It was another fine season near the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Even though the season ultimately ended in disappointment as the Jake Arrieta Buzzsaw Across America tour made a stop at PNC Park on October 7, the Pirates achieved something that had only been done twice in franchise history. They made the postseason for the third straight year. The 1970-72 Pirates included a World Series winner in 1971 and the 1990-92 Pirates lost three straight NLCS rounds.

Some will probably scoff at my comparison to far more successful postseason stretches, since the Pirates have actually only won four games in the last three postseasons, but it’s still a very special achievement. This past season was actually the best of the three from a run-scoring standpoint and the Pirates pitching staff stayed remarkably healthy overall, as the team only used 21 pitchers. League average was 26 and only the San Francisco Giants matched the Pirates with 21 pitchers used. Nobody used fewer.

It’s pretty easy to see why skeptics are worried about the Pirates. A 36-17 record in one-run games is the first thing that stands out. Most teams fall within a +/- five wins in that metric. The Pirates have been praised for their bullpen depth over the last three seasons, but they were 31-29 in one-run games in 2014 and 29-23 in one-run games in 2013. A 36-17 mark is certainly a big outlier. It’s also why their Pythagorean win-loss record and also their BaseRuns records from last season suggest a drop-off.

Drop-off or not, BaseRuns had the Pirates at 91-71, which would have been the fifth-best record in baseball. By Pyth W-L, the Pirates had the fourth-best record at 92-70. So, while those two metrics suggest the Pirates overachieved a little bit, they were still clearly among the best teams in baseball. With the Chicago Cubs, who are planning the parade route through Wrigleyville in the minds of some, and the St. Louis Cardinals still serving as the most formidable of foes in all of baseball, some people would pick the Pirates to be the team to fall off of the pace.

Will that be the case? The Pirates didn’t have a great offseason, certainly not compared to a team like the Cubs, but most of their core was going to be in tact this season anyway. The Pirates are kind of back to being an afterthought in this division and that may be a motivating factor for a very talented ballclub. Flying under the radar is often better than trying to live up to expectations.

Season win total odds:

BetOnline: 86.5 (100/-130)

5Dimes: 86.5 (100/-130)

Bovada: 86.5 (-115/-115)

 

Key additions: Jon Niese, Juan Nicasio, Ryan Vogelsong, Kyle Lobstein, John Jaso, Neftali Feliz, Daniel Bard, Eric O’Flaherty, Cory Luebke, Jesse Biddle

Key losses: Neil Walker, Vance Worley, Antonio Bastardo, Travis Snider, Joe Blanton, AJ Burnett, Aramis Ramirez, Joakim Soria, JA Happ, Pedro Alvarez, Charlie Morton

Plenty of player movement for the Pirates this offseason. We can debate the merits of the quality of the innings lost, but between Worley, Bastardo, Blanton, Burnett, Happ, Soria, and Morton, the Pirates lose 546.1 innings of pitching. That’s over 36 percent of last season’s innings. That being said, they replace them with Jon Niese, Juan Nicasio, Ryan Vogelsong, Kyle Lobstein, Neftali Feliz, Daniel Bard, Eric O’Flaherty, and Cory Luebke.

A massive ace in the hole, no pun intended, for the Pirates is pitching coach Ray Searage. He worked wonders with Edinson Volquez and JA Happ. Happ owes him part of the $36 million he signed for this winter. The biggest loss is AJ Burnett, who threw 164 well above average innings. Happ only made 11 starts, but he was good enough to finish the season fourth in fWAR among Pirates hurlers. Bastardo made 66 appearances and posted a 2.98 ERA, though a high walk rate skewed his advanced metrics.

John Jaso’s a pretty decent player, although he mostly played as a DH for Tampa Bay and there’s obviously no DH in the NL. With all of five innings at first base in his MLB career, Jaso is slotted in as the everyday first baseman, which should be rather interesting.

 

Why bet the over?

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better all-around outfield in Major League Baseball than the one that the Pirates trot out on a nightly basis. It begins with Andrew McCutchen, who is on pace for a plaque in Cooperstown. Cutch had a “down year”, by his standards, when he posted a .292/.401/.488 slash last season. A down year for him is almost six wins above replacement player. McCutchen was bothered by a knee problem early in Spring Training last season that carried over into the season. He batted .194/.302/.333 in April. From May 1 on, Cutch hit .306/.416/.510 and stole all 11 of the bases he swiped.

Overshadowed by his teammate, Starling Marte is a really special player. Marte’s one-year walk rate bump was unsustainable, but his power spiked and that was a reasonable trade-off. He was one dinger away from a 20/30 (HR/SB) season. The list of players that did that last season? AJ Pollock. His low walk rate is a little bit unfortunate, since he’s almost always a high batting average guy with some good power numbers from doubles and triples. He’s also an outstanding outfielder. Patrolling left field, Marte has now saved 60 runs in 3,506.1 innings of work. He saved 24 runs defensively last season.

The breakout season should be coming for Gregory Polanco. The toolsy right fielder was hampered by a knee injury last season and he hasn’t been able to live up to expectations yet. He’s right around average in the strikeout and walk departments, but he hasn’t had much luck driving the baseball. He made some modest gains last season and he’s only turning 25. He did amass 11 defensive runs saved in right field last year and he also stole over 20 bases, so he creates value in other ways.

Expectations are quite high for Jung-ho Kang. Kang was upended by a takeout slide and it cut short his really good rookie season. He posted a .287/.355/.461 slash and four defensive runs saved at third. Returning from injury is always iffy, but he was a 3.9-fWAR player in 126 games and he showed some really good power with 41 extra-base hits. Pitchers may adjust and his overall slash line may sag a little bit, but we’re talking about a player that was 30 percent above league average. He’ll still be valuable, even with some modest regression.

If you were to construct a team of the most underrated players in the game, would Francisco Cervelli be your catcher? He should be. Cervelli was +20 in framing per Baseball Prospectus last season and hit .295/.370/.401. He’s a Gold Glove-level defensive catcher with good bat-to-ball skills and a really nice walk rate. There’s not a ton of power for him, so he doesn’t fit the traditional mold of a catcher, but he was almost a four-win player last season. We should expect some BABIP regression, but even then, we’re talking about a catcher with a .350+ OBP and elite defensive skills.

With Neil Walker gone, Josh Harrison is projected to get the majority of the innings at second base. He’s got an interesting little skill set of pop and speed and is league average at second base. He’s a really safe player, even if there’s some variance in his recent performance. His floor is high because he’s not going to hurt the Pirates defensively, has power and speed, and has versatility if he doesn’t keep the second base job.

Gerrit Cole is one of my favorite pitchers to watch. The stuff is incredible and the consistency is really special. Cole’s first full season was a major success. His strikeout rate stayed pretty consistent, but his walk rate improved in a big way and his home run rate dropped as well. He posted a 2.60 ERA with a 2.66 FIP and a 3.16 xFIP. It’s amazing the success he can have throwing 68 percent fastballs, but his command with that pitch is impeccable and it helps that he can run it up there in the 96 mph range with regularity. He’s an ace in every sense of the word.

Francisco Liriano was the first major project that Ray Searage took on and it’s the one that turned him into the Pitcher Whisperer. Liriano has put together three very strong seasons. Most importantly, he has stayed healthy the last two seasons, with 60 starts. Liriano actually worked 186.2 innings last year, the most he’s worked in a season since his career year in 2010. As long as he stays together, even with a high walk rate, he’s a very valuable starter that could be #1 on several teams.

Searage will have to work his magic with Jon Niese, Ryan Vogelsong, and Jeff Locke, but there’s a little bit of pedigree and MLB experience here among this group. Niese has a 3.91 ERA with a 3.84 FIP and a 3.74 xFIP in his career, which is definitely passable in the middle of this rotation. With his high ground ball split, Pittsburgh’s infield shifts could recoup some of his lost value. Jeff Locke is a lot like Jon Niese, except Niese’s past has better strikeout numbers and walk rates. He’s a serviceable #4, with Vogelsong hovering in the #5 range.

Top pitching prospect Tyler Glasnow made eight starts at Triple-A and could find himself in the Steel City by June if he gets off to a good start. He has an excellent fastball with a plus hammer and a developing change. He has battled some injuries, but he’s only 22 and gave up just three home runs in 109.1 innings in the minors last season. Jameson Taillon is another exciting arm that has battled some injuries. The raw stuff is there. If the health and control can catch up, the Pirates may get two high-upside guys in the rotation later in the year.

The bullpen didn’t really take any steps back with Soria and Bastardo gone. Mark Melancon, as long as his arm allows, will be the closer, with Tony Watson and Arquimedes Caminero in primary setup roles. Juan Nicasio and Neftali Feliz are Searage projects that could net value. Jared Hughes is a pitch-to-contact ground ball that can work well with this team’s defensive philosophy.

 

Why bet the under?

The starting rotation is not all that promising. It’s top-heavy with Cole and Liriano, who both have some injury risk. Cole battled some mild core inflammation earlier in Spring Training and everybody knows about Liriano’s injury history. He worked a lot of innings last season, so there’s reason to be concerned about how he fares this season.

Jon Niese has pitched through chronic shoulder discomfort. It seems like things finally fell apart last season. Niese posted the worst strikeout rate of his career and gave up 20 home runs. Hitters had their highest rate of contact on pitches in the strike zone and had a low chase rate again last season. He threw his lowest percentage of pitches in the zone at 48.8 percent. These are all injury indicators. Perhaps Searage can throw his pitching fairy dust on him, but Niese is a guy that appears to be on the downside of his career.

That’s not good, because the downside of Niese’s career is what Jeff Locke is on a regular basis. A 4.49 ERA was accompanied by a 3.95 FIP and a 3.94 xFIP. In a league without the DH, the league average last season was a 3.88 FIP and a 3.88 xFIP. So Jeff Locke is mildly below average. Most fourth starters around the league are, so maybe this isn’t a big deal, but Locke doesn’t show any signs of improving and is far more likely to go in the opposite direction.

Ryan Vogelsong was not good last season. He wasn’t good in 2013. He’s a great story, coming back from a myriad of arm problems and a stint in Japan to return to the big leagues and be a World Series champion with the San Francisco Giants. At 38, he can’t be counted on for a whole lot. Unfortunately it’s hard to count on Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon as well. Glasnow’s career high is 143.1 innings in 2014. Taillon managed to fight through 147.1 innings in 2013. He’s missed the last two seasons. He’s basically not even an option. At best, Glasnow might contribute three or four starts late in the season or as an injury replacement.

Those lost innings are a big worry. Not so much in the bullpen, where the Pirates always cobble something together, but in the rotation. Speaking of the bullpen, Mark Melancon dropped 1.2 miles per hour in average fastball velocity last season and the majority of his pitches were classified as cutters because of the speed. His strikeout rate plummeted as he worked 78 games. He’s still a quality reliever, but his situation is worth watching.

The knee slowed Andrew McCutchen down, but some are speculating that there could be more to this. His contact rates dropped across the board. His zone-contact rates have actually dropped in each of the last two seasons. It may be a one-year blip and it’s entirely possible that the bum knee played a role early on. It’s also possible that McCutchen, who has played an average of 155 games per season over the last seven seasons, is starting to wear down a little bit. His best offensive seasons came with elevated BABIPs. If contact quality, and contact in general, goes down, Cutch could post wRC+ marks in the 125 or 130 range. Still well above average, but not elite anymore.

How’s this for a statistical oddity? Starling Marte swung and missed at the highest rate of his career. He posted the lowest strikeout rate of his career. In other words, expect Marte’s strikeout rate to bounce back up, which could turn that .287/.337/.444 into more like a .280/.325/.425. It’s still good, but it’s not as good. Remember, with good teams, we look for minor regressions to add up to big ones.

Jung-ho Kang was great last season, but now he’s coming off of a major knee injury. When it comes to players entering their sophomore seasons, I prefer that they enter the fall healthy. Pitchers do adjust. It’s not conducive for a player to be rehabbing instead of training. It’s early March and Kang is still limited in Spring Training. That means that he is very likely to have a slow start. We’ll see how long it takes him to climb out of it.

John Jaso is a good hitter and he should thrive offensively in the NL, but he’s playing first base for the first time. It’s hard to see him being worse than Pedro Alvarez, but he’s a big unknown. Francisco Cervelli admitted to getting worn down after catching 120 games last season. Chris Stewart is an excellent defensive backup, but Cervelli’s bat is a lot better.

The Pirates had an odd year in some respects. I already mentioned their 36-17 record in one-run games, which is completely unsustainable. They were 24-9 against the NL East and 27-6 against the NL West, which was good enough to cover up their 34-42 record against division foes. The division shakes out in similar fashion this year, with Chicago and St. Louis at the top and Milwaukee and Cincinnati very much at the bottom. Realistically, the entire NL sets up in similar fashion, with the Diamondbacks maybe being a little bit better and the Dodgers and Giants teaming up on the Padres and Rockies, but the Pirates may have a hard time going 51-15 against non-division NL opponents. Of course, they won 98 games and the win total is nowhere near that, so *shrug*.

 

Pick: Pittsburgh Pirates Over 86.5 (Even – BetOnline)

This is not a strong pick at all. The Pirates have a really terrific collection of position players, two excellent starters, a good bullpen, and a lot of question marks in the rotation. I’m buying high on the position player upside and I think Tyler Glasnow can be a really big help to this rotation. I’m also buying in to Ray Searage. The guy has done an excellent job molding value out of really stiff clay, so to speak.

Even if we account for regression in one-run games, we’re right in this mid-80s range. It’s hard to see the Pirates having losing records against Cincinnati and Milwaukee again. It’s also hard to overlook some of the holes on the team and the 38 games against St. Louis and Chicago. The Pirates had a losing record against all four division rivals last season and still won 98 games.

I have much stronger plays in this division than the Pirates, but I’ll lean to the over as I don’t see a major regression from this team.

 

-END OF 2016 PREVIEW-

 

The Pittsburgh Pirates regressed a little bit from their 94-win season, but an 88-74 record was still good enough to get into the postseason. Unfortunately, they, like many teams, ran into Madison Bumgarner and their postseason dreams ended abruptly. Regardless, the Pirates followed up their first winning season since 1992 with another strong showing.

The Pirates managed to return to the postseason despite a losing record against the Central Division at 36-40. The only team the Pirates had a winning record against within the division was the Chicago Cubs, and they were 14-5 in 19 meetings. They were just 33-39 against teams with a .500 or better record and 55-35 against teams with a losing record. They also took advantage of the pitcher-friendly conditions at PNC Park to post a phenomenal 51-30 record at home. That record matched the Cardinals and Nationals for the top spot in the National League.

A terrific month of September helped to push the Pirates into the Wild Card. The Pirates were 17-9 and held the opposition to just 73 runs. The recipe for success was clear for the Pirates. They were 69-15 when they held the opposition to three runs or less. Even though the Pirates gave up more runs in 2014 than they did in 2013, they compensated by scoring more runs and part of the excitement about the Pirates this season is what they can do to improve even more offensively.

Getting off to a better start will be important for the Pirates. They were 10-16 entering May and managed to be 20 games over .500 over the final five months of the season to get into the playoffs. They lost the NL Central by two games, so a better start and who knows what might have happened.

Oddmakers are expecting another drop from the Pirates this season. Both BetOnline and 5Dimes have the Pirates lined at 83.5 wins, though the over is juiced at both sites. Bovada is showing an 84.5, the highest number offshore right now. Some of the offseason transactions and the parity projected in the NL Central have lowered this number. Nobody in the NL Central has a win total line below 77.5.

Key additions: Corey Hart, Antonio Bastardo, AJ Burnett, Francisco Cervelli, Sean Rodriguez

Key losses: Russell Martin, Edinson Volquez, Ike Davis, John Axford, Clint Barmes, Travis Snider

With the exception of the loss of Russell Martin, everything on this list appears to be a lateral (or better) move to me. The Pirates couldn’t compete with the huge offer that the Toronto Blue Jays gave Martin, a native Canadian, to return to the land of the Maple Leaf. Edinson Volquez was the latest successful project for Ray Searage, who has done an outstanding job with Volquez and Francisco Liriano.

AJ Burnett will replace Volquez. Burnett was a vocal critic of Pittsburgh’s shift-heavy style of defense, yet he took less money to return to Pittsburgh after spending last season with the Philadelphia Phillies. Corey Hart is an intriguing player to replace Ike Davis’s offensive production.

Antonio Bastardo is a fine addition to a bullpen that has worked a lot of high-leverage innings over the last couple of seasons. The loss of John Axford will not hurt a bit. Sean Rodriguez is a super utility guy that can pick up what Clint Barmes left behind and Francisco Cervelli, while not Russell Martin at the plate, is a very good pitch framer.

Why bet the over?

What, exactly, did the Pirates lose in order to drop by five wins this season? It’s time that everybody starts to take the Pirates seriously instead of waiting for them to bottom out. Neal Huntington has built a deep franchise at the Major League level and throughout the minors. This is a solid coaching staff and the Pirates have one of the game’s best all-around players in Andrew McCutchen.

McCutchen is a special talent. There aren’t many holes in his game. Defensive metrics soured on him a little bit in 2014 and he dropped in stolen bases, so maybe there was an underlying leg problem there, but Cutch hit 25 home runs with a .314/.410/.542 slash and a .412 wOBA. His walk rate went up a couple ticks and his BABIP proved sustainable once again. He’s easily a six-win player with good health and has upside for more after a down year defensively.

Josh Harrison got full-time action this season and it paid off in a huge way for the Pirates. Harrison hit 13 home runs and rode a .353 BABIP to a great offensive season. He was worth almost five wins for the Pirates last season. He stole 18 bases and played average or better defense at second base, shortstop, third base, left field, and right field. He also added seven triples for a total of 58 extra-base hits.

Starling Marte’s defensive performance regressed a bit, but the flashy outfielder with power and speed once again rode a huge BABIP to a good slash line and a season that was 32 percent above league average. Marte has untapped power potential that is still in hiding because PNC Park absolutely kills right-handed hitters. Marte hit eight of his 13 home runs on the road. His batted ball distance ranked in the top 15 last season and he was hurt in the summer months when the ball might carry a little bit better at PNC. He could approach 20 HR this season.

Pedro Alvarez is an extremely intriguing bounce back candidate. His plate discipline statistics improved dramatically, in that he walked 2.3 percent more often and struck out almost five percent less often. He’s also moving from third base, where he isn’t very good, to first base where his legs will be saved to provide more power. Alvarez was hurt last season and his home run total went from 36 down to 18. The massive drop in power accounted for a 68-point decline in slugging percentage. But, first base should be easier on the big guy and the power potential is still there. With the offensive drop and the fielding follies, Alvarez was worth 3.3 fewer wins in 2014. This is what I’ve been talking about when I discuss hidden value. Oddsmakers aren’t looking at stuff like this.

If we want to discuss offensive upside, nobody has more of that than Gregory Polanco. The 23-year-old got a crash course in Major League pitching last season, and his performance was overwhelming overall, but the signs are there. He posted an above average walk rate and an average contact rate. He hit seven home runs in 312 plate appearances and swiped 14 bases. He was a little bit of an adventure defensively, but his arm is a major weapon in right field. The Pirates outfield is totally stacked if Polanco’s minor league promise flashes at the Major League level. The trade of Travis Snider to Baltimore opened up playing time for Polanco and the future is now for the sophomore.

Another example of hidden value is at the catching position for the Pirates. Russell Martin provided value that was easy to see with the eyes. He hit and he hit well. The pitch framing metrics also loved him, but that’s the part that the oddsmakers and average fans don’t see. In Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli, the Pirates have two terrific pitch framers. Cervelli and Stewart put bat to ball enough to get by offensively, especially in the National League and especially at a weak offensive position. But they will provide a significant amount of framing and defensive value that is much harder for people to quantify. It’s not a stretch to say that this duo should combine for at least two wins in just defensive value.

Neil Walker has quietly been a very productive second baseman, but he announced his presence with 23 home runs and a .356 wOBA last season. The power bump may not be all that sustainable, but some bad batted ball luck last and the home run increase this season lowered his batting average from the .280-.290 it was in 2010-12. He flashed decent pop in the minors and has regularly been in double digits. Either way, you can count on him to be above average once again.

Overall, this is a really impressive Pirates offense. There are some guys that may regress a little, but others will positively regress. There’s power, speed, contact, and a few guys that walk at a decent clip. PNC Park keeps this team from meeting its offensive potential, but you should view them as a top-five offense in the NL.

Gerrit Cole was limited to 22 starts and still led the Pirates in fWAR last season. Shoulder injuries can linger, so there’s an element of risk to Cole, but his second half was dynamite last season. Batted ball luck was not on his side with a 3.44 ERA, but he had a 2.39 FIP, a 2.75 xFIP, and a K/BB ratio of 5.45. He struck out over 29 percent of the batters he faced. If that’s the Gerrit Cole we can expect, he’s ace material.

Francisco Liriano re-signed with the Pirates because he understands the value of their defense to his success. Liriano resurrected his career in 2013 with the Pirates. He didn’t have exactly the same measure of success last season due to a higher home run rate and an elevated walk rate, but he increased his strikeout totals and, most importantly, stayed healthy for the most part. Hitters barreled him up less with a lower line drive rate and his changeup developed into a very effective pitch. The higher walk rate can be explained by a 2.7 percent decline in first-pitch strikes, which means that it is correctable. Expect him to pitch at least the same, if not better this season.

AJ Burnett returns to the Pirates after pitching through a hernia last season. The walk rate spiked and the velocity dropped while Burnett was hurt, which, at 38, may not have been a coincidence. Nevertheless, he’s a reliable, dependable arm that will give the Pirates somewhere around 200 innings. A return to the 3.52 FIP he had in 2012 seems plausible, and that would make him a three-win pitcher.

Vance Worley reinvented himself as a pitcher in the Pirates organization and it paid off in a big way. After getting blasted in the American League in 2013, Worley developed his two-seamer and it led to a high ground ball rate and better home run rates. On the Pirates, with their defensive shifting philosophy, ground balls are a great thing and they were for Worley. He posted a 2.85 ERA with a 3.44 FIP and a 3.54 xFIP. He doesn’t walk guys and he keeps the ball on the ground. That makes him a very valuable back-end starter.

There’s some decent depth with guys like Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton, and Charlie Morton. They aren’t impact guys, but they are generally reliable. Morton induces a ton of ground balls, so he fits that Pirates MO in that regard.

The bullpen is in good shape once again, assuming Mark Melancon can stay on the field. There’s good depth and Bastardo adds another reliable southpaw alongside Tony Watson. John Holdzkom and Stolmy Pimentel have some big upside in this bullpen as guys that can induce a lot of swings and misses.

Why bet the under?

The “Superstar Theory”, as I’m going to start calling it, is in play here with the Pirates. They are better equipped from a depth standpoint in the outfield than a team like the Angels, but any month or longer injury to Andrew McCutchen is going to put them in a very tough spot to make this number. It’s not just what McCutchen adds offensively, but defensively as well to a rotation that is largely mediocre behind Cole.

If Gregory Polanco doesn’t show up and Starling Marte sees a regression in his BABIP, the Pirates outfield goes from really great to above average in a hurry. Polanco certainly has the physical tools, but he added weight over the offseason and that may hurt his speed and defensive ability.

Neil Walker’s home run total is going to come down. Josh Harrison is probably due for some major regression in all facets of his offensive game. Jordy Mercer is lacking as an offensive player. The Pirates could have some guys coming closer to league average and that’s going to lower their offensive ability overall.

What about Russell Martin’s offensive production? Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli can match him defensively, but who replaces the .370 wOBA and 140 wRC+? As much as pitch framing and catcher defensive metrics have been thrust into the limelight of late, offensive numbers are still good for the team. Without Martin, the Pirates have a similar defensive outlook, without the offense that produces 3-3.5 wins.

The starting rotation has some major question marks. Cole’s shoulder is the biggest one of all because he’s the biggest impact guy of the group. Is Vance Worley for real? All it took for Vance Worley to go from punching bag to viable Major League starter is a two-seam fastball? I’m highly skeptical of that. Francisco Liriano is an injury waiting to happen with his past arm troubles and heavy use of the slider. He trended in a negative way from 2013 to 2014 and that could certainly happen again this season.

AJ Burnett is 38 years old. At some point, the shine will fully come off of him. Was last season all about the injury or was there something more there? The velocity decline is a worry because he gets swings and misses by changing speeds, not by having pinpoint command. If there was something complementary going on along with the hernia, and age and workload could be involved, then Burnett may do well to be league average.

The bullpen has some questions behind Melancon and the two good lefties, Watson and Bastardo. Justin Wilson and Jared Hughes are big regression candidates this season and Holdzkom and Pimentel are both inexperienced and have very little high-leverage experience. The Pirates play a lot of close games. Over the last two seasons, they have played 112 one-run decisions in the regular season. The bullpen has to be good in order to win the majority of those games.

Pick: Over 83.5

You’ll notice that the case against the Pirates was pretty small and that’s because this team is a good bet to go over the total. Not only do they have a very interesting roster top to bottom with a ton of talent, there’s help down below as well. The rotation probably goes about nine or 10 deep because of minor leaguers like Nick Kingham. Tyler Glasnow is pretty far away, but he could be a fast-riser. Jameson Taillon is coming off of Tommy John surgery, but he could make an appearance later this season.

There’s a plethora of talent in this organization and this is a Pirates team that has it all. Guys that hit for average, some thunder, a lot of speed, and a strong defensive team, especially with Alvarez at first base when he’s on the field. The Pirates have an identity and they win within it. Once they started to make defensive changes, the whole team took off and they are one of the most exciting teams in baseball.

Take the over and don’t look back. This is the only team in the NL Central capable of challenging the St. Louis Cardinals for the division crown.

 

-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-

 

Anybody who saw what the Pirates did over their first 100 games in 2012 probably thought it was a great story. Anybody who continued to follow the Pirates over their final 62 games probably called the first half a fluke and wrote them off. As it turned out, it was wrong to write off the Pirates in 2013. After beginning the 2012 season with a 58-42 mark after 100 games, the Pirates sat two games back in the National League Central. Sixty-two games later, the Pirates ended the season 79-83, 18 games behind the Cincinnati Reds.

What happened in 2012 is a concept discussed in Joe Peta’s outstanding book Trading Bases. Peta describes something called “cluster luck”, which is where teams play better over a stretch of games because of timely hits in high-leverage situations. For the Pirates pitching staff in 2012, their slash lines against weren’t drastically different between halves, but the timing of when hits happened was different. In the first half, Pirates pitchers stranded 75.7 percent of baserunners as a team. Their BABIP against of .276 was below league average and their 3.48 ERA compared to a 3.92 FIP signaled that regression was coming. In the second half, it did, as the left on base rate fell to 69.5 percent, their BABIP against climbed to .296, and the team’s ERA ballooned to 4.38, even though the FIP stayed pretty similar at 3.96.

The Pirates, led by GM Neal Huntington, who served under Mark Shapiro with the Cleveland Indians, one of baseball’s more progressive front offices at that time, did a lot of data analysis to help figure out the team’s issues. One of the most radical turnarounds in baseball was made possible by a dramatic change in defensive philosophy. Huntington, his staff, and Manager Clint Hurdle sat down after the season and found an inefficiency that they could exploit. The secret was in defensive shifting.

The Pirates had started to implement some changes in 2008, but it was after the 2012 season that they found the right formula. The Pirates compiled a pitching staff of ground ball guys, a rather surprising decision given the pitcher-friendly outfield at PNC Park, and were able to get the message across that pitchers were to trust the defense. In 2012, the Pirates were -25 in defensive runs saved. In 2013, the Pirates saved 68 runs defensively. The proof is in the pudding, as the Pirates allowed 97 fewer runs in 2013.

The scheme changes were able to take a rotation that featured reclamation project Francisco Liriano, soft-tossing southpaw Jeff Locke, underwhelming swingman Charlie Morton, and veteran AJ Burnett and turn it into one of the game’s best groups statistically. Of Pirates pitchers that made eight or more starts, no one had an ERA above 3.59.

The Pirates are a fascinating case study in both sabermetrics and defensive theory. But, is it sustainable? Oddsmakers seem to expect some regression from the Pirates, who won 94 games last season, six games better than their projected record using Pythagorean Win-Loss. The best line for those that want to bet the under is at BetOnline.ag with a line of 84.5 and -115 on both sides. 5Dimes.eu also has 84.5, with the under at -145. BetDSI.eu and Bovada.lv are both at 83.5 with -110 on both sides at DSI and a -125/-105 at Bovada.

Key additions: Edinson Volquez, Chris Stewart

Key losses: Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd, AJ Burnett, Garrett Jones

The latest project for pitching coach Ray Searage will be Edinson Volquez. Searage did a great job with Francisco Liriano, a guy who, like Volquez, had some major control issues earlier in his career. The hope will be for Volquez to sneak into the fifth starter spot and provide the Pirates with another average or better arm in the rotation.

Unfortunately, a rotation spot opened up because AJ Burnett moved on to Philadelphia. He’s a huge loss for the Pirates as a guy that led the team in innings pitched and strikeouts. He posted a 3.30 ERA, but the second-best FIP at 2.80, and led the starters with the best SIERA at 3.03. Burnett’s 4.0 fWAR will be difficult to replace.

Chris Stewart combines with Russell Martin to create the game’s best defensive tandem behind the plate. More on that later, but Stewart had 25 runner kills in 109 games. Martin had 41 last season for the Pirates. Between those two, running on the Pirates pitching staff will be very difficult, which will help to keep double plays in order for the ground ball staff.

For a team that had a marginal offense to begin with, losing Justin Morneau and Garrett Jones leaves the team with some depth questions, but neither player had much of an impact last season. Jones had 440 plate appearances but was a negative WAR player and Morneau only made 92 trips to the plate. The same can be said about Marlon Byrd, who was an August waiver trade deadline addition. He had an impact while he was there, but he only had 115 plate appearances.

Why bet the over?

Teams that are willing to go the extra mile to find market inefficiencies and exploit them are always worth valuing a little bit higher than others. The Pirates rotation definitely lacks household names, but their unique defensive shifting coupled with an understanding of how important pitch framing is will add value to a pitching staff that most are probably writing off.

The loss of AJ Burnett is unquestionably big, but the impending emergence of Gerrit Cole should fill some of the void. Cole was extremely impressive in his 19 starts last season with a 3.22 ERA and a 2.91 FIP. In Cole’s first 41.2 innings last season, Cole posted a 3.89 ERA with a 2.78 K/BB ratio. The issue for Cole is that he only struck out 14.5 percent of batters. Whether it was the tutelage of Searage or Cole’s raw talent, the second half was decidedly different. Cole struck out over 25 percent of the batters he faced and had a 2.85 ERA and a 2.72 FIP. Cole won’t turn 24 until September and by that point he may be a bona fide ace in the Pirates rotation.

There aren’t too many red flags that jump off the pace with Francisco Liriano’s performance last season. He was effectively wild, walking 9.5 percent of hitters, but striking out 24.5 percent for a 2.59 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Any time a pitcher has 75 percent or higher rates for strikeouts and ground balls, he’s going to be extremely effective. Liriano was just that with a 3.02 ERA and a 2.92 FIP. His SIERA projects a little bit of regression at 3.43, due in large part to a high percentage of line drives, but his line drive rate was well above his career average and could normalize this season.

The rest of the Pirates rotation remains a bit of a mystery with Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez, Jeff Locke, and Edinson Volquez all striving for a spot. There are three spots available, so only one guy will be the odd man out. Morton looks like a lock for one of those spots after his 2013 campaign. Morton made 20 starts in his return from Tommy John surgery and went 7-4 with a 3.26 ERA and a 3.60 FIP. He’s a pitch-to-contact guy, but his 62.9 percent ground ball rate was tops among all pitchers with 100 or more innings pitched. He fits right into what the Pirates want to do defensively and that locks him into the rotation.

If healthy, Wandy Rodriguez should also secure a spot. Part of the decision will be financially-motivated since Rodriguez, even with the Astros paying $5.5M of his contract, will be the second-highest-paid Pirate this season. Rodriguez was shut down with forearm soreness, generally a precursor to Tommy John surgery, but he went the rest and rehab route and is reportedly throwing pain-free in the spring. If Rodriguez can contribute, he exhibited great control last season with a walk rate of just 4.6 percent. He was one of the few that used PNC’s outfield to his advantage with a .255 BABIP on balls in play with one of the lower ground ball rates on the team.

Between Locke and Volquez, there’s some risk involved with both guys. Locke’s first half could best be described as the element of surprise, as he posted a 2.15 ERA with a .197 batting average against. His 3.80 FIP signaled regression on the way and it hit about as hard as possible for a pitcher. Locke’s second half ERA in 57.1 innings was a hideous 6.12 and his walk rate ballooned to 13.5 percent. He’s likely a guy that will hover around a 4.00 ERA unless he can cut down on the walks. His season FIP was 4.03, with a xFIP of 4.19 and a 4.47 SIERA. Volquez is essentially a right-handed version of Locke at this stage of his career, just with a higher ground ball rate.

Be on the lookout for Jameson Taillon, who may follow Cole’s 2013 path. Taillon made six starts for Triple-A Indianapolis last season, so he should be up with the club at some point. He’s a consensus top-20 prospect that would definitely solve the Pirates depth concerns at starting pitcher.

It’s important to keep in that mind that this rotation will overachieve because of PNC Park’s dimensions and the defensive shifts. There’s a reason that the Pirates were spectacular at home with a 50-31 mark. Not only was the defensive shifting a key contributor, so was Russell Martin. Martin registered a caught stealing percentage of 40 percent. Statcorner.net’s Pitcher Report also says that Martin was 17.1 runs above average in pitch framing. Newly-acquired backup Chris Stewart was second in that category, 22.7 runs above average last season. Pitch framing data is calculated by using PITCHf/x to count pitches outside the strike zone called strikes and pitches inside the strike zone called balls. Martin helped his pitchers to 134 additional strike calls last season. Catchers that can frame the zone help pitchers immensely and that’s what Martin and Stewart will do this season.

The Pirates have the core of their bullpen in tact entering the 2014 season as Jason Grilli returns from injury and Mark Melancon moves back into the setup role. Grilli and Melancon posted FIPs of 1.97 and 1.64, respectively, and both exhibited elite command. Melancon walked eight batters in 71 innings en route to one of the best relief seasons in quite some time. Tony Watson is the lefty specialist, but he’s not as useless against righties as most lefties tend to be. Justin Wilson is another reliable lefty with nice ground ball numbers. The Pirates bullpen, if it stays healthy, will protect a lot of leads.

The Pirates offense is a collection of very interesting skill sets. Andrew McCutchen is the most complete player with tremendous numbers all over his stat line. McCutchen was one of eight 20/20 guys with 20 HR and 20 SB, joining Carlos Gomez, Mike Trout, Hunter Pence, Will Venable, Ian Desmond, Coco Crisp, and Shin-Soo Choo in that category. Include defense in the mix and McCutchen is a top-five position player in MLB. If McCutchen returns to 31 home runs like he hit in 2012, he could easily be a nine-win player.

After McCutchen, it’s a very diverse group. Pedro Alvarez is the all-or-nothing home run threat with 36 home runs and over 30 percent of his plate appearances ending with strikeouts. Starling Marte is the speedster with decent power and an aggressive approach. He hit 12 home runs, stole 41 bases, and reaped the benefits of a .363 BABIP. He and McCutchen form a great defensive outfield from right center to the left field line. Neil Walker and Russell Martin combined for over 30 home runs and an above average walk rate. Gaby Sanchez was sidetracked by injuries, but he also would have had double digit home runs to accompany a great walk rate at 13.8 percent and a .361 on-base percentage.

This is a balanced lineup capable of a lot of things. It has speed, power, contact, patience, and a reliable superstar MVP candidate that just keeps getting better.

Why bet the under?

The loss of Burnett is a big deal, even though Cole can fill the void. If Cole does fill the void, somebody else still needs to big up the remaining slack. Liriano will be expected to duplicate, or at least come close to, his 2013 season. It’s a big task to ask of a guy who was plagued by inconsistency and seemingly irreparable control problems prior to last season. Liriano is also extremely reliant on his slider, which is always an injury concern for pitchers. With a guy who has already had major elbow surgery, the risk is high.

The risk is also high for believing in Rodriguez. It’s highly unlikely that rest and rehab would be the cure-all for a 35-year-old’s forearm/elbow problems and expecting him to stay healthy is not very wise. There’s depth behind Rodriguez that can survive in Pittsburgh with defense, the catching, and the pitcher-friendly park, but the Pirates would have to tap into it quickly if he goes down. That depth, which includes Jeanmar Gomez, who has never held down a Major League job, and Jeff Locke, who has control concerns of his own, would do well to be league average.

Offensively, Starling Marte is probably in line for some regression. It’s very hard to put up quality offensive numbers with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.5-to-1, but that’s what Marte did last season. What helped his on-base percentage and steals numbers was getting hit 24 times by pitches. Only Shin-Soo Choo was hit more often. His speed will still be a factor, but on an offense that needs all of its parts in working order, expect Marte’s production to decline by few runs.

Jason Grilli is definitely no guarantee to stay healthy and the Pirates bullpen has some depth concerns behind the big three of Grilli, Melancon, and Watson. There are a lot of inexperienced guys. Another issue for the Pirates is that they had a postseason run for the first time in a long time there have been teams that have had a playoff hangover. The Indians in 2007 come to mind as a team that relied heavily on a few relievers and they had one of the league’s worst bullpens in 2008. Bullpens are volatile and workloads and high-stress innings that guys aren’t used to can take a toll the following season.

Play: Over 83.5 (-110, BetDSI)

I’m going to go contrarian here and support the Pirates. Their advanced analysis clearly works and Ray Searage has done a fantastic job. The element of “cluster luck” I brought up earlier from Joe Peta applies to the Pirates offense in 2013. Overall, they batted .245/.313/.396/.709 as a team. But with runners in scoring position, they batted just .229/.316/.334/.650. Their wRC+ of 78 was worse than everybody except the Twins and Marlins. The power drop was most surprising and should improve this season.

This is a team that plays great defense all around the diamond, is tailored to its home ballpark, and has a unique skill set in the lineup that can manufacture runs with small ball or the long ball. The loss of Burnett isn’t enough to take this team down 11 wins. With Taillon probably up near midseason to replace whoever is struggling at that time, the Pirates could go on another run and make some noise in the playoff picture.