Let ?s start this post with a shameless plug: there ?s a fantastic Pirates preview eBook releasing today. Kevin contributed to it, as did some of the best baseball writers and radio personalities in the area. I did a little ghostwriting and took a peek behind the curtain of this 280 page undertaking. To keep the sales pitch short, I ?ll just say that if you ?re a Pirate fan, it ?s worth the six bucks.
One story that caught my eye came from The Fan’s Josh Taylor, who writes about the road to 88 wins. Why 88? Because that ?s been baseball ?s magic number the last couple years. If you win 88 games, you play a 163rd game. Only two teams have won 88 games in a season and missed the playoffs in the two wild card era: the 2012 Rays and the 2013 Rangers (who lost a play-in game No. 163 to the Rays).
Like I ?ve previously said, I ?m eyeballing this 2018 Pirates club at about 81 wins. I think 88 wins is feasible if they catch a couple breaks. The question is how many breaks are needed to get there?
Taylor talks about runs scored and runs allowed in his piece, but I ?m going to make my examination a little simpler. We ?re going to look at WAR (fWAR, to be precise). A team full of replacement level players is projected to win 48 games in a season. Theoretically, to get to 88 wins, a team would need to accumulate 40 WAR.
If you look at the wild card winners over the last six years, the magic number for getting to the playoffs hovers right around that theorized WAR total.
The average team WAR total for a wild card club since 2012 is currently 40.9. Twelve of the 24 wild card teams in this era finished their season within 10% of either direction of 40.9. The 2017 Cardinals are the only team since 2014 that has reached that WAR total and failed to make the playoffs. If 88 wins is a magic number the Pirates should shoot for, 40.9 WAR should be, too.
So let ?s take a look at Fangraphs ? Steamer and see how close the Pirates are to 40.9. I took a stab at picking out the opening day roster and ignored contributions from guys who should make an appearance from AAA this season. Here ?s what Steamer has to say:
There ?s some ground they need to make up. Steamer is low on the Pirates ? hitters, with no player projected to reach 3 WAR and only Starling Marte cracking 2. It ?s a little more optimistic for the pitchers, projecting bounce back years for Jameson Taillon and Joe Musgrove and slight improvements for Chad Kuhl and Ivan Nova. They expect Trevor Williams ? value to be cut in half, but that was fairly predictable for a young pitcher who doesn ?t strike out a ton of batters.
Steamer is bullish on Tyler Glasnow as a starter, but you can probably throw out that projection since he ?s going to most likely pitch out of the bullpen this year. They are cautiously optimistic about Felipe Rivero and are expecting a turnaround from Michael Feliz (I ?m agreeing with the computer). Josh Bell might get a boost, but Adam Frazier, Sean Rodriguez and David Freese ?s values are falling off a cliff now that they ?re backups.
All told, the Steamer forecasts my opening day roster to be worth a combined 27.6 WAR, or 13.3 WAR short of what a playoff team needs. For reference, the 2017 Pirates combined to be worth 24.9 WAR (11 hitting, 13.9 pitching). It ?s a step in the right direction, but the Bucs are going to need their players to do better than their projections if they want to hang around in the playoff picture.
Fangraphs ? model gives 57% of the league ?s WAR to position players and 43% to pitchers. If the Pirates follow that formula, they need their hitters to produce 7.6 extra wins than they ?re projected to and for their pitchers to best their prognostication by 5.7 WAR (relievers usually account for roughly one-fourth of the league ?s pitching WAR total, so let ?s delegate 4.3 to the starters and 1.4 to the bullpen).
So to get the Pirates from the 75-76 win club they ?re projected to be to a playoff team, they need to on average have their position players produce 0.6 more WAR than their projections, their starters to be worth 0.9 WAR more and each reliever to be 0.2 WAR more.
Let ?s take a look at those Steamer projections for this season again, but this time factor in what they need to do to get to 40.9 WAR. For reference, I also put each player ?s best WAR total from the last three years, too. My formula results in 41.3 team WAR, so feel free to subtract four-tenths of a win anywhere you see fit.
Let ?s look at the positives first. A lot of those position player figures seem achievable. It ?s only a modest step up in value for Josh Bell and Colin Moran, and the veteran core has bettered each of those projections at some point over the last three years. The bullpen seems to be in good shape, too. Just pretend Tyler Glasnow isn’t forecasted to be their most valuable reliever. Rivero and the rest of the ‘pen could pick up the slack to make up for that.
The real obstacle is, surprise, starting pitching. Last year ?s rotation was fairly average. For the Pirates to succeed, they need to be at least good. To be good, they need to grow up fast. Musgrove needs to triple his WAR output. Taillon needs to put together a full, healthy season and pitch like an All-Star. Nova and Kuhl need to be worth three wins each. Williams has to avoid the sophomore slump and at least match what he did last year. That ?s a lot to ask.
So what a shocker: the Pirates ? quest for 88 wins, 40.9 WAR and/or a playoff berth is likely going to come down to the rotation. They ?re young and talented. They just need to take a giant leap. At least now we have a rough idea of how big that leap needs to be.