Pittsburgh Pirates: ZiPS projections point to regression, 79 wins

(Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug; Opening image credit sports-kings.com)

Dan Szymborski’s computer-generated “ZiPS” projection system- along with similar programs like “Oliver” and “Steamer“- is among at least 8 well-known formularies designed to estimate the production levels of every player in baseball that might play at or reach the MLB level in the upcoming season.  These projections are relished by avid fans for a variety of reasons.  The majority of marquee free agents have already signed.  Some fantasy baseball “sim” leagues use these projections, as opposed to real-life stat leagues popularized by Yahoo!, Sporting News and CBS Sportsline.  Finally, many simulation outputs are posted during the purgatory of January- where most important real-life moves have already taken place, but Spring Training is still far away.

Unfortunately, a common theme of the 2014 projections is that the Pittsburgh Pirates will struggle to make the playoffs, let alone reach .500.

ZiPS projected wins:  79
Steamer projected wins:  82
Oliver projected wins:  78

So, is this regression to the mean from a team that “overachieved” during the entire 94-win 2013 season?  Is it the fault of the Pirates’ offseason losses, including OF Marlon Byrd, 1B Justin Morneau, and (possibly) 2013 NL K/9 leader SP A.J. Burnett?  Or is it simply 3 computer programs all gone wrong?

In this author’s opinion, it’s a combination of the first two questions.

1.  The 2013 Pirates had a “Pythagorean” (runs scored vs. runs given up) expected record of 88-74, or a substantial 6 wins less than the real team actually achieved.

2.  Losing Byrd (.847 OPS, 138 OPS+) and Burnett (9.8 K/9, 107 ERA+) are critical subtractions, even considering their ages (36 and 37).

Hoping for big contributions in 2014; image credit cbc

3.  While Justin Morneau was incredibly disappointing during his brief Pirate tenure (.681 OPS, 97 OPS+), the apparent firstbase “solution” of GM Neal Huntington is to platoon Gaby Sanchez (106 OPS+ projected, but useless against right-handers) and Andrew Lambo (93 OPS+ projected).  While Lambo certainly deserves an MLB role after crushing AA-AAA pitching to the tune of 32 HR and a .922 OPS in 2013, it’s disappointing that a returning playoff team could not secure a legitimate, established bat for the most marquee power position on the field.

4.  The Pirates never appeared to be serious contenders in the sweepstakes for Cuban defector 1B Jose Abreu (26 HR, 129 OPS+ projected), who eventually signed with the Chicago White Sox.

5.  The low-budget Pirates were also never connected with 1B Mike Napoli (22 HR, 117 OPS+ projected), who ended up re-signing with the already loaded defending World Series Champion Boston Red Sox.  Both Abreu and Napoli would’ve been huge additions to a power-starved offense, and either would’ve still kept the Pirates’ payroll among the lowest in the game.

6.  Without Burnett (who was still given a favorable 2.2 WAR [wins above replacement player], 101 ERA+, 174 IP, 157 SO projection, in case he returns), the Pirates only boast two SP with ERA+ projections above 100: Francisco Liriano (115 ERA+) and Gerrit Cole (104 ERA+).

Can Rodriguez be effective in 2014? Image credit kitsapun

7.  A number of potential rotation arms were given solid ZiPS projections.  Wandy Rodriguez was granted a favorable 99 ERA+, 1.4 WAR- assuming he returns strongly from injury.  Highly-touted prospect Jameson Taillon checks in with a 96 ERA+ and 1.5 WAR.  Fresh off a rebound season and contract extension, the mercurial Charlie Morton has a 90 ERA+ and 0.9 WAR.  And after a rollercoaster of a season that featured him both being named an NL All-Star and demoted to AA months later, Jeff Locke was assigned a pedestrian 88 ERA+ and 1.0 WAR.  All of these projections are solid, but unspectacular, and unlikely to vault the Pirates’ rotation above top NL rivals.

8.  Based on ZiPS, the Pirates’ offense looks to be the strength of the 2014 team, with all of the following players at or above 100 OPS+:

CF Andrew McCutchen (141 OPS+, 6.4  WAR- one of the best projections in all of MLB)
3B Pedro Alvarez (113 OPS+)
2B Neil Walker (110 OPS+)
LF Starling Marte (109 OPS+, with an exciting #1 comparison of a young Matt Kemp)
1B Gaby Sanchez (106 OPS+)
C Russell Martin (100 OPS+)
RF Jose Tabata (100 OPS+)

Teams can certainly win with a lack of power, although it is concerning that despite these OPS+, Pittsburgh is projected to only boast two hitters with HR totals above 16: Alvarez (32), and McCutchen (24).  Again, Abreu or Napoli would’ve been exciting additions.

The future of RF? Image credit fromforbestofederal

9.  Perhaps the Pirates’ unwillingness to address the RF “void” with nothing more than internal options like Tabata and Lambo is because they are as bullish on OF prospect Gregory Polanco as ZiPS is.  The program projects the 6’4″ lefty with a slash line of 11 HR, 59 RBI, 30 SB, a +10 defensive rating (second only to Marte’s +12), a 96 OPS+, and an impressive 3.2 WAR!  To put it in perspective, a 3.2 WAR would be equivalent to a player earning over $15,000,000 a season, and is higher than the majority of Major Leaguers that will man their franchise’s outfields in 2014.  Polanco’s #1 comp is listed as Johnny Damon, leading many to believe that an outfield of Marte-McCutchen-Polanco could eventually be the best in the National League- and for years to come.

10. One of the problems with ZiPS is that, being a computer simulation, it doesn’t factor in the often goofy tendencies of veteran-loving managers, or penny-pinching franchises.  While ZiPS assumes that Jordy Mercer (92 OPS+, 1.8 WAR) will start at SS, it’s much more likely that Manager Clint Hurdle runs an unnecessary encore performance of Clint Barmes (72 OPS+, 1.4 WAR) out there for the majority of the team’s 162 games.  The program also doesn’t assume that $5,000,000 offseason addition Edinson Volquez and his disastrous 80 ERA+ will make the rotation, but clearly the Pirates aren’t paying Volquez that money for mop-up work.  Like Barmes, he’ll likely take the spot of a player that could produce significantly more for far less money.

Overall, the ZiPS projections summarize an offseason in which many re-energized fans were expecting the Pittsburgh Pirates to do far more.  Thanks for reading.