Williams: The Few Things That Went Right and the Many That Went Wrong For the Pirates in 2019

This is my favorite article of the year.

Every year, ZiPS releases their projections for every player and every team. I take the individual player projections for the Pirates, adjust them to my own analysis of expected playing time, and get a projected win/loss total.

I refer to this whole process as an “analysis” rather than a “projection”, although I’ll use the words interchangeably at times. I’m not trying to predict the exact record with these articles. Instead, the preseason article is meant to show what the expected talent level is. The postseason article shows where the Pirates exceeded and fell short of their projections.

That’s what makes this my favorite article of the year. Exactly six months ago today, I posted the preseason article, saying the Pirates looked like an above .500 team, but might not have enough to make the playoffs. And now, we get to see exactly where it all went wrong. Let’s review that projection, and how it all turned out.

I’ll note that this article is about 4,000 words, with all of the original analysis still included. Skip past that to the WAR comparisons and postseason analysis section for a shorter read.

BASELINE

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)

CATCHER

What I Said Preseason: Francisco Cervelli has a 1.7 WAR over 379 plate appearances. Elias Diaz has a 1.2 WAR over 325 plate appearances. The Pirates had 667 plate appearances at catcher last year, which is 37 less than the total of these two projections. I adjusted Diaz down slightly, giving him a 1.1 WAR. The combination here is a 2.8 WAR.

Jacob Stallings is obviously going to get playing time, as Diaz started the year on the injured list. The drop off from Diaz to Stallings isn’t much, as he has an 0.8 WAR in 299 plate appearances. If we gave him 20% of the playing time for Diaz, it would amount to about 0.1 WAR less. I’m going to leave the totals with just Diaz and Cervelli, with the note that this would reduce slightly if Diaz misses significant time, and even bigger if Cervelli misses significant time (beyond what they are currently projected for, which is already low for each player).

Projected WAR: +2.8 (50.8)

Actual WAR: -0.5 (47.5)

Postseason Analysis: This was a massive blow to the team. Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz combined to be the best catching duo in the majors in 2018. The Pirates fell to 26th this year in catcher output by WAR.

The crazy thing is that this figure includes a 1.3 WAR from Jacob Stallings. Cervelli was just below replacement level, and only played 34 games due to injuries. Diaz had a -1.6 WAR in 332 plate appearances, showing poor value on offense and defense.

The Pirates are left with Diaz and Stallings entering the 2020 season, and based on the numbers this year, Stallings should have the priority for the roster spot. They’ll need to upgrade this position, since I wouldn’t trust either player in a starter role right now.

FIRST BASE

What I Said Preseason: Josh Bell is projected for 602 plate appearances and a 1.3 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.

Projected WAR: +1.3 (52.1)

Actual WAR: +2.5 (50.0)

Postseason Analysis: Bell really stepped up this year, although his numbers did fade a bit in the second half. He had a 2.5 WAR, which fueled the Pirates to having the 13th best WAR in the majors at the position. This is one of the few bright spots from this season, and the hope next year is that Bell can improve on these numbers and give the Pirates an impact player who can exceed 3 WAR.

SECOND BASE

What I Said Preseason: Adam Frazier is projected for a 2.0 WAR over 498 plate appearances. There were 705 plate appearances at second base last year. I’ll save the rest for the bench.

As I noted in the pre-season article, Frazier’s 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.

Projected WAR: +2.0 (54.1)

Actual WAR: +2.3 (52.3)

Postseason Analysis: The preseason projection was right in line with the actual performance, which put the Pirates 14th in the majors at this position. Frazier had a 2.3 WAR over 608 plate appearances. He struggled the first half, and had a strong second half once again. Unfortunately for the Pirates, this performance was already expected, and not something they could take advantage of to make up for lost production elsewhere.

SHORTSTOP

What I Said Preseason: This one was difficult to project in the pre-season. I predicted that Erik Gonzalez would get the job in that original projection, but that conflicted with the ZiPS projections, which are high on Newman and low on Gonzalez.

Since Gonzalez did get the job, we’ll go with his 0.3 WAR in 364 plate appearances. I’m not going to project a switch, just leaving a note that ZiPS projects better results if Newman were to take over.

The shortstop position had 618 plate appearances last year. I’ll save the rest for the bench, and give Newman time in that area.

Projected WAR: +0.3 (54.4)

Actual WAR: +2.4 (54.7)

Postseason Analysis: This is another position where the Pirates exceeded their expectations, thanks to Kevin Newman stepping up. Newman had a 2.4 WAR on the season, and while there are some discussions to be had this offseason about what he can do to sustain that, he’s another one of the few bright spots on the team heading into next season.

I will note here that the projections are matching up to this point. Newman and Bell made up for the loss seen by the catchers. But as we’ll see, there are far more losses to be made up, plus some disastrous bench results. And I’m saying all of that kind of as a prediction, without having fully gone through the results.

THIRD BASE

What I Said Preseason: I originally had Colin Moran as the third baseman, and Jung Ho Kang as the backup plan. That situation is now reversed, with Kang as the starter, and Moran as a backup to first and third base. This didn’t matter much, since they were both projected for around the same WAR. Kang has a slight edge, so the Pirates are helped out by these projections.

Kang is projected for a 1.8 WAR over 373 plate appearances. That’s a good pace (2.5 WAR over 500 plate appearances), although lower than what Kang was at in his previous MLB time. I like the conservative-ish projection here, because Kang has shown some promise with his power this spring, but I wouldn’t project him to be fully back to his old self based on that amount of playing time. This is another area where the Pirates could see some upside, and I’m seeing less risk with his production holding up than I did before the season.

There were 653 plate appearances at third base last year. I’ll save the rest for the bench, and address Moran there.

I’ll add a disclaimer here that Ke’Bryan Hayes is also projected well, although lower than Kang and Moran on a WAR/PA level. I’m not going to project him making the majors, since that would require horrible results from Kang and Moran, with neither projected for that.

Projected WAR: +1.8 (56.2)

Actual WAR: +0.1 (54.8)

Postseason Analysis: I’ll add the disclaimer that I’m not sure what to do here for the results. The Pirates finished last in the majors in third base production. Colin Moran got most of the playing time, and was worth 0.1 WAR, which is the total above.

Jung Ho Kang was at -0.9 WAR, which is well short of the projection above. I could include him here, but I’m mostly going one player per position (not counting catchers, where they can easily be grouped together), and saving all bench/depth guys for the end. So expect the numbers to go down further once we reach the bench section. Everyone will be accounted for once.

LEFT FIELD

What I Said Preseason: Corey Dickerson is projected for 553 plate appearances and a 2.5 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.

Projected WAR: +2.5 (58.7)

Actual WAR: +3.2 (58.0)

Postseason Analysis: Bryan Reynolds was huge for the Pirates here. Dickerson was limited to an 0.7 WAR due to trades and an injury. Reynolds stepped up with a 3.2 WAR, exceeding the amount Dickerson was projected for. Add him to Bell and Newman as hopes for the future.

I’ll have Dickerson and everyone else in the bench area.

CENTER FIELD

What I Said Preseason: Starling Marte is projected for 568 plate appearances and a 3.0 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 more than 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.

Projected WAR: +3.0 (61.7)

Actual WAR: +3.0 (61.0)

Postseason Analysis: 586 plate appearances and a 3.0 WAR for Marte. ZiPS nailed it.

RIGHT FIELD

What I Said Preseason: This has become a tricky situation. Lonnie Chisenhall was signed to start until Gregory Polanco returned, although Chisenhall went down with a broken finger after getting hit by a pitch. That will put him out for a month to a month and a half, which has him returning around the time Polanco is set to return.

Melky Cabrera will get the playing time that Chisenhall was supposed to get. In the pre-season, I had Chisenhall getting 1.5 months of playing time, and Polanco getting 4.5 months, with 708 plate appearances for the position. I’ll keep Polanco where he is at, but will give Cabrera one months, and Chisenhall half a month, with more time coming for both in the bench.

Polanco is projected for 2.3 WAR over 538 plate appearances, and will get the full amount. That leaves 170 plate appearances between Chisenhall and Cabrera, with Cabrera getting the benefit of a 2:1 split. He’s projected for close to replacement level production, while Chisenhall is projected for 0.7 WAR in 336 plate appearances. The combo amounts to 0.1 WAR. The injury to Chisenhall hurts the Pirates a bit, taking them down by about 0.2-0.3 WAR.

Projected WAR: +2.4 (64.1)

Actual WAR: -0.7 (60.3)

Postseason Analysis: Throughout this process, I’ve looked at the MLB team rankings first, finding where the Pirates rank. That typically involves scrolling to the very bottom of the list and working up. In this case, they were 30th overall. Every listed right fielder had negative WAR. I went with Melky Cabrera’s -0.7 WAR for the starter here, with plenty left for the bench…

BENCH

What I Said Preseason: There are 1418 plate appearances remaining for the bench. That breaks down in the following way:

Infield: 818

Outfield: 293

DH/Pinch Hit: 307

Kevin Newman and Colin Moran haven’t been factored in above, and along with Pablo Reyes, will get the bulk of the infield time.

Newman is projected for a 1.4 WAR over 561 plate appearances. He’s not going to get that much with Gonzalez starting, but 350 is reasonable, and that amounts to an 0.9 WAR. I’m projecting him for most of the remaining time in the middle infield, which leaves 111 plate appearances for those two spots.

Moran is projected for a 1.5 WAR over 473 plate appearances. I’ll give him all of the remaining time at first and third base, which is 357 plate appearances. This gives him a 1.1 WAR.

Reyes is projected for an 0.5 WAR in 490 plate appearances. I gave him the remaining middle infield time, plus some of the pinch hit time to get him to 300 plate appearances. That amounts to 0.3 WAR.

This leaves 411 plate appearances for the outfielders, and that will go to Cabrera, Chisenhall, and JB Shuck. I already addressed the starting time for Cabrera and Chisenhall above. This section will look at the bench projections for these guys.

When Polanco returns, Chisenhall will be the top backup, and Cabrera will be the number five option (assuming he’s still on the team, which would require him exceeding his ZiPS projections). Until then, I’ve got JB Shuck as the top backup for a month, Cabrera as the top backup for half a month, and Chisenhall as the top backup for the final 4.5 months.

It’s not very scientific, but I’m giving 50 plate appearances a month to the top backup. That gives 50 to Shuck, and 225 to Chisenhall. Cabrera would also get 25, but those would be at replacement level value. Shuck is actually below replacement level, which amounts to -0.2 pro-rated WAR. Chisenhall’s time gives him 0.5 pro-rated WAR, giving this trio an 0.3 WAR off the bench.

This leaves 111 plate appearances, and the Pirates have some strong depth projections for ZiPS. I’ll give the final section 0.2 WAR for the remaining time.

The total for the bench is 2.8 WAR.

Projected WAR: +2.8 (66.9)

Actual WAR: -2.3 (58.0)

Postseason Analysis: The only player who wasn’t represented above who had a positive WAR was Corey Dickerson. Cole Tucker, Jason Martin, and Erik Gonzalez all had 0.0 WAR. JB Shuck, Corban Joseph, and Jose Osuna rounded out the top five, tying at -0.1.

The Pirates didn’t have as bad of a bench as this indicated. Most of the preseason value came from Newman and Moran. They’re both accounted for above, while the negative values from guys like Kang and other deeper depth options really hurt the team. Reyes and Cabrera both fell way short of their projections as well, hurting this group.

As far as the injury impact, it’s hard to say that the Pirates were hurt on this side of the ball. Dickerson was injured, but Reynolds out-performed Dickerson’s projections. Gonzalez was hurt, and Newman stepped up to out-perform expectations. About the only place injuries provided an impact was at catcher, but that wasn’t the limit of the issues at the catching position — not to mention Stallings helped to make up for the losses from Cervelli and Diaz.

The Pirates had some good depth options, but their depth wasn’t deep enough to provide value off the bench once guys like Newman and Reynolds became regulars.

STARTING PITCHING

What I Said Preseason: 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.

Here are the starters and their projections:

SP: Jameson Taillon (173.3 IP, 3.0 WAR)

SP: Chris Archer (169.3 IP, 3.4 WAR)

SP: Trevor Williams (155.3 IP, 1.7 WAR)

SP: Joe Musgrove (126.7 IP, 1.8 WAR)

SP: Jordan Lyles (93.3 IP, 0.3 WAR)

That gives us 718 innings and a combined 10.2 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 129.3 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 10.9 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.

Projected WAR: +10.9 (77.8)

Actual WAR: +8.3 (66.3)

Postseason Analysis: I like how FanGraphs splits up the pitching stats, showing a pitcher’s value and innings separately as a starter and reliever. For that reason, some players will be mentioned in both sections, but their innings and production as a whole only count once.

The starting rotation didn’t see a big drop from the expectations. That’s not the story for the individual starters. To make the comparison easy, here were the preseason projections, and the results:

SP: Jameson Taillon (173.3 IP, 3.0 WAR) Actual – 37.3 IP, 0.8 WAR

SP: Chris Archer (169.3 IP, 3.4 WAR) Actual – 119.7, 0.7

SP: Trevor Williams (155.3 IP, 1.7 WAR) Actual – 145.7, 1.0

SP: Joe Musgrove (126.7 IP, 1.8 WAR) Actual – 168.3, 3.3

SP: Jordan Lyles (93.3 IP, 0.3 WAR) Actual – 82.3, 0.8

SP: Mitch Keller (129.3 IP, 0.7 WAR) Actual – 48, 1.3

The other starters who weren’t included in the preseason rotation combined for an 0.5 WAR. This includes performance from openers. Steven Brault had a 1.2 WAR in the rotation, while every other option had negative value.

Taillon and Archer hurt the Pirates. They were responsible for 6.4 of the 10.9 WAR in the preseason. Taillon went down early with an injury, and will now miss the 2020 season. Archer struggled throughout the year, and had a few injuries to deal with, which don’t explain the struggles.

The rest of the rotation was expected to produce 4.5 WAR, and actually produced 6.4 WAR. A big credit goes to Joe Musgrove here, who put up a strong WAR, which was the product of league average numbers over a lot of innings.

Overall, the impact of Taillon and Archer more than negated any gains from the depth (Keller, Brault) or any big performances from the other starters. It’s difficult to replace your top two starters when they don’t reach their expectations, for whatever reason. That’s why I feel they need to add another top of the rotation guy for next year, because injuries and inconsistent performance is definitely a reality for all pitchers.

BULLPEN

What I Said Preseason: Here are the projections for the bullpen, with analysis below.

CL: Felipe Vazquez (71.7 IP, 1.2 WAR)

RP: Keone Kela (51.0 IP, 1.1 WAR)

RP: Richard Rodriguez (71.3 IP, 0.6 WAR)

RP: Kyle Crick (60.3 IP, 0.3 WAR)

RP: Steven Brault (107.3 IP, 0.3 WAR)

RP: Francisco Liriano (53.3 IP, 0.1 WAR)

RP: Nick Kingham (76.0 IP, 0.2 WAR)

Not much changed here from the pre-season projections, although ZiPS now has lower projections for everyone for some reason. The only difference was swapping out Tyler Lyons for Francisco Liriano, which didn’t make much of a difference.

Once again, I left Nick Burdi out of this because he was projected for 14 innings. 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. His WAR is -0.2 in those innings (it was 0.0 before), and he’s already exceeded that by striking out the side in his first inning. Overall, I’m treating him as a non-factor, and a guy who could provide some upside to the team if he shows more of what he showed that first game.

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 0.3 WAR.

This year’s projection is at 4.1 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).

I’ll also note that I saw room for improvement in the pre-season when the projections were a 5.9 WAR with the same players. So there could be even more room for improvement here.

Projected WAR: +4.1 (81.9)

Actual WAR: +0.6 (66.9)

Postseason Analysis: We’re going for the same approach as the starters:

CL: Felipe Vazquez (71.7 IP, 1.2 WAR) Actual – 60.0 IP, 2.1 WAR

RP: Keone Kela (51.0 IP, 1.1 WAR) Actual – 29.7, 0.4

RP: Richard Rodriguez (71.3 IP, 0.6 WAR) Actual – 65.3, -0.3

RP: Kyle Crick (60.3 IP, 0.3 WAR) Actual – 49.0, -0.7

RP: Steven Brault (107.3 IP, 0.3 WAR) Actual – 17.2, -0.1*

RP: Francisco Liriano (53.3 IP, 0.1 WAR) Actual – 70.0, 0.3

RP: Nick Kingham (76.0 IP, 0.2 WAR) Actual – 19, -0.1

RP: Clay Holmes (81.7 IP, 0.3 WAR) Actual – 50, -0.1

Holmes represented the remaining depth in the preseason. The remaining pitchers not listed above combined for -1.1 WAR. That’s pretty bad when you consider that Nick Burdi, Chris Stratton, and Michael Feliz combined for 0.8 WAR. Alex McRae saw the biggest hit, putting up -0.7 WAR and negating the depth from those three.

Looking at the list above, Vazquez exceeded his projections, before we found out he was a total creep.

Kela, Rodriguez, and Crick were supposed to be the heart of the bullpen, but combined for -0.6 WAR, which was way down from their 2.0 projection preseason. And as you see from Liriano, you don’t make up much value from good middle relievers.

The struggles from those three, and the missed time for Kela, was a crushing blow to this bullpen.

Also, what a clubhouse disaster this group was this year.

2019 PROJECTION

What I Said Preseason: In the pre-season, I had the Pirates projected for 86-87 wins with largely the same roster. There were a few things that changed, whether that was ZiPS lowering their projections for a lot of players (this happened on a wide scale last year in my start of the season update), or due to injuries (Cabrera and Shuck hurt the projections compared to just Chisenhall).

They’re projected for 82 wins in this updated projection, which would match their win total in 2018.

I think that’s more what Pirates fans expect from this team, compared to being a win or two out of the playoffs. I think there is room for improvement on this team with these projections, but I’m not sure I’d be comfortable projecting them above that original 86-87 win range. At best, and without any additions, I see this team ending up just shy of the post-season.

The one X-factor could be the new offensive approach. That could provide a big impact to guys like Josh Bell and Gregory Polanco, who have yet to reach their offensive upsides, as well as younger guys like Kevin Newman, Erik Gonzalez, and others who are just breaking in to the majors.

The pitching side also saw some changes last year, with Jameson Taillon and others throwing more breaking pitches, or more accurately, throwing their best pitches more often. The team also added Chris Archer and Keone Kela at the deadline. They’ll now get a full season of those two, plus a full season of the new approach. That, combined with projections that are lower than previous results, is why I see room for a lot of improvement in the pitching projections.

Ultimately I think the pitching will carry this team, although the offense could surprise if the new approaches allow the Pirates to catch up to some of the other teams who have been ahead of the trend with the new approaches.

I could see the Pirates being in the same situation they were in last year at the trade deadline, where they’re on the outside, needing a boost to the team to help their chances down the stretch. I could also see them being in a better position to make the playoffs if they do get another mid-season boost this year. Keep in mind that this would have to be an outside boost, separate from any prospect impact, since that is mostly figured in to this analysis already.

Postseason Analysis: I’m going to let the above speak for itself for now, and use it as the foundation for some upcoming articles, starting tomorrow morning.

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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