The Pittsburgh Pirates helped the NL Central achieve something that no other division could manage last season. Four teams finished with a winning record. The Pirates, at 82-79, were well behind the rest of the pack, but still turned in a very solid campaign.
Some believe that this team isn’t that far away from contending. There is a lot to like about the roster. Jameson Taillon took a huge step forward last season and Joe Musgrove showed plenty of flashes in a season cut short by injuries. Chris Archer seemed to have a tough time fitting in after the Trade Deadline, but we all know about his ability. The bullpen has a lot of upside, including one of the top relievers in baseball in Felipe Vazquez. The promise and potential of Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, and Colin Moran could produce a pretty good lineup. Mitch Keller and Ke’Bryan Hayes are just about ready to make a Major League impact and there are other intriguing prospects as well.
The Pirates had three straight playoff appearances from 2013-15 and have won at least 78 games in six of the last seven seasons. Given the annual strength of the NL Central, the fact that they have always been competitive is a good attribute. A few breaks here and there and you can see why people do like the ceiling for this team. The floor is pretty high.
It would have been nice to see the Pirates a little bit more active over the summer. Lonnie Chisenhall, Erik Gonzalez, and Jordan Lyles were the only noteworthy additions. Attendance fell by over 450,000 fans at PNC Park last season to the lowest numbers the Pirates have seen since they moved from Three Rivers Stadium. Owners and teams do have more money than they are letting on, but there are teams that should be capitalizing on the depressed market and the Pirates are one of those teams.
In any event, it doesn’t appear to most that the Pirates can compete with the Cubs or Cardinals. Even with the likelihood of regression from the Brewers, the Pirates, at least on paper, appear ticketed for another fourth-place finish. With the Reds likely improved, is this a division capable of having four teams on the plus side of .500? Somebody has to lose, right? Will it be the Pirates? Will one of the others completely collapse? Will the Reds lose more than 95 games?
The Pirates are in a weird spot and it is a weird spot for MLB bettors as well. As mentioned, the floor is high. This is a team that has won at least 75 games each of the last seven seasons and the roster is solid, though unspectacular. PNC Park is a well-defined advantage as one of the better pitcher’s parks in the league and the Pirates went 44-36 at home last season.
Pittsburgh was 26-17 after 43 games and actually had first place in the NL Central, but went six games under .500 the rest of the way. By May 27, the Pirates were in fourth place, five games out at 28-24, and were never higher than third in the NLC.
What is supposed to change for 2019? How can the Pirates take that next step forward? How can they sustain long enough to go over their season win total? Can they?
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 82-79
Run Differential: -1
Pythagorean W/L: 80-81
BaseRuns Record: 78-83
BaseRuns Run Differential: -22 (4.29/4.43)
3rd Order Win% Record: 77.5-83.5
Record in One-Run Games: 29-22
Additions: Lonnie Chisenhall, Erik Gonzalez, Melky Cabrera, Jordan Lyles, Francisco Liriano, Steven Baron, Nick Franklin, Patrick Kivlehan, JB Shuck, Randolph Gassaway, Aaron Slegers, Tahnaj Thomas, Tyler Lyons, Roberto Gomez, Yordi Rosario, Tom Koehler, Rookie Davis, Vicente Campos, Brandon Maurer, Tyler Lyons
Losses: Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, Jordan Luplow, Max Moroff, Tanner Anderson, Ivan Nova
The Pirates didn’t spend a whole lot of money this offseason, but they did add some really good bullpen depth. Francisco Liriano has been reunited with pitching coach Ray Searage and the Pirates also added Jordan Lyles, Brandon Maurer, and Tyler Lyons.
Top to bottom, the Pirates have a really strong pitching staff. The offense will dictate the season and that’s why a lot of people seem to be disappointed in what the Pirates failed to do on that side of the ledger. Lonnie Chisenhall, Erik Gonzalez, and Melky Cabrera aren’t moving the needle much for anybody.
The losses aren’t substantial by any means, so the Pirates probably are better going into this season, but the winter did leave some questions unanswered.
BA: .254 (11th)
OBP: .317 (17th)
SLG: .407 (16th)
wOBA: .312 (20th)
wRC+: 96 (16th)
BABIP: .298 (11th)
K%: 20.3% (5th)
BB%: 7.8% (22nd)
Given how hard it is to hit at PNC Park, the fact that the Pirates finished in the middle of the pack in a lot of offensive categories is rather impressive. It goes a long way when Starling Marte is healthy. Marte returned to his normal production with a .277/.327/.460 slash, a .337 wOBA, and a 113 wRC+ after missing more than half of the 2017 season. Marte led the team in fWAR with 3.7 and could be in line for an even better 2019 campaign if his defensive metrics come back up.
OBP king Francisco Cervelli posted a .378 on-base percentage, which was good enough to lead the team in wRC+ among full-time players. He was limited to just 404 plate appearances because of injuries, but still amassed 3.3 fWAR. Corey Dickerson, Gregory Polanco, Elias Diaz, Adam Frazier, David Freese, Josh Bell, Colin Moran, Pablo Reyes, and Austin Meadows all posted wRC+ marks above 100, which means that each one of them was above league average offensively.
Freese and Meadows are the only ones not back, although Polanco will start the season on the DL after shoulder surgery. This isn’t an offense that stands out in any discernible way, but the Pirates do put a lot of balls in play. It’s hard to hit for power at PNC Park, hence the 16th-ranked SLG. The Pirates were 21st in SLG at home and 12th on the road. The Pirates also don’t walk much as a team, which drags down their offense in terms of the advanced metrics.
We have seen teams try to pivot to more of a contact-based approach in hopes of beating the shift and taking advantage of how weak team defense has gotten around the Majors in the era of strikeouts. The Pirates are going to put a lot of balls in play and a similar increase in FB% could help in the power department. While this team lacks a standout offensive star, the lineup is littered with players that are plenty capable of being average or better at the plate and that is a luxury.
The Pirates get Jung Ho Kang back this season. There were questions as to whether or not he’d ever be back after DUI and other legal issues in his native South Korea. He missed all of the 2017 season and just about all of the 2018 season, but he posted a 132 wRC+ in 370 PA in 2016 with a .255/.354/.513 slash line. He may not see a ton of playing time at the outset, but could be a useful piece, especially in the event of injuries.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of concerns with an offense like this. If Marte is not healthy, the outfield looks pretty bad in light of Polanco’s recovery and Lonnie Chisenhall’s uncertainty. He missed basically all of last season because of a calf injury. The Pirates are hopeful that Adam Frazier and Colin Moran can continue to develop at the plate and in the field. There are a lot of options, but how many will shine?
ERA: 4.00 (14th)
FIP: 4.06 (15th)
xFIP: 4.14 (15th)
K%: 21.7% (18th)
BB%: 8.1% (11th)
LOB%: 73.6% (12th)
This is where the rubber meets the road for the Pirates. Jameson Taillon unveiled a slider last season and was downright dominant from May 27 through the end of the season. Taillon’s full-season numbers were strong, but he posted a 2.71 ERA with a 3.20 FIP and a 3.45 xFIP over his final 139.2 innings with a 131/30 K/BB ratio and only 13 HR allowed over those last 22 starts. It felt like Taillon finally took that next step and it couldn’t have come at a better time after the Gerrit Cole trade.
Many are going to be down on Trevor Williams. One of my strengths as a baseball analyst is that I believe in the numbers and use the numbers, but I am not a black-and-white subscriber to the numbers. There are grey areas in baseball. Williams is one of them. Yes, he’ll run into some regression with a 3.11 ERA and a 4.54 xFIP, but xFIP is simply FIP regressed to a league average HR/FB%. Williams posted an 8.0 percent HR/FB% last season. League average was 12.7 percent. So, why do we evaluate him based on xFIP? What’s the point?
What made Williams so successful, outside of limiting home runs, was that he was 16th in average exit velocity against among pitchers with at least 200 batted ball events. Contact management is a skill and it is a skill that most, if not all, advanced metrics cannot account for. As a result, guys like Williams will be undervalued. Some BABIP regression is certainly possible, but he’s not going to bottom out and suddenly be useless.
Chris Archer never really found a groove with the Pirates and hasn’t really found a groove for a while. Archer has gaudy strikeout totals and swing and miss stuff, something a guy like Williams doesn’t have, but the command just isn’t there. Archer allows too much hard contact. He posted a 4.31 ERA with a 3.59 xFIP, so people will be fawning over him. The 3.75 FIP is good enough for me to buy in and the park factor and division changes should help his HR/FB%, but be careful going all in with him.
Joe Musgrove is also solid in the contact management department and the Pirates have a few good depth options with Nick Kingham, top prospect Mitch Keller, and some of their offseason signings. This is a quietly strong rotation and the home park is really good for this collection of arms.
This is also one of my favorite bullpens in baseball. Felipe Vazquez is elite, as we all know, with his 2.70/2.43/3.06 pitcher slash and 2.0 fWAR last season. Richard Rodriguez misses a ton of bats. Failed starter Kyle Crick turned out to be a plus reliever with over a strikeout per inning and a phenomenal HR/FB%. The Pirates also bolstered their bullpen at the Trade Deadline last year with Keone Kela. Jordan Lyles is a popular addition among the analytics crowd and Rule 5 Draft Pick Nick Burdi could wind up being a special pen arm.
I really like this unit. I’m not sure how much respect it’ll get from pundits, especially in this division, but the Pirates could very well have the best all-around pitching staff in the NL Central.
Positives & Negatives
As I’ve mentioned with the other NL Central teams, this division is a real bear. All 76 division games are going to be challenging. There are no free passes. Somebody has to lose and that’s why Pittsburgh’s offense is so important. It is the weakest of the five teams in this division at present.
I’m generally in favor of being proactive. The Pirates are on the cusp. They’re one of those teams right in the middle right now and some free agent spending could have been enough to push the team forward into a different tier of teams. The disappointment of the offseason does sting in a lot of ways.
Pick: Over 77.5
I actually like this team a fair amount. I’m a big believer in what they’re doing with the pitching staff and there are enough offensive options. The pitching staff is going to take some steps forward this season and the offense was pretty average across the board last season, even though several guys missed time and others were learning on the job.
Even with that, the Pirates won 82 games. I don’t see this team being worse this year and this could very well be a top-five pitching staff in the National League. Look out if Chris Archer has actually figured it out. The bullpen is top-notch and that goes a long way when it comes to win totals. You have to win the games that you are in position to win. The Pirates should convert those at an extremely high rate.
This is one of my stronger picks in the National League.