Williams: Projecting the Pirates For 86-87 Wins, and the Disappointment that Comes With That

My favorite article of every offseason is my ZiPS analysis, projecting how many wins the Pirates will have by using the ZiPS projections on FanGraphs.

I use the words “analysis” and “projection” interchangeably in this article, so to be clear, this is 100% an analysis. What I’m doing is projecting out playing time based on what I think the Pirates will do, then using ZiPS projections to add a WAR figure to that playing time.

This analysis typically ends up higher than most projections, which makes sense, as most projections are typically conservative and can have an expected deviation of five wins in either direction. If this analysis comes up with 86 wins, and a projection has 81 wins, then 86 wins isn’t that unlikely for the projection.

The goal of this analysis is to get a more exact figure, and show how we got to that figure. By the end of the year, I’ll look back on this and see how the Pirates got to their actual win total, where they exceeded projections, and where they fell short. This will make things more clear about how they achieved their final result.

This year’s projection ended up between 86 and 87 wins, which might be surprising to some. I’ll go through each position below, and I’ve got what almost amounts to a column after all of that.

Before we begin, I will point out again that the disclaimer in ZiPS is that you shouldn’t total all the WAR on the depth charts to get a team WAR. I’ve had that mentioned in the past in regards to this article, but that doesn’t apply here. I believe that disclaimer is for all of the projections on the ZiPS page, which would result in a WAR that would be impossible to obtain, due to the unrealistic amount of playing time projected for each team. The approach I’m taking is much more calculated and more accurate in terms of playing time. It’s similar to the approach FanGraphs takes on their depth charts, where the WAR totals are different than the ZiPS projections. It’s also an approach that you could use with any projection system, since the main focus is figuring out playing time, then applying a projection to that playing time. There’s also the disclaimer to add that this is just for entertainment.

Now, here are the projections.


Generally the accepted baseline for a team of replacement level players is anywhere from 45-50 wins. The average usually falls around 48. So we’ll start with that figure before we look at any individual players.

WAR: +48.0 (48.0)


Francisco Cervelli has a 1.6 WAR over 365 plate appearances. Elias Diaz has a 1.1 WAR over 322 plate appearances. The Pirates had 667 plate appearances at catcher last year, which is 20 less than the total of these two projections. I adjusted Diaz down slightly, giving him a 1.0 WAR. The combination here is a 2.6 WAR, which is already 0.7 WAR higher than where the catchers were projected to be last year.

Of course, the 2.6 combined WAR is lower than their totals last year, when Cervelli and Diaz combined for 5.3 WAR. I agree with the split in playing time, as I think that’s how the Pirates will handle the situation. I also think there could be room to exceed projections if they can get close to repeating last year’s totals.

WAR: +2.6 (50.6)


Josh Bell is projected for 596 plate appearances and a 1.8 WAR. There were 680 plate appearances at the position last year. I’m going to give Bell all of his appearances, and will save the remaining plate appearances for the bench.

WAR: +1.8 (52.4)


Adam Frazier should be the full-time second baseman. He’s projected for a 2.2 WAR over 487 plate appearances. There were 705 plate appearances at second base last year. I’ll save the rest for the bench.

I will note on Frazier that ZiPS is basically believing in his 2018 second half totals. He had a 1.9 fWAR last year in 352 plate appearances, with most of his production coming in the second half of the season. By this analysis, there will be no room for a decline, and the final win projection in this article will already have a Frazier repeat built in to the totals.

WAR: +2.2 (54.6)


This is where things get tricky in the infield. Kevin Newman and Erik Gonzalez are competing for the shortstop position, although Gonzalez seems to have the inside track for the spot, and Newman seems to be getting prepped for an infield bench role to start off. ZiPS gives Newman the much better projection, with a 1.5 WAR compared to 0.4 WAR for Gonzalez.

It’s my goal in this article to try and project what the Pirates will do, rather than give them the highest win total. For that reason, I’d give Gonzalez the starting job and priority for playing time. The tricky part is that if Gonzalez did play like his projection, and Newman played up to his projection, the Pirates would eventually make a switch. And when do you project that switch to occur?

Gonzalez is only getting 358 plate appearances in his ZiPS projections, which helps to solve this issue. I’ll give Gonzalez all of those plate appearances. The shortstop position had 618 plate appearances last year, which leaves 260 for Newman, amounting to an 0.7 WAR. I’ll give Newman some more playing time in the bench spot.

WAR: +1.1 (55.7)


Here’s another situation that is tricky, although a little less tricky considering the projections. Colin Moran will get the starting job at third base, with Jung Ho Kang as a backup plan and a bench guy. They’re both projected for around the same amount of production, with Kang coming out slightly higher. Because of that, we can almost ignore the names and the playing time split questions, since the production is the only thing that matters, and ZiPS projects that to be similar.

Moran is projected for a 1.7 WAR in 465 plate appearances. Kang is projected for a 1.9 WAR over 358 plate appearances. I will note that Kang’s production per plate appearance is higher than Moran, so by these projections, the Pirates would be better off giving Kang the spot. However, I’ll be giving Kang extra time in the bench spot, so it won’t matter for the purpose of this article.

I gave Moran his full playing time, leaving 188 plate appearances for Kang, amounting to a pro-rated 1.0 WAR. That gives this combo a 2.7 WAR at third base.

WAR: +2.7 (58.4)


Corey Dickerson is projected for 548 plate appearances and a 2.8 WAR. The Pirates had 699 plate appearances last year in left field, and the extras will go to outfielders on the bench.

Just like with Adam Frazier above, this is a spot where ZiPS is believing in the big season that Dickerson had last year. That doesn’t always happen with a breakout season, meaning that there’s no potential for upside here, unless Dickerson can find a way to exceed his 2018 totals.

WAR: +2.8 (61.2)


Starling Marte is projected for 552 plate appearances and a 3.2 WAR. Marte’s ZiPS projections are always lower than the actual results. Last year it was a win lower, although he was coming off a down year and a PED suspension. This year’s projection is half a win lower than his totals last year, and his totals last year were lower than some of his previous totals. What I’m saying is that the Pirates might be able to pick up a half a win or more in extra value from Marte.

There were 715 plate appearances in center field last year, and the extras will go to the bench.

WAR: +3.2 (64.4)


The Pirates will go with Lonnie Chisenhall until Gregory Polanco returns. The return for Polanco is unknown. He told me in January that he doesn’t expect to be out until June, and that he’s ahead of schedule. Right now it’s hard to pinpoint a return date, and that probably won’t be clear until the end of Spring Training.

Right field had 708 plate appearances last year. I’ll divide that up over six months and give Chisenhall 1.5 months and Polanco 4.5 months. I’m actually typing this as a stream of thought, and haven’t checked those numbers to see what they come out to. I actually typed that last sentence as a disclaimer, because the numbers coincidentally came out to 531 plate appearances for Polanco and 177 for Chisenhall. ZiPS has 532 for Polanco and 327 for Chisenhall.

So that makes this easier. Polanco gets his 532 plate appearances and a 2.5 WAR. Chisenhall gets the remaining 177 plate appearances and a pro-rated 0.5 WAR. He’ll also factor into the bench for the outfield playing time.

WAR: +3.0 (67.4)


There are 923 plate appearances remaining for the bench. That breaks down in the following way:

Infield: 302

Outfield: 314

DH/Pinch Hit: 307

Kevin Newman, Jung Ho Kang, and Lonnie Chisenhall are the guys for the bench, leaving one spot remaining since the fifth bench spot goes to Cervelli or Diaz.

The easiest thing would be to start with Chisenhall and give him the rest of his ZiPS playing time, which is 150 additional plate appearances (and 0.4 WAR), bringing him up to 327 total. That leaves 164 plate appearances for the outfield.

I’m also going to give Kang the rest of his plate appearances — 170 remaining and 0.9 WAR — since I think he’ll factor in as a DH and pinch hitter, beyond the infield bench.

This leaves 132 plate appearances for the infield, and still 307 for the DH/PH roles. Kevin Newman has 260 plate appearances so far in this analysis. I’ll give him another 140, bringing him up to 400 total. This wipes out the infield plate appearances and a few of the DH/PH appearances. It also adds 0.4 WAR to the bench.

We’re left with 463 plate appearances for the final bench spot. This obviously won’t go to just one player, but many players, including prospects and depth guys. It’s tricky to award this playing time. Do you go with guys who have a 1-2 WAR, like Kevin Kramer and Ke’Bryan Hayes — both who have great shots at playing time this year? Or do you go with guys lower than that, like Bryan Reynolds at 0.3 WAR?

The thing is, there aren’t many plausible options for the team with low projections. Dan Szymborski noted in his writeup that the Pirates have good depth, with not a lot of drop off from the starters. The guys I see as most likely for playing time are Pablo Reyes (0.7 WAR), Jason Martin (0.7), Jacob Stallings (0.7), Jose Osuna (1.2), Kevin Kramer (1.3), and Ke’Bryan Hayes (1.8). If we’re projecting prospects, you could even add Cole Tucker (1.1) in there, and the overall point remains the same: the Pirates are projected for good depth.

I might be making this simplistic, but I’m going to give 1.0 WAR to the final 463 plate appearances, with the note that the Pirates could exceed this projection if their bench and depth turns out as good as ZiPS figures.

The total for the bench is 2.7 WAR. This is lower than last year, despite the options. A big reason for that is because bench numbers were technically already included above at a few positions (shortstop, third base, and right field all maxed out their plate appearances in the above section, rather than saving time for the bench).

WAR: +2.7 (70.1)


The Pirates’ rotation is straight forward for spots 1-4. The fifth spot is currently Jordan Lyles, with the chance for someone else to step in, an opener strategy, or for Mitch Keller to eventually arrive and claim that spot.

I don’t adjust playing time in most cases with pitchers and their ZiPS projections. If the pitcher is projected for lower than his previous totals, I chalk that up to the injury risk that comes with all pitchers, and leave it as an area where the Pirates can exceed projections. I thought about making an exception for Joe Musgrove this year, since he’s projected for 126.2 innings, but I figured I’d leave that conservative number (which would be a career high for him in his third year as a starter) with the disclaimer that the Pirates could get more value if he can go more innings.

Here are the starters and their projections:

SP: Jameson Taillon (173.3 IP, 3.1 WAR)

SP: Chris Archer (169.3 IP, 3.0 WAR)

SP: Trevor Williams (155.3 IP, 1.8 WAR)

SP: Joe Musgrove (126.2 IP, 1.7 WAR)

SP: Jordan Lyles (93.3 IP, 0.2 WAR)

That gives us 718 innings and a combined 9.8 WAR. The starters last year had 887.1 innings, which was almost similar to the 2017 total of 894.2 innings. This leaves 169.1 innings remaining.

I’m going to give Mitch Keller his full projection, which is 129.1 innings and an 0.7 WAR. I think the Pirates will call him up in the second half at the latest, and I project him as a guy who won’t have any issues adjusting to the majors and remaining in the big leagues, which is why I agree with the ZiPS projection. If he can match what Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon did in their rookie campaigns, then the Pirates can get some extra value here.

I’m saving the final 40 innings for the bullpen, since a lot of those guys could factor in as starters or in an opener strategy.

The total from the starters is 10.5 WAR. I see room for improvement on these numbers with almost every pitcher above, and the rotation could be the fuel to the Pirates competing for a playoff spot this year if things turn out well.

WAR: +10.5 (80.6)


Last year I wrote about how the Pirates needed an upgrade to their bullpen. They got that with the additions of Keone Kela, Richard Rodriguez, and Kyle Crick. Here are the projections for the bullpen, with analysis below.

CL: Felipe Vazquez (71.7 IP, 1.6 WAR)

RP: Keone Kela (51.0 IP, 1.2 WAR)

RP: Richard Rodriguez (71.3 IP, 0.9 WAR)

RP: Kyle Crick (60.3 IP, 0.6 WAR)

RP: Steven Brault (107.3 IP, 0.5 WAR)

RP: Tyler Lyons (53.3 IP, 0.2 WAR)

RP: Nick Kingham (76.0 IP, 0.1 WAR)

I kept the innings the same for everyone except Kingham. He was projected for 123.7 innings and I dropped him to 76 innings, which was his total last year. That put his pro-rated WAR at 0.1.

I did leave Steven Brault with his full amount, since he had 92 innings last year, and should factor in on the fifth starter day, either as a long reliever for Lyles, as an opener, or as a replacement if Lyles doesn’t perform well.

I picked Lyons for the final bullpen spot (is anyone else going to be perpetually confused by the Lyles/Lyons factor on this team?), figuring the Pirates will give the spot to a lefty reliever. I know they just signed Francisco Liriano, but I can’t imagine Liriano projecting better than Lyons, and if he was signed by any other team, there would be no reason to force him into this equation. So consider Lyons a placeholder.

I left Nick Burdi out of this because he was projected for 14 innings and zero WAR. He needs to be on the team for the first two months of the season or he has to be returned as a Rule 5 pick. So I’m just deducting 14 innings from the remaining total.

There are 81.2 innings remaining. I’m going to use Clay Holmes as the placeholder here for those innings, giving the bullpen a pro-rated 0.4 WAR. The other options were Michael Feliz or Roberto Gomez, with both having similar outcomes.

This year’s projection is at 5.9 WAR. I could see room for improvement here, whether that’s from Vazquez, Rodriguez, and Crick putting up totals similar to last year (which were higher than their projections this year), or more innings from Kela, or surprise performances from some of the middle relievers or depth guys (similar to last year with Rodriguez, Crick, and Edgar Santana).

WAR: +5.9 (86.5)


Obviously the big thing that stands out here is that this analysis has the Pirates projected between 86 and 87 wins. Last year it took 91 wins to get into the playoffs, which was high. The two years prior, 87 wins would have gotten you a Wild Card spot.

There might be some doubt about the Pirates being an 86-87 win team with this roster, but I feel like this number is legit, based on the projections. And the projections also seem pretty legit. I feel like I need to take a moment to separate the reality of how good the Pirates are right now, and the source of the disappointment surrounding the team.

This team has a good pitching staff, and while the numbers above are good, you could make an argument that they’re better than the above projections. Not all of those projections will work out, but there’s enough room for improvement with the pitching staff that it should be the fuel of the team.

The position players also aren’t that bad. They had the best catching duo in the majors last year, and will return that combo (with room for improvement over the above projections). They have some good potential at other positions, with plausible 2-3 WAR positions all over the field.

I will point out here that there isn’t as much upside with the position players as there is with the pitchers. A lot of that is already built into this. For the 86-87 wins to happen as constructed, we’d need to see repeat performances from Adam Frazier and Corey Dickerson, plus big improvements from Josh Bell, Colin Moran, and good numbers from question marks like Kevin Newman and Jung Ho Kang. All of that is already built into this, showing what the position players need to do to boost the team and get them on the verge of contending.

This is a good team. It’s a team that won 82 games last year. That team added Chris Archer and Keone Kela at the deadline, and will have those two all season. Jameson Taillon started looking like a top of the rotation pitcher by the end of the year, and hopefully those adjustments will carry over to a full season this year. I do think you can make an argument that what we saw from Bell and Moran last year was a down year when considering their potential, and that the projections shown above aren’t far-fetched. I also don’t think it’s impossible for Dickerson or Frazier to repeat, and I don’t think we should be forgetting about Starling Marte, or ignoring that Gregory Polanco had one of his best offensive seasons last year, and might finally be ready for that breakout.

This is a good team. 86-87 wins doesn’t surprise me. So why am I expecting a backlash? Mostly because Pirates fans are down on the Pirates right now. But I don’t think they’re down on them because they feel this is a bad team, and if they are, I believe that’s misplaced anger.

My feeling is that Pirates fans are down on the team right now because they haven’t taken an aggressive approach to improving the 2019 team. Yes, they did add Chris Archer and Keone Kela at the trade deadline, but that leaves us with a team projected for a $73 M payroll (likely $75 M once guys like Lyons or Liriano or Brandon Maurer officially make the team, which isn’t much better).

I feel like Pirates fans know, or should know, that this is a good team, on the verge of the playoffs. You could argue a few wins off the 86-87 total, but if you’re going below .500, I think you’re going too low.

The Pirates being that close to contending — 82 wins last year, good projections this year — and sitting with such a low payroll is where the frustration lies. Yes, they could make the playoffs this year if these projections turn out to be correct, and if they have more players exceeding projections than falling short. That’s a strategy they took from 2013-15, when it was a bit more believable that they were spending up to their budget, and thus more believable that they needed to find value on the roster to contend.

They still need to find value this year, but that has been their entire offseason approach so far, and it’s hard to trust that they can’t spent more than $75 M. It’s also an indefensible approach when the team is right now projected on the outside of the playoffs, or maybe squeaking into the final spot, all with the knowledge that one bigger addition could push them from a playoff hopeful to a playoff favorite.

My biggest prediction for this year, assuming the Pirates don’t add anyone, is that we’re going to look back at a season where the Pirates fall a few wins shy of the playoffs, and wonder how things might have gone if they spent a bit extra to give the team an additional boost heading into the year. And this analysis backs up that prediction.

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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