After a record streak of 20 straight losing seasons–this team lost 105 games as recently as 2010–the Pirates have made the postseason three straight years. In a way, though, it’s been unfulfilling. They’ve failed to win the division, trailing the Cardinals each year, by an achingly close two to three games every year. After being eliminated by those same Cardinals in the 2013 Divisional Series, the Pirates, who’ve been the National League’s top wild card team (earning home field advantage) in every year that there’s been a wild card game, have run into Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta buzzsaws, losing the last two National League wild card games by a combined score of 12-0. Their 280 wins over the past three seasons ranks second in the majors, trailing only St. Louis, but their Octobers have ended early each year. They’re looking to go deeper in 2016.

Pit Record wRC+ SP ERA- RP ERA- DRS UZR BsR Pay – $M
2013 .580 (5) 99 (12) 98 (11) 80 (4) 68 (3) 4 (15) 1 (14) 72 (26)
2014 .543 (9) 109 (4) 106 (20) 93 (13)  36 (6) -40 (27) 5 (6) 77 (28)
2015 .605 (2) 99 (11) 94 (7) 71 (2) 7 (12)  -21 (23) 3 (12) 99 (23)

Run Production

How do they score runs? Do they get contributions from many or a few players?

The 2015 Pirates had a .260/.323/.396 slash line, ranking fifth in the National League batting average, fourth in on base percentage, and eighth in slugging percentage. They were fourth in runs scored but tenth in home runs. But before you say, “sequencing-dependent singles-and-doubles offense,” consider that PNC Park has been one of the toughest parks in the majors in which to hit a homer this decade, particularly for right-handed hitters. (See below.) So they’re not homer-dependent nor particularly light on home run power, though nobody on this year’s roster had more than 23 bombs last year.

The Pirates aren’t dependent on a few stars the way that, say, the Angels are, but they’re dependent on the durability of their starting eight position players. The fourth outfielder behind, left to right, Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, and Gregory Polanco is going to be a big dropoff. The team’s counting on a return to health of third baseman Jung Ho Kang and a return to form of shortstop Jordy Mercer, since super-utilityman Josh Harrison is penciled in as a full-time second baseman with Pittsburgh native Neil Walker (fifth-most games started at second in franchise history) traded to the Mets. Only at first base, where John Jaso and Michael Morse will platoon, and catcher, where Chris Stewart will give Francisco Cervelli a breather once or twice per week, are the Pirates counting on fewer than 140-150 games played from their No. 1 starter. The lineup’s got depth in terms of able hitters at every position (again, provided Mercer resembles the .267/.318/.406 2013-2014 version rather than the .244/.293/.320 2015 product), but the bench is thin.

 

Does the manager use pinch-hitters and platoons liberally? Does the team have the platoon advantage in an especially large or small percentage of their plate appearances?

Platooning is a quaint concept in an era of 12- and 13-man pitching rotations, but even so, the Pirates lean pretty hard to the right. There were two left-handed hitters and one switch-hitter among last year’s regulars, and two of those players (lefty-swinging first baseman Pedro Alvarez, who was non-tendered, and switch-hitting second baseman Walker) are gone. That leaves Polanco as the team’s only incumbent hitter from the left side, joined by off-season pickup Jaso, who’ll platoon at first. So, yeah, the Pirates are going to start six right-handed batters among eight position players against right-handed pitchers in 2016. But that’s not necessarily a vulnerability. The right-leaning 2015 Pirates had the second-best record in the National League against right-handed pitchers (78-48, a .619 winning percentage, trailing only St. Louis’s .630), so it’s not like teams can bring up minor league northpaws to shut down the team down.

Manager Clint Hurdle was seventh in the league with 267 pinch hits. In last year’s National League, the Padres, Brewers, and Cubs pinch hit a lot, and the Giants and Nationals pinch hit infrequently. Everybody else was in the middle. Pirates pinch hitters batted .237 in 2015, sixth in the league.

 

Are the hitters notably aggressive or patient?

The Pirates were middle of pack in both strikeout percentage (seventh in the league) and walk percentage (tenth). They saw 3.79 pitches per plate appearances, equal to the National League average. Among regulars, the only guy with a notably high strikeout rate was departed first baseman Alvarez (26.7% of plate appearances), but it was his glove, not his whiffs, that drove Pirates fans crazy.

 

Does the manager call for steals and hit-and-runs often? Is the team aggressive in taking the extra base on hits and outs? Do they lay down sacrifice bunts with unusual regularity, or irregularity?

He manages one of the most data-driven teams, and he gets deserved credit for adopting sabermetric principles, but Clint Hurdle isn’t precisely the very model of a modern stathead general. He had position players sacrifice 24 times last year, the fifth most in the league. A lot of those bunts were by poor hitters, though Cervelli (!), Marte (!!), Harrison, and Polanco gave up 11 outs among them. The Pirates attempted 143 steals, the fourth most in the league, but were tenth in the league with a 68.5% stolen base success rate. They were middle-of-the-pack at calling the hit-and-run. He used more pinch-runners, 48, than any team in the league, and the Pirates (in case you need an obscure stat to amaze your friends) had three of the six National League players to score four or more runs as pinch-runners last season. The Pirates led the majors in double switches last year, with 76. (Before getting rhapsodic about that, ban-the-DH folks, consider that the teams ranking second through seventh in double switches were all in the American League.)

Pirates baserunners weren’t particularly aggressive last year. They went first to third on singles 28% of the time, matching the major league average, second to home on singles 63% (average 59%) and first to home on doubles 39% (average 45%). They were, though, arguably reckless, making 45 baserunning outs (outs advancing in those three situations, plus getting doubled off a base), trailing only the Cardinals, with 46, in the National League. Marte made eight baserunning outs, Walker six, placing them among league leaders.

 

Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced? What will their optimal batting order be? Is it likely to be adhered to?

The biggest concern about the Pirates’ offense is health, since there really isn’t a suitable medium-term backup plan for seven lineup positions (Cervelli, Harrison, Kang, Marte, Mercer, McCutchen, and Polanco). I’m serious. Here are the No. 2 guys on the Pirates’ depth chart, other than the platoon at first:

  • Catcher: Stewart, who’s an OK backup but also 34 years old and coming off a .289/.320/.340, .243 TAv season
  • Second base: Sean Rodriguez
  • Shortstop: Move Kang over from third, have Rodriguez play third
  • Third base: Rodriguez, or move Harrison over from second and have Rodriguez play second
  • Left field: Matt Joyce, signed to a minor league contract and coming off a .174/.272/.291 year, if he sticks; otherwise, Rodriguez
  • Center field: Move Marte over from left, play Joyce or Rodriguez in left
  • Right field: Same as left

That’s an awful lot of Sean Rodriguez. The problem is, he was supposed to be a poor man’s Ben Zobrist for the Pirates, but he wound up being more of an unable-to-escape-the-vicious-cycle-of-poverty man’s Ben Zobrist (.246/.281/.362, .230 TAv), spending most of last season as Alvarez’s defensive replacement. Oh, and he turns 31 in April. A strong utility infielder, who could step in if Kang’s slow to recover from his injury, or when Harrison needs a rest, or if Mercer’s lousy again, would be a priority. The top candidate from the farm system is Alen Hanson, who hit .263/.313/.387 at AAA Indianapolis, but he’s exclusively a second baseman. If Joyce is done (he’s only 31, but his .217 TAv last year ranked 294 of the 311 major league players with 250 or more plate appearances), there really isn’t a Plan B if one of the outfielders goes down with an injury. The Pirates have some promising minor league hitters, as I’ll discuss below, but none appear ready for at least the first half of the season. This could really be an issue. The Cubs’ depth chart has guys like Javier Baez and Jorge Soler in backup roles; the Cardinals have Brandon Moss, Jedd Gyorko, and Tommy Pham. It won’t take much in the way of injuries to really expose the Bucs’ lack of depth.

As far as the lineup goes, the 2015 Pirates had nine players with 430 or more plate appearances. All but three had an OPS+ of 107 or higher, and one of those three, Harrison, was close, at 98. Mercer’s was a disappointing 70. The other below-average hitter was Polanco, whose .256/.320/.381 slash gave him a 93+ OPS. Yet he was the team’s primary leadoff hitter, batting first in 96 games. On one hand, he’s fast; he and Marte are the team’s only significant basestealing threats. On the other hand, he doesn’t get on base as much as you’d like from a leadoff hitter, and it’d be nice to have a lefthanded bat further down in the righty-dominant lineup. On yet a third hand, though, he really hasn’t flashed the power (.053 career ISO) to warrant batting him in the 3-6 slots. If the Pirates lineup is going to be Polanco-Marte-McCutchen-Kang-Jaso/Morse-Cervelli-Harrison-Mercer, you could make case for flipping Harrison and Polanco, but it’s not overwhelming. An outside-the-box option would be leading off with OBP machine (.361 career) Jaso. But really, if the biggest concern about the lineup is who’s going to lead off, we’re talking about a pretty good lineup.

 

Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness?

PNC Park is a pitcher’s park. Using three-year park factors calculated in this year’s Bill James Handbook, here’s a list of PNC’s most notable tendencies:

  • Reduces scoring by 6%
  • Reduces doubles by 7%
  • Reduces triples by 23%
  • Reduces home runs by 20% (8% for left-handed batters, 27% for right-handers)
  • Reduces walks by 5%
  • Reduces strikeouts by 8%
  • Reduces foul outs by 9%

That 27% reduction in right-handed homers is the most in the majors over the last three years, though, in the interest of full disclosure, PNC was an above-average park for right-handed homers last year. Overall, it’s got smallish foul areas but the outfield that reduces extra base hits significantly, enough so that it changes pitchers’ strategies. When a park yields an above- or below-average number of strikeouts, it’s usually because of visibility issues, so walks usually go in the opposite direction. PNC suppresses both, indicating that pitchers there pitch more to contact, as they’re less worried about giving up a big hit. The park’s played exactly average for batting average allowed over the past three years, indicating that batters get their hits, though much more of the one-base variety than extra-base, bolstering pitchers’ confidence.

 

Run Prevention

What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned? Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?

One of the main themes of Travis Sawchik’s outstanding book about the 2013 Pirates, Big Data Baseball, is the team’s embrace of analytics, particularly in regard to run prevention. The Pirates were early adopters of pitchers throwing two-seam (sinking) fastballs, generating ground balls that are caught by shifted infielders. The 2013-15 wild card Pirates have generally featured strong outfield defenders, infielders with good bats who use shifts to make up for pedestrian ranges, and catchers who frame pitches well. Given that, their pitchers target the lower parts and corners of the zone, generating a lot of grounders (highest ground ball percentage, 50.4%, in the league last year). Those grounders and the dimensions of the home park resulted in a league-low 110 home runs allowed in 2015. Going down the line of Baseball Prospectus team pitching stats, the Pirates were second in the National League in ERA, second in FIP, fifth in cFIP, and fourth in DRA-. Pirates starters were sixth in the league in DRA and their relievers were second. The team’s success at preventing runs–and they were successful–is as much a story of a marriage between talent and analytics as for any team in the majors.

Not everybody’s returning to the starting rotation, though. J.A. Happ, acquired at the trade deadline and the team’s best pitcher down the stretch, signed a free agent contract with Toronto. A.J. Burnett retired. Charlie “Ground Chuck” Morton was traded to Philadelphia. That’s 60 starts, and three-fifths of the rotation at the end of the season, gone. The starters will be led by the righty-lefty tandem of Gerrit Cole (2.60 ERA, 2.69 FIP, 3.31 DRA), who emerged as one of the league’s best starters last year, and Francisco Liriano (3.38 ERA, 3.22 FIP, 3.69 DRA), probably the most famous reclamation project of pitching coach/magician/pitcher whisperer Ray Searage. Lefty Jeff Locke returns to the rotation, and he joined Cole and Liriano as the only Pirates pitchers to start 30 or more games last year, though with a lot less success (4.49 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 4.67 DRA).

Another southpaw, Jon Niese, came over from the Mets in the Walker trade (4.13 ERA, 4.44 FIP, 5.47 DRA), and the Pirates signed former Giant righty Ryan Vogelsong (4.67 ERA, 4.55 FIP, 5.48 DRA). If Searage’s magic doesn’t work with those three, pressure will build to call up top prospect Tyler Glasnow (No. 11 in Baseball Prospectus’s rankings), who compiled a 2.34 ERA and struck out 11.3 batters per nine innings split between AA and AAA last season. The Pirates’ other top-101 pitching prospect, Jameson Taillon (No. 51 per BP) hasn’t pitched since appearing for Scottsdale in the Arizona Fall League in 2013–that is not a typo–due to Tommy John surgery in 2014 and a hernia in 2015, so it’s unrealistic to expect him before the All-Star break, if then.

 

How do they run their bullpen?

The Pirates bullpen has fairly set roles: Mark Melancon is the closer. Tony Watson pitches the eighth. Arquimedes CamineroJared Hughes, and a couple cheap free agents, Neftali Feliz (one year, $3.9 million), and Juan Nicasio (one year, $3.0 million), will handle the earlier innings. Hurdle will mix-and-match the eighth inning to play right/lefty percentages (Watson’s the only southpaw of the bunch) and to keep pitchers rested. The Pirates had five relievers–Melancon, Watson, Caminero, Hughes, and the departed Antonio Bastardo–appear in 66 or more games, more than any other team in the league.

 

Does the team deploy a large number of shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players? Are any players on the bench used as late-inning defensive replacements?

The Pirates, who led the National League with 660 shifts in 2014, shifted 971 times in 2015, second to the Rockies in the NL and fourth in the majors. As noted above, Pittsburgh was an early adopter of shifts.

Pitching staffs that get a lot of double plays are typically those that allow a lot of baserunners; the Braves and Rockies were 1-2 in the National League last year. The Pirates were third, despite allowing just a .311 on base percentage (the league average was .318), a testament to their ground ball-producing pitchers and their shifted infielders.

With the departure of Walker, Harrison will become a full-time second baseman despite just 67 games started there in his career (57 of them in 2015). Kang was a shortstop in the Korean Baseball Organization but was primarily a third baseman last year, an above-average one (per BP’s FRAA and BIS’s DRS) at that. Jaso has scant experience at first base (four innings in 2010, one in 2013) but the bar for replacing Alvarez on defense is exceptionally low. The Pirates claim, with some justification, that all three of their outfielders are good enough to play center. That’s probably true, and it’s also probably true that they have the weakest of the trio, McCutchen, actually manning the position. There are far worse problems than having Andrew McCutchen as your everyday center fielder.

Hurdle regularly replaced Alvarez at in the late innings of games. He’ll probably leave Jaso and Morse out there longer.

 

Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?

A key component of the Pirates’ strategy is to acquire under-appreciated pitch-framing catchers from the Yankees. Seriously. Pittsburgh signed Russell Martin as a free agent after the 2012 season after two lackluster years in the Bronx. (A former Yankee who signs with the Pirates pretty much defines lackluster.) He parlayed two seasons in Pittsburgh near the top of BP’s Framing Runs metric into a five-year deal with Toronto. Following the 2013 season, the Pirates got Stewart from the Bombers in exchange for a minor league pitcher; he was 16th in Framing Runs last year despite limited playing time. Last season’s import, Cervelli, acquired from New York in November 2014 in a trade for reliever Justin Wilson, was second in the majors to the Dodgers’ Yasmani Grandal in Framing Runs. Both catchers’ pitch-framing excellence was balanced, if not outweighed, by an inability to throw out baserunners. By BP’s Throwing Runs metric, Cervelli was the second worst at controlling the running game last season, Stewart the 12th worst, as the Pirates allowed the most stolen bases in the majors (144) and the third-highest stolen base success rate (77.0%).

Cervelli and Stewart formed an outstanding one-two punch and caught all but 17.1 of the team’s innings in 2015. The key concerns going into 2016 is whether they can duplicate that durability and, if not, Stewart’s lack of pop. His .050 ISO trailed not only every Pirate position player with 45 or more plate appearances (including light-hitting shortstops Mercer and Pedro Florimon) but also three pitchers.

 

Pirates OF

Does the team’s home park impact their ability to prevent runs in any unique way? Is the park factor drastic? Is the square footage of the outfield significantly off the MLB norm?

I went over this above. PNC Park is one of the better pitchers’ parks in the majors, one of the few that suppresses both walks and strikeouts because pitchers aren’t afraid of pitching to contact. The large outfield is well-covered by three strong defenders. Daren Willman of Baseball Savant and MLB.com tweeted the map at right of Pirates outfielders’ range, and while it lacks context (we don’t know how this compares to, say, the Cardinals’ outfielders), it sure looks cool!

 

Managerial/Miscellaneous

Is the farm system well-stocked? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?

ESPN’s Keith Law rates the Pirates’ minor league system as the eighth best in the majors, as does MLB.com. Baseball America has Pittsburgh in seventh. So there’s talent available. However, other than Glasnow, most of the top prospects probably won’t make it to PNC Park this year. Outfielder Austin Meadows (BP’s No. 22) won’t be 21 until May. He hit well at two levels last year but has only 28 plate appearances above Class A. Last year was Josh Bell‘s (No. 49) first at first base; depending on how Jaso and Morse fare, he could be in Pittsburgh by mid-season. Taillon, as noted above, has missed the last two seasons. Catcher Reese McGuire (No. 76) may be Cervelli’s heir apparent, but he’s 21 and hasn’t played above A ball. Outfielder Harold Ramirez (No. 80) is another 21-year-old who hasn’t played above A ball. Others ranked by BP among the team’s top ten are 2015 draftees Kevin Newman (shortstop) and Ke’Bryan Hayes (third base, son of former major leaguer Charlie Hayes), shortstop Cole Tucker, and right-handed pitcher Mitch Keller. Of the team’s top ten prospects, Baseball Prospectus assigns only Glasnow and Bell a 2016 ETA. So there’s support on the way, but not imminently.

With a well-stocked farm system, Pittsburgh’s positioned to trade prospects for established players, but that sort of thing is just not in the team’s DNA. The Pirates draft and develop talented players and then hold onto them until they get expensive.

 

Are any players particularly fragile, or coming off off-season surgery that might impact their season? How deep is the team at the positions where they have injury-prone players?

Kang is reportedly on schedule in recovering from his gruesome knee injury with an April ETA. Nobody else has significant injury problems, though Harrison, Mercer, and Morse were banged up at various times last year. The Pirates are one of the leaders in using proprietary analytics to try to keep players healthy–they somewhat famously won’t allow their trainers to speak to the press–and they got 41% more plate appearances out of Cervelli than he’d accumulated in his previous four seasons combined. That’s good, because as I’ve said, the team’s depth behind the starting eight is a concern.

 

Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign? What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)?

After playing in every wild card game in National League history, Pittsburgh would desperately like to win the division and go directly to the NLDS. So yeah, they’re playing to win.

As far as moves they should make ASAP, there’s really nothing much. They could use some depth in the infield and outfield but that sort of thing may be available in the minors or on the waiver wire unless there’s a long-term vacancy to fill. They may face a hard decision regarding Glasnow if the pitchers behind Cole and Liriano are as bad in the start of the season as they were in 2015.

The big question with the Pirates is, and probably always will be, how much are they willing to spend? Melancon’s a free agent after this year, but there’s a case to be made for trading him rather than signing him to a longer-term contract. Cervelli’s a free agent after this year as well, Liriano and Watson are after 2017, McCutchen is after 2018, Cole is after 2019. The Pirates managed to get into an ill-advised pissing contest with Cole, a Scott Boras client, over his 2016 salary, giving him effectively no raise after threatening to cut the staff ace’s pay and not discussing an extension with him. How many of these key players can they Pirates keep, especially McCutchen, who’s one of the greatest bargains in the sport ($13 million this season, $14 million in 2017, team option for $14.75 million in 2018)? If the team’s not going to pay up to keep them, will it trade them now, and if it does, will it signal a rebuilding process?

It seems to me that the best option for the team now is to sign Cervelli for two to three years (there’s speculation that that’s going to happen this spring), try to extend Cole through at least 2020 (buying out his arbitration years and first year of free agency) and maybe kick the McCutchen can down the road, perhaps for another season, but not much longer than that.

 

What’s likely to happen? 

The Pirates have won 280 games over the past three seasons. That’s the tenth most in team him history. Their winning percentage over those years, .576, is the 20th best three-year run ever for Pittsburgh. The history of great Pirates teams is basically the Honus Wagner Pirates of 1900-1912, the Paul Waner Pirates of 1923-29, the Roberto Clemente Pirates of 1970-72, the Fam-A-Lee Pirates of 1975-79, the Barry Bonds Pirates of 1990-92, and the past three years. Only the latter two iterations have failed to win the World Series. The 1990-92 Pirates heartbreakingly lost three straight Championship Series, and the 2013-15 team’s won just three postseason games in three years of postseason appearances.

This is a good club, but in several respects, this season looks challenging. The Pirates were an absurd 36-17 in one-run games last year, a league-best .679 winning percentage; that’s not likely to persist. They hit way better with runners in scoring position (park-adjusted OPS 16% better than in other situations, the second-highest total in the league, compared to a league average of 5%); that’s not likely to persist. Of the team’s seven best hitters (measured by Baseball Prospectus’s Total Average), only Kang spent time on the disabled list; that’s not likely to persist. The lineup looks good, provided the bench doesn’t get exposed, and the bullpen’s formidable, but the rotation looks weaker than last year.

And the Pirates play in a killer division, with the always-competitive Cardinals and the team du jour Cubs. The Cardinals may be due for some regression in 2016, but the Cubs have strengthened themselves, and with the Giants and Diamondbacks looking stronger in the West, the Pirates’ ownership of a National League wild card berth may at risk. PECOTA sees them going 83-79, FanGraphs one game better than that. I think they’ll be less lucky in 2016 than in 2015 and they’ll get at least nibbled, if not bit, by the injury bug, exposing a thin bench. That, combined with a shaky back end of the rotation, makes PECOTA’s projection looks right to me. That means no postseason, but also no heartbreaking one-game Wild Card exit. Yay?

 

Check out Effectively Wild‘s season previews and the schedule of our own companion previews.

2013-15 team stats via FanGraphs. Salaries via Spotrac.

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