Williams: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

One of the things I like about the FanGraphs ZiPS projections this year is the inclusion of the 20th and 80th percentile estimates.

The typical projections each year give the 50th percentile estimate. Players can perform above and below these projections, and my ZiPS analysis each year tries to explain where I see the potential for players to exceed or fall short of simulations.

The 80th/20th Percentiles allow us to see what ZiPS is projecting in those simulations where the player is exceeding or falling short of his average. This is especially helpful, because it allows you to dream about some players, while isolating where the concerns are on the roster.

I wanted to focus on the range of expectations for each position in the Pirates’ lineup, getting an idea of the risks and upsides for the Pirates’ 2023 season. I’ll repeat this with the pitchers next week.

I’m mostly interested here in the 20th percentiles, wondering what is the worst that could happen at each position.

Catcher

Austin Hedges is projected for an 0.8 WAR. His 20th percentile is at replacement level, while his 80th percentile is a 1.5 WAR.

Interestingly enough, Tyler Heineman is rated slightly higher. His standard projection is an 0.9 WAR, with an 0.4-1.4 split on the 20/80.

Hedges has some intangible value with his leadership and experience. Both of these guys look better as backups. There’s a chance either one could perform to the high-end of their projections and boost the production behind the plate.

The Pirates had the 21st best catching production in the majors last year, with their group being around replacement level. If Hedges and Heineman both perform to their 20th percentiles, they’d be on par with the 2022 production.

The payoff here is Endy Rodriguez, who ZiPS loves. The top prospect in the system has a 20th percentile WAR of 1.3. The low-end expectations for Endy are the high-end expectations for Hedges and Heineman.

The Pirates will get an upgrade when Rodriguez arrives, per the ZiPS projections. I would have to agree.

First Base/Designated Hitter

The Pirates had horrible production at both first base and designated hitter last year. I’m grouping these two together here, though I expect some of the outfielders to get into the DH mix.

If Carlos Santana and Ji-Man Choi were able to make it through the entire season healthy, just performing to their 20th percentiles, they would represent a 4-win upgrade over the 2022 1B/DH positions.

That’s oversimplifying things a bit, but it shows how the Pirates don’t need much production from these spots to improve.

Santana is projected for an 0.3 WAR on the low end, with a 2.6 WAR upside on the high end. I think he ends up closer to the high end, especially if the Pirates can use their depth to reduce his workload on the field.

Choi is projected for a -0.2 WAR on the low end, with a 1.8 upside on the high end. He’s got an 0.9 WAR in his standard projection.

I couldn’t find a projection for Connor Joe, but most projection systems have him in the 0.7 WAR range. In the last two years he’s had 0.0 and 1.1 WAR seasons. I think his projection ends up just below Choi, and the Pirates could use Joe to reduce the workloads for the two first basemen who are over 30.

There’s not a ton of upside here, but the Pirates have stabilized these two positions with players who can play at least replacement level. I’d imagine that some outfielders get into the DH mix as well, with similar projections.

Second Base

This position looks like it will rely on prospect upside all year. My guess is that Rodolfo Castro and Ji-Hwan Bae will be the starting candidates on Opening Day.

Castro has a 20th percentile of -0.5 WAR. Bae is at 0.2 WAR. They both have an 80th percentile of just over 2 WAR.

I think that Nick Gonzales ends the year as the starting second baseman, but ZiPS doesn’t agree. It has Gonzales at an 0.1 low end and a 1.6 high end.

The Pirates will hope that one of these three can step forward in 2023 and provide multiple-WAR production at the position.

Shortstop/Third Base

I’m combining the left side of the infield only because it has the safest floors on the team. It also shows an interesting way to look at the percentiles.

The 20th Percentiles have Oneil Cruz with a 1.3 WAR and Ke’Bryan Hayes with a 1.6. For some of the previous positions, this has been a 50th-80th percentile projection.

Both Cruz and Hayes are projected by ZiPS with a 2.7 WAR in their 50th percentile projections. Cruz has more upside in the 80th percentile, with a 4.3 WAR to the 3.7 from Hayes.

Hayes gives you a slightly higher floor, and Cruz gives you a slightly higher ceiling from the same 50th percentile projections. The Pirates will be hoping for the ceilings from both players.

Outfield

Bryan Reynolds is the surest thing here, with a 2.1 WAR in his 20th percentile projections. ZiPS only projects three players on the roster with a higher 50th percentile range — Cruz, Hayes, and Rodriguez. You can start to see how this team is coming together on the high end.

Reynolds has the 80th percentile of a 5.2 WAR, with a standard projection of 3.5. The Pirates don’t get anywhere close to that with their other outfielders.

Jack Suwinski has one of the best 80th percentiles on the team, with a 2.5 WAR. However, he’s got a -0.4 20th percentile.

Andrew McCutchen is in a similar situation. He’s got a -0.3 WAR on the 20th percentile, but a 1.9 WAR on the 80th. I’d expect McCutchen to get more time at designated hitter, which could push him closer to the 80th percentile from his 0.7 WAR standard projection.

Cal Mitchell has the most bust potential of the Opening Day guys, with a -0.7 WAR on the 20th percentile. He has a 1.6 WAR on the high end.

ZiPS loves Travis Swaggerty, who has a 0.1 WAR on the low end and a 2.2 WAR on the high end.

As I mentioned in the DH section above, Connor Joe’s projections couldn’t be found, but I can’t imagine they’re much different from the rest of these guys.

The Pirates could get creative with platoons here, which could push guys closer to their 80th percentiles. Ji-Hwan Bae could factor into this mix, which gives another similar player with average upside.

At best, the Pirates would hope for another 5+ WAR season from Reynolds, flanked by average production at the other two positions. At worst, Reynolds still performs in an otherwise replacement level outfield.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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RobForsyth

I’m rooting hard for both Gonzales and Swaggerty as they’re both former 1st round draft choices. Please, please don’t give up on Swaggerty.

PirateRican21

People keep including him as the next 40 man casualty, I don’t get it…….BTW there’s a move coming soon for Cutch….

NMR

Really cool look, Tim.

Zack

Fascinating way to quantify the upside/downside. Thanks for doing this piece!

James_Robert5

They don’t look any better than this time 10 years ago

https://blogs.fangraphs.com/2013-zips-projections-pittsburgh-pirates/

bianco599

Reading this article got me a little more excited for this team. Not the numbers part just seeing the names who could be up by years end. Throw in a fiery manager and some bp help and I’d even get more pumped.

RaisetheJollyRancherGirl

Better start the interview for that fiery manager.

Wabbit_Season

RaisetheJollyRancherGirl…

I know this team was hardly worth managing in a competitive way recently, but I gotta wonder about Shelton and whether or not he has a clue sometimes.

The Bucs will bring in someone to absorb the suck… Pity John Russell and his 38% win rate…. But Shelton is sitting lower than that.

john_fluharty

This just had me thinking. What would you do if Cutch had a resurgent year? Might be cool to sign him year to year as long as he is productive.

b mcferren

Cutch will have a better 2023 than Reynolds

take it to the bank

skliesen

If that’s true, this season will have gone very badly for Pirates.

Wabbit_Season

In the What If store…

What if Cutch has a better season than Reynolds, but Reynolds hits .280 with 20 homers?

Hmmm?
What about THAT skliesen?

Ya gots ta keep an open mind.

Anthony

Open mind vs. base case are two totally different things…

skliesen

If Cutch hits more than 20 HR’s and hits close to .300, than we’ll all be jumping for joy no matter what Reynolds does.

b mcferren

why´s that?

they are ready to ship out reynolds next week

skliesen

I’ll be shocked if he’s dealt before the trade deadline.

SBRO

The sneaky good thing about the moves BC has made this offseason is the depth. In years prior, if a Tsutsugo or Michael Perez or Chavis put up a below replacement season, the next guy up was…below replacement. Quite literally! Here’s 1B last year:

Tsutsugo -1.3
Chavis -0.6
Van Meter -0.3

So if your #1 guy sucks, playing him less isn’t going to fix the issue because your #2 guy also sucks.

BC’s building enough depth that one guy having a 20th percentile season isn’t going to tank the entire position. If Choi craps the bed, there’s Santana and Joe. Hedges and Heineman could BOTH stink, and Endy’s just a phone call away. Bae can plug in at 2B or OF.

These aren’t all-stars, but there are enough guys who have a history of positive WAR that no position on this team needs to be a vortex of suck. And if it is, it’ll be due to incredibly bad fortune or bad management (field variety).

Anthony

You also have to wonder the synergy that creates throughout the lineup, making it much more difficult on opposing pitchers and defenses. There is a very real “butterfly effect” here.

Wabbit_Season

So… if Andrew McCutchen flutters his eyelashes…

… then Cueto drops the ball?

…faascinating!…

Anthony

A poetic interpretation for its application in chaos theory, yeah you know exactly what it means…

AdministrativeSky236

Last year really felt like we had maybe 2.5ish dangerous hitters plus a bunch of fairly easy outs. The lineup should be much deeper than that, even if still flawed. Noticeable improvement should be inbound i think!

tmcgowan

I take the over on Cutch 🙂

steve_zielinski

The worst that can happen is the players — many — suffer injuries.

Last edited 20 days ago by steve_zielinski
John Dreker

That’s not what this piece is about though. He’s focusing on the worst that can happen “based on the 20th percentile”. That’s the point of the article, so injuries don’t come into play.

leefieux

Which is another reason why I put little stock in Steamer or ZIPs.

John Dreker

They are projections based on playing time. If the guy only received half of the playing time projected, then you only use half of the projection. They don’t say they will definitely give you X amount of value regardless of what happens to them, they say they will give you X amount of value based on Y amount of plate appearances/innings. They work just the same if the players get injured. The amount of playing time is just always based on being healthy, but it doesn’t dictate the value. No one is going to create a system that predicts injuries before deciding value

Last edited 20 days ago by John Dreker
leefieux

Thx. I’m fairly sure I have a basic understanding of what they’re supposed to represent, but I still consider them about as useful as preseason predictions.

I used to play a game called Diamond Mind (Pursue the Pennant). They had quite a few home brewed disks based on ZIPs. It was incredible how far off they were from what really happened. Since then, I have mostly ignored them. If you like them, tho, great.

RaisetheJollyRancherGirl

Cherington should sign Profar and have him platoon with Suwinski against LHP to up the price on Reynolds mid-season. Could also flip Profar if the season doesn’t go well. Cutch in LF, Profar/Suwinski in RF and Reynolds in CF is a pretty solid OF. 2 years, $20M will not cripple the franchise.

https://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2023/01/rangers-marlins-among-teams-interested-in-jurickson-profar.html

jaygray007

i like the idea of profar, as he, in theory, still has the ability to play shortstop deep deep in his bones.

joesolo6181

I agree with the 75 game win total. I just hope they can get to 81 or more. Only time will tell. I think they can also do it without Reynolds on the team.

Danatural08

Good, realistic article Tim.

I saw in the Cutch article that Fangraphs had updated the Bucs W/L projection to .465 with all the moves, which takes them to a 75 Win projection currently, but that apparently doesn’t include Conner Joe in there.

Would have to think that the team could improve that Win projection by a couple if Endy was starting on the big league club from day 1, but we know that won’t happen.

The only other way for the team to exceed that 75 win mark would be more guys performing above that 50% mark which is what we’re all kinda hoping for. Seems the FO is banking on the shift ban pushing a couple of the Vets over the 50% mark. Let’s hope they’re on to something

PirateRican21

I’ve written this before, a Swaggerty break out would do wonders for this team, so would a Peguero break out, pushing Cruz to RF and having a good fielding SS would whether is Peguero (who is not there YET!) or someone else like a trade for Kim from the Padres or signing Elvis Andrus would make this team so much better.

melkel

I hope they give Swaggerty a chance. I think they have to give Cruz pretty much this year at short. I think you proposed the Brubaker for Kirilloff. I would like to see Brubaker, Reynolds and another 40 man to the Twins for Kirilloff, Lee, Lewis, Woods-Richardson, Prielipp, and their comp pick. Heck I would even switch out Keller for Brubaker. I’m dreaming of course.

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