Fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates might want to take up a different hobby this summer. The Jolly Roger will be seen about as often as the sun during a cold, grey, gloomy Pittsburgh winter. The 2021 season will be so scary that it will be rated Rrrrrrrrrr.
The only thing worse than the Pirates is that joke. In all seriousness, there will be some players to watch, but this is every bit of a throwaway season for Pittsburgh. The development of guys like Ke’Bryan Hayes and Mitch Keller and Oneil Cruz and Travis Swaggerty will be the most important parts of the year.
Starling Marte was traded last season and Josh Bell was traded this past winter. So were Jameson Taillon and Joe Musgrove. You can’t blame Ben Cherington for grabbing as many prospects as possible over the winter. Beyond Hayes, there weren’t a lot of prospects to be really excited about and the Pirates are not going to be winning anything anytime soon.
This was an organization that had to drain the swamp prior to 2020. Clint Hurdle was fostering a toxic environment and the shine had been off of GM Neal Huntington for a while. Team President Frank Coonelly was also shown the door. Players were getting into fistfights in the clubhouse and Felipe Vazquez was ejected from the team and also society after it came to light that he was a predator and a pedophile.
The Pirates responded by going 19-41 in the 60-game shortened season, but Hayes looked the part in meaningful plate appearances and Keller did the same on the pitching side. They were just 8-15 in one-run games and were beaten 12 times by five or more runs. In 20 games against the AL Central, the Pirates were 3-17. The glass half-full philosophy would point out that means they were 16-24 against the NL Central. That’s not that bad.
The road was very unkind to the Buccos, who won just six of their 28 games away from PNC Park, allowing over five runs per game. Compared to 2019, though, the Pirates improved on the pitching side. It was the offense that took a complete tumble. Pittsburgh only scored 3.65 runs per game and it could have been worse than that, as the BaseRuns numbers had Pittsburgh down for just 3.48 runs per game when stripping the context away from the plate appearances.
I say this about a lot of bad teams, but this season is not about wins and losses. It is about individual development. It is about (hopefully) getting a full minor league season for the trade acquisitions from the winter sell-off. It is about developing from within because this is not a market and an ownership group looking to spend money. The Pirates will have the lowest payroll in baseball again this season. They’ve only been outside the bottom 10 in payroll once since 2003 and outside the bottom five just three times in that span.
In other words, this will be a long, drawn-out rebuild unless some of the youngsters develop higher ceilings or end up on the fast track.
I generally don’t like playing the lowest of the low win totals, but it is extremely hard to see how this team competes on a regular basis.
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win NL Central
|Team||Odds To Win|
|St Louis Cardinals||+100|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||-76 (3.48/4.75)||-157 (4.59/5.55)|
|3rd Order Win%||22.3/37.7||65.9-96.1|
|Record in One-Run Games||8-15||19-25|
Additions: Todd Frazier, Tyler Anderson, Tony Wolters, Brian Goodwin, Chasen Shreve, Joe Hudson, Wilmer Difo, Maikol Escotto, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Roansy Contreras, Miguel Yajure, Endy Rodriguez, Hudson Head, David Bednar, Drake Fellows, Omar Cruz, Wil Crowe, Eddy Yean, Luis Oviedo, Troy Stokes Jr., Jose Soriano, Michael Perez, Sean Poppen
Losses: Trevor Williams, Jose Osuna, Dovydas Neverauskas, Jason Martin, Keone Kela, Derek Holland, Chris Archer, Jameson Taillon, Joe Musgrove, Nik Turley, Josh Bell, Nick Burdi, Luke Maile, Nick Tropeano, Brandon Waddell
“Does he make seven figures?”
That’s how the offseason went for the Pirates. Major League Baseball doesn’t have a salary floor, so the Pirates are willing to live in the basement. They’re locked in what is the worst division top to bottom in baseball and are the only team with a win total in the 50s.
Most of the players on the additions list are prospects that were acquired in trades of Jameson Taillon, Joe Musgrove, and Josh Bell. It sure looks like the Pirates also settled for quantity over quality, as they are making a big bet on their player development staff. That seems like a misguided approach based on what I’ve seen, but we’ll see how things wind up a few years down the line.
|Batting Average (BA)||.220 (28th)||.265 (7th)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.284 (30th)||.321 (18th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.357 (30th)||.420 (22nd)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.279 (30th)||.313 (21st)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||73 (30th)||92 (19th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.268 (28th)||.309 (4th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||24.4% (20th)||19.5% (2nd)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||7.8% (25th)||6.8% (27th)|
The Pirates rode a high BABIP to some decent offensive numbers in 2019. They had the second-lowest K% in baseball and paired that with a .309 BABIP to be in the top 10 in batting average. Of course, that was also the only area in which the Pirates excelled. Even with all that batted ball luck, they were 18th in OBP with the fourth-lowest BB% in baseball and also hit for virtually no power.
So they followed it up by striking out a lot more and actually hitting for no power. That led to being the worst offense in baseball. The Pirates saw a 41-point regression in the BABIP department that took 45 points off of the batting average and 37 points off of the OBP.
Ke’Bryan Hayes was a bright spot in his 95 plate appearances by showcasing the hit tool that scouts have been pleased with in the minor leagues. He struggled badly with Triple-A pitching in 2019, but we didn’t see any signs of him being overmatched in his 24-game sample size at the MLB level. Hayes is a pretty safe prospect because he can hit and has the chance to grow some more power, but he’s also already grading out as a plus fielder at third base.
He’d be a great building block if he wasn’t effectively the only one that the Pirates have on the position player side. Colin Moran seems to be a decent hitter, but there isn’t a ton to salivate over there. He had a 113 wRC+ in the short-season sample with a big gain in exit velocity, Hard Hit%, and Barrel%. He had 23 barreled balls in 353 batted ball events in 2019 and then 17 in 127 batted ball events in 2020. I have no idea if that is sustainable, but I don’t think I’m buying it.
Moran’s ground ball rate skyrocketed last season. He ran a 27.8% HR/FB%. He pulled the ball more and seems to be making a concerted effort to do that, but you don’t sustain a high barrel rate with a 56.3% GB%. I’ll pass on this profile, but we’ll see if maybe there is more to it.
There had better be because this offense has basically nothing otherwise. Every other player with at least 46 plate appearances posted a below average wRC+. Furthermore, outside of Jacob Stallings, nobody else posted a wRC+ higher than 80. Bryan Reynolds, who rode a .387 BABIP to a 130 wRC+ in 2019, walked more, but also struck out more and lost two miles per hour from his average exit velocity. He ran a .213 BABIP from the left side against right-handed pitching, so he was a victim of the shift. Not sure I see that changing.
There really just isn’t much hope with this offense. They were 20th in batted balls of 95+ mph, but Bell was one of the few guys in the 90s and he’s gone. Gregory Polanco was up in the 90s, but that ship feels like it has sailed the globe and is in the process of another trip. Polanco also fractured his wrist in winter ball, so the 29-year-old already has another malady. He’s had two good seasons offensively in 2016 and 2018 and has just been a disappointment during injury-riddled seasons otherwise. I’m not buying any of that stock.
This is just such a depressing roster. With a team staring at 100 losses, you’d really love to see some young, exciting talent in the lineup and you just don’t beyond Hayes. To make matters worse, none of the bench options look particularly exciting and the other position player prospects aren’t really close.
Oneil Cruz has 35 games at Double-A to his name. Liover Peguero is a non-roster invite that was acquired in the Starling Marte trade, but he’s got 93 plate appearances above Rookie ball. Travis Swaggerty, a member of the all-name team, hit well in 524 PA at High-A in 2019.
I feel pretty confident in saying that if this isn’t the worst offense in baseball, it will be among the three worst. The Pirates had the second-highest GB% last season and ranked 26th in FB%. Unless the team gets extremely lucky in batted ball luck, a la 2019, this offense is on a fast track to nowhere.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||4.68 (19th)||5.19 (26th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||4.80 (22nd)||4.78 (19th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.63 (20th)||4.72 (20th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||24.1% (11th)||22.6% (16th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||11.2% (30th)||9.1% (22nd)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||70.2% (21st)||68.9% (26th)|
Twenty-nine different pitchers appeared in a game last season for the Pirates in just 60 games. It’s not like they had a COVID outbreak like the Marlins or the Pirates. Jameson Taillon was not one of them. Taillon missed last season after his second Tommy John surgery. He’s now a New York Yankee.
Joe Musgrove, who dealt with yet another injury, led the Pirates with 1.0 fWAR over his eight starts covering 39.2 innings. He’s now a San Diego Padre.
In looking at the Pirates rotation, I’m curious how many of these guys would actually make another Major League rotation. Even Mitch Keller, who easily has the most promise and upside of any of the Pittsburgh hurlers. Keller worked 48 innings in 2019 and had a 7.13 ERA, but a 3.19 FIP and a 3.47 xFIP. It was a small sample and a high BABIP and a low LOB% both hurt tremendously, but he’s been a guy that has flashed plus to plus-plus command in the minor leagues at most of his stops.
In just five starts last season, Keller had a 2.91 ERA, but a 6.75 FIP and a 6.57 xFIP. Small sample sizes can be deceiving, though. Keller walked eight in his last start against the Indians to run up his walk rate. He also gave up no hits and just one run, so we saw some of his moxie in that start.
Still, as much as I like Keller’s potential and promise, I still need to consistently see it at the big league level. That part is especially true when you consider the others in this rotation. Guys like Steven Brault, who posted a 3.38 ERA with a 3.92 FIP, but has a 4.68 ERA and FIP in his career over 315.2 innings. Brault did make huge strides in the contact management department, shaving over four miles per hour from his average exit velo and nearly seven percent from his Hard Hit%.
Brault went changeup-heavy. The reason why I talk extensively about usage changes is because they can predict whether or not improvements stick around. Projection systems don’t take those things into account. Most models don’t go that deep. Brault’s slider and changeup each reached new highs in usage while his fastball reached a career low. I’m not sure how sustainable it is that Brault only gave up seven hits on his fastball and they were all singles, given that he gave up 10 homers on it in 2019, but it looks as though the Pirates have made an adjustment there.
I think Brault can be a bit better than a league average pitcher this season. Is that good enough to be the ace of a staff? No, but it’ll probably be good enough to be the ace of this one.
Jonathan Brubaker threw the ball well for the Pirates last season. He wound up with a 4.94 ERA, but deserved a better fate as evidenced by his 4.08 FIP and 4.14 xFIP. He’s another guy I’d put somewhere around league average. For reference, league average in 2020 was a 4.46 ERA and a 4.46 FIP for starters. Because the walk rate will go down and I would anticipate home runs to go down with the changes to the ball, league average is probably a 4.35 ERA and a 4.35 FIP, give or take. I could see Brubaker around there or maybe a touch better.
Tyler Anderson and Chad Kuhl look to be filling out the rest of the rotation. Anderson is the kind of guy that will probably return to his ground ball ways, as the Pirates are trying to get as many ground ball guys as they can. Kuhl is another guy that the Pirates have worked with to change his arsenal up. He threw almost 35% sliders last season and over 17% curveballs.
Kuhl’s fastball was destroyed. The secondaries weren’t too shabby, though. All in all, I look at the Pirates rotation and I see a bunch of guys that collectively have a ceiling around league average, but a floor that is a good bit lower than that. Last season, they had a 4.74 ERA and a 5.29 FIP. I’d expect a little bit of improvement from that, which is surprising given that Musgrove and Taillon are gone, but I like that the Pirates are adopting the “Throw Your Worst Pitch Less” approach.
The Pirates pen was mostly competent last season, but wound up not having a lot of leads to protect. The unit posted a 4.20 FIP, which was around the middle of the pack. There aren’t many changes here. Chasen Shreve is actually a nice pick up as a guy that was in the 91st percentile in K% and 96th percentile in Whiff%. How he didn’t get a guaranteed job is beyond me. He’s just on a minor league deal here, but he’ll make his way into the bullpen.
Otherwise, Chris Stratton has one of the highest spin rates on his curveball in baseball and he rode that to a 3.90 ERA and a 3.19 FIP in a team-leading 27 appearances. Richard Rodriguez was really good in the “closer” role. The Pirates had six saves as a team. Kyle Crick is another guy with eye-popping spin rates.
There are some fun pieces to follow on this pitching staff and maybe some underappreciated guys, but they’re not getting much run support.
Positives & Negatives
The problem with an average to below average rotation is that we are pairing it with probably the worst offense in baseball. I will say that I expected to go into the Pirates preview and be able to go from a couple thousand words down to two and simply say “They suck”, but, well, I try to give some analysis that you won’t find anywhere else.
With that said, the pitching staff has a few guys I’m intrigued about and that’s a positive. Jacob Stallings also graded pretty well as a pitch framer and actually wasn’t a terrible offensive player, at least as far as catchers go. The 31-year-old should play just about every day for this dumpster fire of an offense.
Pittsburgh Pirates Pick & Prediction: Under 58.5
I mean, look, when avoiding 100 losses in the worst division in baseball looks like a chore, that is a bad, terrible, awful, no-good, tire fire in a dumpster level of disaster. Put this team in the NL East and their win total is probably like 54.
There is also no way in hell I could play under 58.5. Maybe 2-3 teams on average lose 100 games in a given season. The Pirates are the only team with a win total that suggests that they will, but the Rockies, Orioles, and Rangers are pretty close. Getting to 59 wins really shouldn’t be that much of a chore, but this is pretty clearly the worst offense in baseball on paper. As much as I tried to talk a big game about the pitching staff, even if they do throw the ball well, they might get 3.5 runs per game of support.
This isn’t a bet. It’s a pick for the Guide, but man, this team just looks atrocious.