Why is Everyone Overlooking the Pittsburgh Pirates?

The NFL makes me sick. It’s product has been diluted by the cartel-esque nature of its business dealings, slow replay, annoying announcers, too many flags, and the all-too-prevalent knowledge that just about everyone on the field is risking their lives for a game and an organization that only cares about the money they subconsciously produce.

Watching football just makes me sad and it makes me miss baseball even more than I already do. With all of this so eloquently being said, let’s talk baseball.

The Cubs. You’re scared of them, I’m scared of them, and we’re all scared of them. Their stockpile of superstar position players and top end starting pitching talent has them poised to end the famous 108 year World Series drought. The questions have stopped being, “can the Cubs do it?” and have turned towards, “Who in the wide world of sports is going to stop them?”

Amid all this talk of the Cubs meteoric rise to world dominance and the Cardinals’ seeming fall from grace we’ve forgotten about something.

The Pirates are still really good at baseball.

Pirates 1
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

Like I said, all the National League talk has been about Cardinals-Cubs, the Giants’ even year devil magic, the Diamondbacks’ rise to prominence, the Braves’ terrific rebuild, and whether the Mets can sustain last year’s run to the Fall Classic. Lost amid all this shuffle is the fact that the Pirates were a 98 win team last year. 98 wins is something that only 3 other teams have achieved in the past 5 seasons.

So why is everyone overlooking Pittsburgh?

This is most definitely a product of my St. Louis-based bias, but I believe that both the Cardinals and the Pirates will thrive in the underdog roles they have been placed in. Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny has always been known as a terrific motivator and his usage of an ‘us against the world’ mentality carried his team all the way to the World Series in 2013. Same thing with Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle minus the World Series appearance.

You can take that last paragraph with a grain of salt as it is a byproduct of my own estimation of the two teams’ respective dugout mindsets and has no real facts behind it. But the mental aspect of baseball is so important, and a talented team that has a chip placed on its shoulder suddenly becomes astronomically more dangerous in my estimation.

In 2013, ZiPS had the Red Sox projected for 82 wins. Instead, following an April tragedy, the Red Sox reeled off 97 wins and a world title. If you think this had nothing to do with the extra motivation and chip that was a derivative of the Boston Marathon bombing you’re just kidding yourself.

The aforementioned ZiPS has the Pirates projected to win 83 games in 2016, a far cry from the 98 they won just a season ago. This came as a surprise to me, considering the team they fielded just last year is the one they will largely put out on the field again this upcoming season.

In the field, the only noticeable weakness is 1st base, which Michael Morse will presumably occupy. Other than that, everything is set, and room for improvement is to be expected.

Coming into 2015, Korean import Jung-ho Kang didn’t have a set role and thus had to scrap for at-bats. Even with a late season injury that cost him the final few weeks of 2015, Kang posted a 4.0 WAR in just 467 plate appearances. With Neil Walker now in New York, Kang is the opening day 2nd baseman and can expect a full season’s worth of plate appearances barring another unforeseen injury. According to my rudimentary math skills, increasing Kang’s at-bats to 600 – combined with the same type of 2015 production – would produce 5.14 WAR, a +1.4 increase.

After a breakout 2014 campaign in which he produced 5.3 WAR and finished 9th in MVP voting, 3rd baseman Josh Harrison spent much of 2015 on the shelf with various injuries. In 449 PA, Harrison logged 1.8 WAR. For whatever reason, ZiPS only projects Harrison to have 480 PA in 2016, yet produce 2.4 WAR in those 480 PA. Give him 600 PA on that pace and he produces 3.0 WAR on that pace.

And about the 1st base situation, in 89 PA with Pittsburgh in 2015 Morse produced 0.2 WAR, outpacing Pedro Alvarez’s 0.1 WAR in 491 PA. So if Morse even produces a simple 1.0 WAR in 2016 the Pirates will be improving at 1st base instead of declining.

The pitching staff remains wholly intact, only losing AJ Burnett and J.A. Happ, who have been replaced by the free agent signing of Ryan Vogelsong and the acquisition of Jon Niese from the New York Mets. In 2015, the starting staff of Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, J.A. Happ, A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke produced a combined WAR of 10.8. ZiPS has the Pirates 2016 starting staff of Gerrit Cole, Jon Niese, Charlie Morton, Francisco Liriano and Jeff Locke projected to produce a combined WAR of 11.6.

11.6 is more than 10.8 in case your math is off and again, the Pirates are projected to improve, not decline.

The Pirates still have star power in the outfield between Gregory Polanco, Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte. That trio produced 12.8 WAR in 2015 and ZiPS has them projected at 12.7 WAR this season.

Behind the plate, Francisco Cervelli remains the primary catcher with Chris Stewart serving as the backup, however ZiPS only has Cervelli projected to get 326 PA. As I have done before, I’m going to use my brilliant math skills to see what kind of production Cervelli would deliver if given 600 PA. On his projected pace Cervelli would produce 4.6 WAR in 600 PA, an increase of his 2015 output of 3.1 WAR in 510 PA.

For the sake of saving my brain cells I’m only going to look at the top 4 relievers in the Pittsburgh bullpen. In 2015, the quartet of Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Antonio Bastardo and Jared Hughes produced 6.5 WAR in 276.1 IP. The 2016 estimated quartet of Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Radhames Liz and Juan Nicasio are projected to produce 4.1 WAR in 285.1 IP.

The bullpen is the only significant drop-off in WAR that I found between the Pirates’ 2015 squad and their 2016 projected squad. Granted, these are all projections, but even still I don’t understand how Pittsburgh factors as an 83 win team while fielding virtually the same team that won 98 games just a year ago.

Miami Marlins v Pittsburgh Pirates
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

It caught my eye and made me raise an eyebrow when I looked at it, but that’s just the thing; I looked at it.

As I brought up earlier, Pittsburgh has been severely overlooked throughout the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry talk and other things. A 98 win team is not one to overlook, and with the team they’ll be putting out on the field in 2016, the Pirates could make some serious noise.

Thanks for reading…

-Ryan

All credit to Fangraphs and Baseball Reference for data used in this post

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Why is Everyone Overlooking the Pittsburgh Pirates?

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