Yesterday I asked Andrew McCutchen for his input on the hype that the Cubs were receiving this off-season, along with whether he agreed with the Pirates being forgotten behind the Cubs and Cardinals. His response, from the article, was interesting.
“How many times have we been on the back burner these past few years? I think almost every year, if I’m not mistaken,” McCutchen said. “No one ever expects us to do that well. We won 98 games last year. It wasn’t enough for us, but I don’t think many people saw us doing what we did.”
Interestingly enough, the PECOTA projections came out today at Baseball Prospectus, and they weren’t favorable for the Pirates. The original projections had the Pirates winning 79 games. That was updated to 83 wins by the end of the night. This new total was enough to place them one win ahead of the Cardinals, but would have them missing the playoffs by several games.
It’s pretty common for the Pirates to be underrated by projection systems. PECOTA has always been lower on them than other systems, even throughout the year last year when they were on their way to 98 wins. The projections actually predicted a .500 record before the season started. So you probably shouldn’t put too much stock in the projections as a concrete number, and instead use them as a guide. And if you’re using the projections as a guide, then you have to ask a very important question: Why do these projections always underrate the Pirates?
Looking at this year’s PECOTA breakdown, a few things stand out.
First, there are some players who look like they are just flat-out projected way too low. Take the outfield, for example. Andrew McCutchen is projected for a 4.0 WARP, even though he was 6.0 or better from 2011-14, and 4.8 in a down year in 2015. McCutchen also had a 4.3 in 2010, and a 2.6 in half a season in 2009. A 4.0 projection would be a career worst, and an extremely disappointing year.
The same goes for Starling Marte. He’s projected for a 2.0 WARP, even though he’s been in the 2.5-3.3 range in his first three seasons. Of course, the other side of this is that Jordy Mercer is projected for a 2.0, even though he had a 1.6 in 2013 and an 0.9 in 2015. He did have a 3.7 in 2014, which brings his three-year average to 2.0, but that 2014 season looks like an outlier compared to the other two years. At any rate, the Pirates seem to have more players projected too low than too high, and the guys projected lower have a bigger difference than the guys projected higher.
But the truth about this is that I’m only looking at the Pirates. It’s very possible that this same problem could be taking place all around the league, with players on each team getting projected lower than their career numbers. For example, the Cubs have similar problems. Anthony Rizzo averaged 5.4 WARP the last two years, and was projected for 3.8 this year. Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward were also projected low, with Heyward getting about half his normal value. So if the Pirates are underrated for this reason, then the Cubs and every other team could have the same argument.
The next thing I’d look at would be the pitching staff, specifically the rotation. The projected back of the rotation looks pretty horrible, with Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and Ryan Vogelsong combining for 1.9 WARP. Looking at their previous season numbers, these aren’t totally out of the question, and aren’t low predictions. But the Pirates seem to get the best out of pitchers, and that is something which won’t be included in projections. I’m less confident that they’ll get a big breakout from someone like Ryan Vogelsong, but I could see Jon Niese returning to his best self, which alone would be worth more than that 1.9 WARP combined projection for all three guys.
Beyond the pitching magic would be the defensive shifts and framing. The Pirates focus heavily on both, and I’m not sure how much they are incorporated in the projections. The projections do highlight Fielding Runs Above Average, and the Pirates have the second best NL number here (and it’s not even close between them and the third best NL team). Francisco Cervelli also gets good marks, but it’s hard to say if that’s incorporating his framing skills. These are two areas where most projections leave the Pirates short (and these areas also help boost the pitching). I can only imagine PECOTA leaves them short as well.
One thing about any projection system is that they’re supposed to be fun, and aren’t supposed to be taken as gospel. They also don’t project the best possible outcome, although even that disclaimer leaves questions when the Pirates are projected to finish sixth in the NL and four games out of the Wild Card game. The good thing here is that the Pirates have found ways to beat their projections in large fashion in previous years. Perhaps they can do it again in 2016.
**The Pirates Prospects App is Now Available on Android. If you missed it from this weekend, our app is now available on Android. The iOS version for Apple devices will be out in the next week.
**Can Cory Luebke be the Next Pitcher to Receive the Ray Searage Magic? An interesting look at how and why Luebke ended up signing with the Pirates, and his thoughts on their success rebuilding pitchers.
**Wyatt Mathisen Getting Some Work at First Base, But Still More Valuable at Third. The work at first base is unofficial, as he’s just trying out a new position on his own. I explain why the Pirates wouldn’t make such a move, since Mathisen has a lot of value to them at third base.
**Keith Law’s Top 20 Pirates Prospects, Plus More From Baseball America. Some interesting prospect rankings here, specifically Luis Escobar, who we’ve got as a breakout candidate, but have no where close to 12th in the system.
**Baseball America Announces Draft and International Bonus Pools For Pirates. These will be important numbers to keep in mind over the summer.