Cole, Taillon, and Nova combined to exceed their projections by a mere 0.1 WAR. Kuhl showed improvements, while Trevor Williams stepped up in a big way for the fifth starter role.
I always thought the differences in 2013-2015 were due to the tendency to add reclamation projects that worked out, along with the benefits of the defensive shifts and the Pirates employing a pitching strategy that hitters hadn’t caught up to at the time. There’s no hard data, but my belief is that the benefits of the shifts have been reduced, and hitters have obviously adapted to the old ways, with parts of the league adapting back this year with new pitching styles. The Pirates weren’t one of the teams with the new adjustments.
There’s also the fact that the Pirates didn’t add high upside reclamation guys the last two years, going with Ryan Vogelsong and Jon Niese in 2016, and Ivan Nova in 2017. That’s a big difference from A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Edinson Volquez.
There are some areas in this year’s projections where I could see improvements. But I wouldn’t expect the Pirates to massively improve over their rotation results like in years past.
I typically don’t adjust the pitcher innings, but I made one exception here. Jameson Taillon was projected for 145.2 innings and a 2.7 WAR. He pitched around 165 innings in 2016, with most of that coming in the minors. He missed time in 2017 due to his cancer treatment, but still ended up with around 147 innings. I don’t think he should be docked in the future for missing that time in 2017. Because of that, I adjusted his innings up to 165, which is still conservative and leaves room for injuries, or improvements if he stays healthy.
Here are the projections for the expected Opening Day rotation.
SP: Gerrit Cole (189.3 IP, 3.4 WAR)
SP: Jameson Taillon (165.0 IP, 3.1 WAR)
SP: Ivan Nova (149.7 IP, 2.2 WAR)
SP: Chad Kuhl (147.3 IP, 0.8 WAR)
SP: Trevor Williams (133.7 IP, 1.0 WAR)
That gives us 785 innings and a combined 10.2 WAR. Coincidentally, the projection for last year’s rotation in this study was a 10.2 WAR in 775 innings.
The starters last year had 894.2 innings. That was an improvement on 2016, but down from around 970 innings in 2014 and 2015. Just like last year, I’m using the lower total, with the note that the Pirates could add improvements if their rotation stays as effective and pitches as many innings as they did in prior years.
There are 109.2 innings remaining. I’m giving those to Tyler Glasnow, who is projected for a 1.9 WAR in 149.2 innings. That gives him a prorated 1.4 WAR. I’ll add the disclaimer here that ZiPS is always high on Glasnow, and I’m not confident that he’ll reach those totals without some major pre-season work. But I took the lower numbers for guys like Marte, so I’ll take the higher number for Glasnow, with that disclaimer added.
The total from the starters is 11.6 WAR. That could go down, depending on the health of the rotation, and the need for more than six starters. It could also go up if Kuhl and Williams pitch like they did in 2017, and both exceed their projections.
WAR: +11.6 (79.7)
The bullpen is an area where the Pirates could use an upgrade, although they do have a good foundation with Felipe Rivero anchoring the staff, and a few good middle relief options. They could use an eighth inning guy, specifically.
CL: Felipe Rivero (73.3 IP, 1.8 WAR)
RP: George Kontos (60.7 IP, 0.7 WAR)
RP: Daniel Hudson (59.0 IP, 0.4 WAR)
RP: Steven Brault (70.0 IP, 0.6 WAR)
RP: A.J. Schugel (66.3 IP, 0.5 WAR)
RP: Jack Leathersich (44.3 IP, 0.4 WAR)
RP: Edgar Santana (75.3 IP, 0.4 WAR)
There were 97 innings remaining. I typically give those innings to the remaining rotation depth options. That would be Nick Kingham in this case, adding a prorated 0.8 WAR.
This year’s projection is at 5.6 WAR. That’s about 1.3 WAR higher than last year’s bullpen projection, with Rivero’s improvement being a big factor.
WAR: +5.6 (85.3)
It was surprising to me to see the Pirates projected for 85 wins, and projected for over a .500 record for that matter. Then again, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise. The ZiPS write-up said the Pirates could put together an average offense, and the pitching projected to be stronger. That profiles for a club around .500. And it comes with the disclaimer that so much has to go right.
In previous years, this analysis ranged anywhere from 83-90 wins. They were at 84 wins heading into 2013, but that team had a ton of upside. They were projected for 88 wins in 2014, and finished with 88. I had them at 90 wins in 2015, and they finished well above that total.
They’ve seen a lot of injuries, and a lot of players performing well below the ZiPS projections the last two years. They also haven’t seen as much upside on the roster. And honestly, I don’t see the upside here.
There are some easy picks. Starling Marte, Chad Kuhl, and Trevor Williams have all put up results that are better than the ZiPS projections. Gerrit Cole has put up better numbers than his projections, but that came two years ago. Jameson Taillon is capable of better numbers, and matched his current projection while battling cancer.
Then there are guys like Gregory Polanco, Francisco Cervelli, and Josh Bell who might exceed their projections, but are long shots to do so, either for health reasons, limitations in their current game, or just because they are getting beyond the point where you can expect massive improvements.
The Pirates might get some improvements here, but they’re small. You’re not going to have a 1-2 WAR projected player ending up with a 5 WAR. You’re not adding rookies this year who can put up 3 WAR as a rookie in 2018, unless things go really well for Austin Meadows (note, this is only talking about Meadows in 2018).
And the flip side of all of this is that you need everything else going right. You need everyone to stay healthy to expectations. You need everyone to perform up to their expectations. As we saw the last two years, that’s far from guaranteed, and almost a guarantee that it won’t happen. Even the 2013-2015 projections had guys who were injured beyond expectations, or fell below their projections. They just had enough high upside guys to make up the difference.
The Pirates could try to boost their chances with outside additions, but I don’t see them adding more than a few wins through that method. And then you still have the issue of needing everything to go right, since the upside plays here give you an extra win at most for each option, with the lack of any massive upside chances.
It wouldn’t be the worst decision in the world to go for it in 2018, but it would be risky. And I think they’d be better off passing on that risk and going for a rebuild, since I think that will help their chances more in the long-run.