In many ways the Pittsburgh Pirates played above their heads in 2013. Their record of 94-68 was six wins better than their Pythagorean W/L record of 88-74 which indicates they were somewhat of a fortunate ball club. It wasn’t really surprisingly outstanding individual seasons that created their success. Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano both had exceptional seasons, but they weren’t career years for either player. Both have bested their 2013 WAR value on two other occasions. Seven of the eight starting position players look safe from a big statistical tumble next season. Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez did post career highs in WAR, but they didn’t far exceed their 2012 totals. Starling Marte and Jordy Mercer are still early in their careers and have as much room to improve in 2014 as they do to regress. However, regression should still be a big concern for the Pirates as GM Neal Huntington plans for the 2014 season. All teams are likely to experience regression with some parts of their roster. The best way to combat regression is to counterbalance it with roster upgrades at positions of need. If a team can upgrade a weak position they are more likely to weather some regression that hits a position that is perceived to be stable. Unfortunately for the Pirates finding upgrades is going to be a challenge. The Pirates can’t buy clear upgrades on the free agent market like large market teams with deep pockets can. Huntington has a much more limited budget to work with for his team’s payroll. The Pirates may have to stick with the status quo at their problem positions which could make any regression at other positions a potential pitfall that could ruin the 2014 season. Here are some of the more likely regression candidates that might trip up the Pirates in 2014:
The Bullpen- It isn’t just a possibility that the Pirate bullpen will regress in 2014, it is almost a certainty. The Pirates bullpen posted 2.89 ERA in 2013. That was the third best bullpen ERA in all of baseball. One of the key reasons the Pirates bullpen held up so well was because they kept the ball in the yard. Some of that was on merit. The bullpen posted an excellent 52% ground ball rate. That was the best mark in baseball. But Lady Luck played a hand in protecting the bullpen from the long ball too. The 8.2% HR/FB rate posted by the Pirates pen was well above league average. When relievers did surrender fly balls they were dying at the warning track instead of clearing the fence. Furthermore, the bullpen arms the Pirates most relied on were the ones that were the luckiest. The following Pirate relievers tossed more than 70 innings in 2013: Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, and Vin Mazzaro. Those four relievers all had HR/FB rates of 6.7% or lower. Melancon, the 8th inning setup man, was especially fortunate with a 3.2% HR/FB rate. In fact, Melancon allowed just one HR all season. No pitcher in baseball with more than 40 innings pitched gave up home runs less frequently than Mark Melancon. Chances are the pen will not be so fortunate next season. They will likely get dinged by the long ball more often.
Francisco Liriano- Nothing in Frankie’s peripherals from 2013 indicate a regression is likely. His xFIP of 3.12 was only slightly higher than his 3.02 ERA. However, Liriano doesn’t seem to handle prosperity very well. Every time he posts a good season it is followed by a terrible season. In the past five years Liriano has three times posted an ERA above 5.00. With that kind of track record can Liriano truly be counted on to repeat his 2013 season? And he may already be headed in the wrong direction. His September ERA was 5.14.
Russell Martin- I don’t expect Russell Martin’s bat to fall off much, if at all. I do think it will be difficult for him contribute the same defensively as he did in 2013. Much of Martin’s value comes from his defense so any defensive fall off in his game could be a costly bit of regression for the team to swallow. Martin was superb defensively in 2013. He was credited with 16 defensive runs saved (DRS). That is more than the five preceding seasons combined. From 2008-2012 Russell Martin was credited with a total of just 12 (DRS). Martin threw out 40% of base stealers that tried to run him last year. That was a career high for him. Can he equal his career high again? Martin committed just 2 errors in 2013. Prior to last year he averaged more than 9 errors a season. Martin will turn 31 before the start of next season. He is on the wrong side of 30 and has caught more than 1000 games in the major leagues. That alone should be a red flag indicating he is a strong candidate for a regression.