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ZiPS And The 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates

The Patriots have won the Super Bowl. They’ve won it again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again. Each time hurts a little more than the last, but this time, the healing process can begin faster. Dan Szymborski has just released his ZiPS projections for the Pirates on Monday, one day after the Super Bowl.

Alex wrote about the Pirates Steamer projections in November, and his conclusion was the Pirates were pretty much what you’d expect. The Pirates are a disturbingly average team yet again, just a few meaningful moves away from being legitimate contenders. Since November, the Pirates have added Lonnie Chisenhall, Jordan Lyles, Erik Gonzalez, Brandon Maurer, and most recently — Francisco Liriano. I wouldn’t call any of these moves meaningful, even though I expect these guys to be contributors at the Major League level, but any/all of these guys don’t push the Pirates past the Cardinals, Cubs, or Brewers.

With that said, the Pirates do have some intriguing pieces — according to ZiPS. The most intriguing part of all, the rotation.

Beginning from the top, Taillon is projected to have the highest WAR on the pitching staff, coming in at 3.1 WAR. Taillon really came a long way last year with the help of a slider and an overall higher breaking ball usage. There has been some hype around his 2019 season, as a full year with the slider could really help him like it did in 2018. After Taillon introduced his slider in May 2018, his fastball usage fell from 68.3% to 54.7%. Before he was throwing his slider, he had a 4.42 ERA and a 12.3 K-BB%. After he added his slider he had a 2.92 ERA and an 18.1 K-BB%. ZiPS won’t be able to accurately register that Taillon totally changed his approach to pitching, so it’s totally possible that Taillon outperforms his projection, despite already being one of the highest projected guys in the league. Pittsburgh has wanted an ‘ace’ they can rely on for a while, and Taillon is clearly the guy in 2019.

The pitcher with the second most projected WAR is Chris Archer. Archer is a bit of an interesting player, as he has consistently had very good projections coming into the year and then proceeded to put up disappointing numbers with much better peripherals. This year is starting no different, as his 3.0 WAR is one of the highest in the division (so far, anyway). After 3 straight years of a 4+ ERA, Chris Archer is now 30 years old, and he has a lot to prove. Another year in which he underperforms would be terrible for not only him, but Neal Huntington as well.

Wrapping up the ‘known’ rotation is Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove. This is where things start to get a little hazy. Last year, Trevor Williams ended with a 3.11 ERA, but it doesn’t seem likely that he will repeat that. However, Steamer has Williams projected to finish with a 4.71 ERA, which would be a total disappointment and make him basically useless in a 5 man rotation. ZiPS, on the other hand, has him projected at a 4.06 ERA. Still almost an entire run worse than his 2018 campaign, but a 4.06 ERA is much easier to swallow than a 4.71 ERA. Joe Musgrove’s ZiPS projection is consistent with Steamer, but he’s projected to have a handful of relief appearances. Those relief appearances ultimately skew his rate stats. It shouldn’t change his final numbers too much, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Now after the rotation, the most exciting thing has to be the bullpen. Vazquez is projected to finish with the most WAR, but he’s actually not projected to have the lowest ERA. Keone Kela is projected to have a 2.82 ERA which is slightly better than Vazquez’s 2.87 ERA. This is another area in which ZiPS and Steamer disagree, as Kela is projected to do about nearly half a run worse than Vazquez. The 1-2 of Vazquez and Kela could end up being one of the most dominant in the league in 2019, and if Hurdle wants, we could maybe see Vazquez pitch outside of the 9th inning like a lot of us wanted a few years ago. The personnel certainly allows for more flexibility.

Last but not least, we have the hitters. The one area that really needed improvement heading into 2019, didn’t really get any help at all.

None of the WAR totals above really stand out. Marte’s WAR projection is the highest on the team, which is nice, but outside of that, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to be excited about. I guess the silver lining here is any one of these players seem to have a possible 2 win deviation from their projection.

Maybe Bell breaks out and has a 3.9 WAR, or he doesn’t and finishes below 0. Same for Moran, Dickerson, maybe even Newman. This will likely be a source of frustration all year. It’s still possible the Pirates pick up Jose Iglesias, but it seems unlikely at this point. Hopefully, new hitting coach Rick Eckstein knows what he’s doing and can help push these guys up the win chart instead of down. All it will take is for a couple of breakouts to really solidify this lineup, but all it would have taken was a meaningful acquisition in the offseason, and we wouldn’t have to rely on hope.

Here is a breakdown of how the Pirates and Cardinals match up based on Dan’s WAR graphic using Depth Charts playing time. Dan hasn’t released the Cubs or the Brewers, so I’m only able to list the Cardinals for now.

Reds Pirates Cardinals
SP 10.3 11.3 12.9
RP 4.3 4.7 4.2
C 2.3 2.5 2.9
1B 4.8 1.9 4.5
2B 2.4 2.3 2.4
3B 4 1.7 4.3
SS 1.8 1.6 2.7
LF 2.1 3 3
CF 2.3 3.7 2.5
RF 3.1 2.6 1.9
37.4 35.3 41.3
Updated on 2/6 to add missing Catcher row and added the Reds for comparison. This will be updated again once the Brewers and Cubs projections are released.

The Cardinals are the better team. If you’re the Cardinals, you have to be happy about getting Goldschmidt. If you’re the Pirates, you have to hope something good happens.

Some of the fun (or maybe not fun) player comps include:

  • Josh Bell – Sid Bream
  • Kevin Newman – Freddy Sanchez
  • Kevin Kramer – Ty Wigginton

You can find the full ZiPS projections here.

Jake is a Pirates contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He is currently attending Saint Vincent College and is pursuing a degree in Finance. You might know him as @CannonballCrner on Twitter. Jake used to write for his own site, but now does all his writing at the Point of Pittsburgh. He is a big fan of the slider and wishes Chad Kuhl a speedy recovery.

5 Comments on ZiPS And The 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates

  1. So Kevin Newman is going to win a batting title? I’ll take it!

  2. Kinda skimmed over all the glowing comments from Dan. He basically said “this is the best 40 man in baseball”. That’s kinda good news.

  3. Phillip C-137 // February 5, 2019 at 3:30 PM //

    Appreciate the article, Jake. But based on previous articles here, I’m disappointed that they’re projected to be about 32.8 WAR when 40 WAR is the gateway to the Postseason, but then again Catchers aren’t included.

    Per Fangraphs the 2018 Pirates position players were worth 19.1 WAR. ZIPS has the 2019 pps at 16.8. On first blush, this doesn’t seem right to me.

    Here’s a look I put together. (Freese’s WAR got split 1.0/0.2 between 3rd/1st and Frazier’s split 1.0/0.9 between 2nd/RF -both highly arbitrary.)

    Player – 2018 WAR – 2019 Expectation
    Cervelli/Diaz – 5.3 – ZIPS drops to 2.5
    Marte – 3.7 – 3.7
    Dickerson – 2.7 – 3.0
    Polanco+ – 3.4 – 2.6
    Moran/Freese/Kang – 1.7 – 1.7
    Mercer/Newman/ – 1.0 – 1.6
    JHay+/Frazier/ – 1.3 – 2.3
    Bell+ – 1.1 – 1.9

    While I do expect the Catcher WAR to drop a bit, I don’t expect it to drop this much. Other than the mystery sandwich in RF, I look for every other position to maintain or to tick up in 2019. 20+ WAR out of the position players seems doable in my judgement.

  4. Phillip C-137 // February 6, 2019 at 1:20 AM //

    Neither the Pirates nor the Cardinals seems to employ Catchers, at least as far as the Depth Charts graphic is concerned.

    • Jake Smail // February 6, 2019 at 1:29 PM //

      Whoops. Fixed, and added the Reds.

      I think out of all of the teams in the NL Central, the Pirates have the greatest variance of outcomes heading into 2019. I could see virtually all of the position players to either vastly under or overperform their projections. I’m not sure that’s a good or a bad thing, but it’s definitely interesting.

Comments are closed.