Hidden Vigorish

Detailed Analysis of The Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates Have Progression Over Regression

There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates. The team features one of the brightest stars in the game in CF Andrew McCutchen. Cutch is flanked by rising star Starling Marte in LF and 23 year old top prospect Gregory Polanco in RF, giving the Bucs one of the most gifted and athletic outfields that baseball has seen in the last 20 years. Gerrit Cole is one of the few starting pitchers in the sport that can throw a triple digit fastball. This is also a team building off of success. They have qualified for the playoffs as the NL Wildcard the past two seasons. There is much to like about this club. Pirate fans have good reason to be optimistic that the club can make a deep playoff run this year. But there is one factor in particular that makes me even more bullish on the Pirates. That factor is progression over regression. Simply put, I think this team has more upside than downside. The Bucs have more areas that can improve than will likely decline.
 
Looking at the roster as it stands in early February there are only two positions where I suspect the Pirates to have significant regression. Behind the dish it is a practically a guarantee that the team will lose production. Russell Martin was one of the best catchers in baseball last season. Martin took the money offered by Toronto and left the Pirates with a hole at catcher that Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart will be tasked with filling. The other position the Pirates will likely lose some production is 3B. Josh Harrison was sensational last season. He earned the 3B job on merit, but he is unlikely to repeat his 2014 performance. That isn’t a knock on Harrison. I believe he will still be a quality hitter this year. But repeating an .837 OPS seems highly unlikely. A .750 OPS for JHay seems much more reasonable and would still be considered a strong season for Harrison
 
The the rest of the Pirates’ lineup is filled with stable performers and players showing improvement. Cutch is almost a sure thing to put up MVP numbers. Neil Walker has been a solid and consistent hitter since 2010. As long as he can stay healthy he will put up good offensive numbers again this season. Starling Marte and SS Jordy Mercer are coming off of good seasons in which they showed gradual improvement, and they both still have some upside. After a disappointing season in 2014 Pedro Alvarez will be moving to 1B. If Pedro bounces back to something close to his 2012-2013 form (Steamer is projecting a 2 WAR improvement for Pedro) he will be an upgrade over the production Ike Davis provided the team at 1B last season. RF Gregory Polanco struggled last year in his first go around against major league pitching. But no Pirate player has as much untapped potential as Polanco does. It seems likely that the Pirates have enough progression in their starting 8 position players to counter regression at the 3B and C positions. The bottom line is the everyday lineup should be nearly as potent as it was last season.
 
Where the Pirates really have potential to improve is with the pitching staff. Last year Pirate hurlers were a disappointment. Gerrit Cole was the only pitcher to post above a 2.0 fWAR. Pirate starting pitchers were dead last at just 7.4 total fWAR. There are a couple of reasons to expect an improvement in the rotation. Cole and Francisco Liriano both finished the 2014 season strong after recovering from injuries in the middle part of the year. Last year’s staff was also dragged down early on by Wandy Rodriguez. Wandy posted a dismal -0.8 fWAR in just 6 starts before being released. The Pirates have too much pitching depth to allow a clear weak link to sink them again, and while the team did lose Edinson Volquez they brought back A.J. Burnett to replace him. Cole, Liriano, and Burnett make a nice trio of quality arms. As long as Cole can remain healthy and take a step forward the rotation should be better.
 
But it is the bullpen that is likely to make the most gains. Last year the Pirates’ pen saw some heavy regression from the previous season. That was not a surprise. The 2013 Pirates bullpen was both good and lucky. In 2014 that luck ran out. The pen blew 24 saves and gave up an astounding 43 home runs in 2014. That was 9 more blown saves and 7 more home runs than the previous season. That was partly due to bad luck, and partly due to a bad closer the first month of the season. The bad closer part was solved mid way thru the 2014 campaign. Jason Grilli was sent packing and Mark Melancon took over the closing duties. That shored up the back end of the bullpen, but the 7th inning remained a problem all season long. I am optimistic that the bullpen’s fortunes will change because while the bullpen was unlunky in 2014, it wasn’t particularly bad. The Pirates bullpen ranked 9th in baseball with a 3.28 ERA. No, this wasn’t a bad bullpen of limited talent pitchers. It was just bad at the wrong times. They struggled to strand runners (77.0% left on base percentage was 5th worse in baseball) and at times they struggled to lock games down. But there is plenty of talent in this pen and the baseball gods have a way of evening out the bad breaks. Melancon should still be an effective closer and Tony Watson is a strong 8th inning setup man. The acquisition of Antonio Bastardo gives them an effective southpaw to neutralize left-handed hitters. There are several other quality arms to fill out the pen in the middle innings. Bullpens are volatile and thus tough to predict, but the safe bet is the pen will be better this year. If the pen improves the team should improve because there is not much regression to be found on this roster.
 

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