This isn’t very scientific, but as I cracked open a recent issue of Sports Illustrated — yes, my sentimental self still subscribes to the hard copy — I stumbled upon a listing of the top 100 players in Major League Baseball.
Zero Pirates were included.
Upon immediate reflection, I realized I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it did hammer home a point several of you made regarding my column about the Pirates’ ongoing retool. My angle from the LECOM Park bleachers was mostly about the absence of intangible things like excitement, but there’s a measurable, quantifiable lack of star power on this team.
If the opinion of one publication doesn’t do it for you, then we can make this argument via projection systems.
Of ZiPS and Steamer, there is precisely one Pirate expected to be a top-30 pitcher or position player in the coming season. That well-regarded athlete is Jameson Taillon, whom Steamer ranks as the 21st-best pitcher in MLB, per Wins Above Replacement. (ZiPS is a little lower on Jamo, although he’s still 35th.)
Taillon is expected to produce at least 3.0 WAR in his second full major-league season, with Starling Marte not terribly far behind in the mid-2.0s, according to ZiPS and Steamer. In addition, Steamer has Iván Nova and newly-acquired Joe Musgrove as solid two-win pitchers in 2018.
Projections are just what they claim to be, but if the Pirates have just four players accounting for 2.0 WAR or more, they’re not going anywhere desirable. Forget depth concerns for a moment, though. The Pirates’ lack of ‘ceiling’ for any one individual strikes as the more pressing limitation on this team’s potential.
Beyond the obvious advantages of having a star on one’s team, an underappreciated one might be this: Simplicity.
Sure, if the star underperforms, that’ll hurt badly, but there are fewer variables involved in relying on one player to provide, say, six WAR, as opposed to two or three or more. Each of the Pirates’ three playoff teams from earlier this decade featured at least one player that chipped in 5.4 WAR toward the cause.
(Note: When referring to past events in this piece, I’m using Baseball-Reference.com’s version of WAR, which is intended to record what actually happened, as opposed to FanGraphs WAR, which attempts to suss out more of a player’s raw performance. For the purpose of this study, I’m interested in what occurred, not what should have.)
Let’s dig a little deeper here. There have been 60 playoff teams since the advent of the second wild card in 2012. How many of them got by without a single five- or six-win player? In other words, how important has it been to have a ‘star’ to make the postseason? Or at least a star-level performance?
I’m guessing we all have different definitions for what a ‘star’ player is, so I won’t parse that thought as much as let you make the call. Years of debates on whether Gerrit Cole was/could be an ‘ace’ have ruined my taste for battle on these subjective labels.
Here are the results …
• In the current era of 10 playoff teams, 46 of 60 qualifiers (77 percent) had at least one player who contributed at least 6.0 WAR. Twenty-five of 60 playoff teams (42 percent) featured at least one 7.0-WAR player.
• The average top performer on a 2012-17 playoff team contributed 6.8 WAR, with a low of 3.8 (Adam Jones on the 2012 Orioles) and a high of 9.9 (Zack Greinke on the 2015 Dodgers).
• Just six out of 60 teams had a top player who contributed less than Marte’s 5.4 WAR in 2015. Two teams — the 2012 Orioles and the 2015 Yankees — didn’t have one player top 4.0 WAR.
What to make of all this in the context of the 2018 Pirates?
Well, if we’re operating under the assumption that their top guns are probably going to fall short of the four-win mark, then making a playoff push will require an impressive array of performances from the supporting cast.
For instance, the 2015 Yankees had 10 players contribute at least 2.0 WAR, with Mark Teixeira’s 3.9 leading the way. The ’12 Orioles had nine players add 2.5 WAR or more, so we see a predictable formula there.
Last year’s Pirates featured just five two-win players: Josh Harrison, Cole, Felipe Rivero, Andrew McCutchen and David Freese. If we assume Taillon and Marte will deliver on their projections this season, who are the other Pirates capable of chipping in a couple of wins?
Musgrove and Nova seem like pretty good bets to join that group, if they stay healthy. So that’s four. Throw in Gregory Polanco and Chad Kuhl, who are seen as at least close to two-win players by ZiPS and Steamer, respectively. That’s six. Rebound season for Francisco Cervelli? Make it seven.
From there we’re looking at Harrison, Trevor Williams and/or Corey Dickerson as needing to best their projections by a tick or two. It’s possible, and probably more so than Tyler Glasnow fulfilling his 2.3 WAR projection by ZiPS. Then there’s Josh Bell. The models don’t love him, but it’s easy to see his potential after he put up 1.7 WAR last season.
To be clear, even if all these players come through in modest fashion, this isn’t the making of a juggernaut team. The ’12 Orioles won 93 games, but they had just a plus-7 run differential. The ’15 Yankees won but 87 games.
It can be done without the eight-win performance McCutchen put forth in 2013. The Pirates of ’15 had an incredible 11 two-win players on board, with Mark Melancon (1.9 WAR) just shy of joining that club, too.
The reality is that — barring a star-level breakout or two — it’ll be anything but simple for these Pirates to achieve their intended goal this season. It takes a ton of ‘good’ to make up for a lack of ‘great.’