by Micah Greenhill

Opponent Preview — Pittsburgh Pirates

[Please welcome Micah Greenhill, who is joining our writing staff this season. — Matt and Steve]

Over the last few years, I’ve become more aware of my tendency to be dissatisfied with things in my life. It’s a very human experience, as we adjust our standards for whatever situation we are in at the moment. Perspective often comes with realizing a simple truth: It could be so much worse. For the NL Central, that worse is the Pittsburgh Pirates. Reds fans, as disappointing as the end of the 2020 season was for us, and in spite of how frustrating this past offseason might have been, let’s take a deep breath. It could always be worse. We could be Pirates fans.

2020 Recap

Record: 19-41, 5th in NL Central

Yikes, that record is ugly. While the rest of the NL Central battled it out for postseason spots, Pittsburgh ended up having the worst record in baseball. While the Pirates did not play well at home (13-19 record), they were abysmal in away games (6-22). One of the culprits was a subpar offense. The Pirates yielded a meager 73 OPS+. Their two bright spots were Colin Moran (113 OPS+) and Ke’Bryan Hayes (199 OPS+). Their pitching was slightly below average with a 98 ERA+ and 4.80 FIP. Trevor Williams led the Pirates in innings pitched (55.1) and also produced the worst results (74 ERA+, 6.30 FIP).

While the 2020 Pirates ended the year in a disappointing way, fans of the Pittsburgh team can feel optimistic about having identified key players who can be part of their next good team. Manager Derek Shelton and General Manager Ben Cherington, both in their second years, look to develop those cornerstone pieces.

Offseason Losses/Additions

The team with the worst record in baseball during the 2020 year did very little to improve for 2021. Its offseason was headlined by trading away players to build up its farm system.

Additions

  • LHP Tyler Anderson (signed as free agent)
  • RHP Luis Oviedo (acquired from New York Mets)
  • OF Dustin Fowler (acquired from Oakland Athletics)
  • C Michael Perez (Claimed off waivers from Tampa Bay Rays)
  • RHP Sean Poppen (Claimed off waivers from Minnesota Twins)

Subtractions

  • 1B Josh Bell (1B, traded to Washington Nationals)
  • RHP Jameson Taillon (SP, traded to New York Yankees)
  • RHP Joe Musgrove (SP, traded to San Diego Padres)
  • RHP Trevor Williams (SP, non-tendered)
  • RHP Chris Archer (SP, lost to free agency)
  • RHP Keone Kela (RP, lost to free agency)
Projected Position Players (2020 stats)
Name Pos. AVG OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
Jacob Stallings C 0.248 0.326 0.376 90 1.0
Colin Moran 1B 0.247 0.325 0.472 113 0.5
Adam Frazier 2B 0.230 0.297 0.661 78 0.7
Ke’Bryan Hayes 3B 0.376 0.442 0.682 199 1.9
Kevin Newman SS 0.224 0.281 0.276 52 -0.4
Bryan Reynolds OF 0.189 0.275 0.357 70 0.5
Anthony Alford OF 0.214 0.241 0.500 96 -0.2
Gregory Polanco OF 0.153 0.214 0.325 44 -1.0

A glance at the Pirates projected roster for 2021 shows just how poor the offense was during the 2020 year. The two exceptions are Moran and Hayes, who finished sixth in Rookie of The Year voting. Hayes led the team due to an extraordinary Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) of .450, isolated power (.306) and many hard hit balls (56.3%). These numbers are unlikely to be sustainable. In a 162-game season and its larger sample size, we expect regression. Even so, Hayes will be an All-Star caliber hitter and an exciting piece of the Pirates future.

Colin Moran’s stats are a different story. In 2020, Moran benefited from an MVP-caliber month of July, when he slugged .875 and had an OPS of 1.260. Moran came back to earth, with an OPS of .718 in subsequent weeks. Similar to Hayes, Moran’s numbers benefited from a shortened season. In his case, Moran should regress back to his career norm, which is a league-average hitter. 

Projected Pitchers (2020 stats)
ERA FIP ERA+ WAR
Chad Kuhl 4.27 5.48 107 -0.1
Tyler Anderson 4.37 4.36 97 0.4
Mitch Keller 2.91 6.74 158 0.6
JT Brubaker 4.94 4.08 92 -0.1
Steven Brault 3.38 3.92 135 0.7

The Pirates pitching should be better than their hitting, although that’s not be a difficult bar to clear. During 2020, the Pirates starters hovered around league average. The two exceptions are Mitch Keller and Steven Brault.

The once highly touted prospect of Pittsburgh, Keller had good results during limited action in 2020. His underlying metrics however, tell a different story. While he limited runs (2.91 ERA), he vastly outperformed his FIP. The key to his success in 2021 will be health, increased fastball velocity and his ability to generate swinging strikes. If he can put everything together over an entire season, Keller can be an exciting piece.

For most of his career, Brault has been a league-average pitcher. His improved results during 2020 were the result of limiting hard contact. In spite of this success, Brault’s underlying metrics suggest regression might be inevitable in 2021. His walk rate is in the bottom 16th percentile, and the spin-rate on his fastball and curveball are in the 19th and 26th percentile respectively.

Key Stories to Watch

The Pittsburgh Pirates are projected by everyone to finish last place in the NL Central. But pieces of this team should concern Reds fans. First is Ke’Bryan Hayes, who may become a league superstar. Models project him for an OPS of .871 in 2021. Mitch Keller could take a step forward. While he saw limited action last season, Keller has an above average spin-rate, which could result in more swinging strikes and give Reds batters trouble. 

W-L Projections
  • FanGraphs 65-97, 5th in NL Central
  • PECOTA 61-101, 5th in NL Central

The Pirates are projected to spend $46 million on payroll in 2021. That’s a little more than a third of what the Reds will spend ($127M). Given that limited budget, the key for the Pirates in 2021 will be to develop their young talent and grow their farm system so they can improve in the future. Until then, Cincinnati, let’s count our blessings. It could always be worse.

[Featured image: https://twitter.com/Pirates/status/1236000382901456898/photo/1]

Micah is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up watching games at Cinergy Field with his family. A recent MBA graduate, Micah has always had a passion for data analytics and uses his understanding of big data to better understand and appreciate what is happening on the baseball diamond and in the front office. When he's not watching baseball, you can find Micah and his wife frequenting different restaurants and coffee shops in the area. For questions and inquiries, please reach out to micahgreenhill@gmail.com.

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Emily Perry
Emily Perry
18 days ago

This is an amazing article! Loved reading it!