I'm not sure when this came out, but I didn't notice it until Rob Biertempfel posted it earlier today -- FanGraphs projects the Pirates will win 83 games in 2016. They've got the Cubs at 95-67, a remarkable figure given that projected team records tend to be more closely clumped together than the actual records will be. The Cardinals project to finish second in the NL Central, at 84-78, and the Pirates figure to just miss the Wild Card game, which FanGraphs thinks will be played by the Cards and Giants.
If you glance at these projected standings and they make you wonder why the Pirates haven't added more talent this winter, I can't blame you for that reaction. That's what struck me first, too. But in addition to the fact that predicting how many games a team will win is inherently tricky, the Pirates' history with projections is also worth noting. In 2014, FanGraphs projected the Pirates would win 84 games. Last year, FanGraphs also projected the Pirates would win 84 games. They ended up winning 88 in 2014 and 98 last year.
I can't remember if I commented on FanGraphs' projections, but they would have probably made sense to me at the time. In 2014, the Bucs lost A.J. Burnett from their 2013 team and replaced him with Edinson Volquez and little else. That looked like a significant downgrade. The following winter, they got Burnett back, but they lost Russell Martin, and dealt Travis Snider in a controversial move. They did re-sign Francisco Liriano and made a long string of other acquisitions, including those of Jung-Ho Kang, Francisco Cervelli and Antonio Bastardo, but none of those appeared likely to offset Martin's departure.
Of course, the 2014 team turned out just fine without Burnett, and many of the Bucs' acquisitions the following winter turned out to be a lot better than they appeared at the time. In both 2014 and 2015, the Pirates turned out to be better than anticipated. They were also much better than anticipated in 2013, when their playoff run took most of us by surprise.
So why did projection systems, as well as at least some fans and commentators, underestimate the Pirates? A lot of the reasons behind past seasons' projections are lost to history, or at least I can't find them. We do, however, have bits of evidence from past seasons of ZiPS projections to look at. FanGraphs' projected standings are based on Steamer right now, not ZiPS (which means that we're considering results from two separate projection systems here), but let's look at last year's ZiPS projections to see if we can reverse engineer the Pirates' numbers to find the kinds of things the Pirates might have been doing that projection systems weren't picking up on.
Generally, ZiPS did a pretty good job with the Pirates' hitters. It missed on Kang and Cervelli, but that's not so surprising, and those misses were offset somewhat by projections for Josh Harrison and Pedro Alvarez that turned out to be overly positive. On the pitching side, though, Gerrit Cole, Liriano and Burnett all posted ERAs significantly below what ZiPS projected. While ZiPS obviously didn't include deadline acquisitions like J.A. Happ in their projections for the Pirates, my guess is it would have missed pretty significantly on those guys, too. This is, of course, precisely what we should have expected. Projection systems don't have a variable that accounts for Ray Searage.
In 2014, ZiPS didn't see Martin or Harrison being nearly as good as they were (pretty much nobody did), and it missed pretty significantly on Volquez and didn't account for Vance Worley, who the Bucs didn't acquire until after the projections were released. The Pirates' pitching staff was pretty confusing in sabermetric terms for pretty much the entire 2014 season -- even at the end of the year, FanGraphs WAR (which is based on FIP, not on ERA) ranked the Bucs' pitchers the 27th-best staff in baseball and 13th in the NL, even though their 3.49 ERA was fifth-best in the NL.
I'm painting with a very broad brush here, and there's a lot in these projections someone smarter than me could examine a lot more systematically. But the Pirates' plans for success in the past couple years haven't really been a mystery, and the gap between what projection systems like ZiPS have seemed to expect and what's actually happened are consistent with what we know about those plans. The Bucs' coaching of pitchers appears to have been a big part of their success, and things like framing and shifts appear to have played a role also. The Pirates have also done well in adding talent after projection systems have been released, either in the form of guys like Worley, a low-profile addition late in Spring Training, or Happ, a higher-profile addition at the trade deadline. Finally, the Pirates have done a pretty good job identifying helpful hitters, like Martin, Cervelli and Kang, at reasonable prices.
I don't know what this means for 2016. Maybe the Pirates have gotten a bit lucky, and this will be the season their luck ends. Or maybe this will be the season the rest of the league catches up to their methods. But I do think it's worth noting that, as frustrating as this offseason has been, the Pirates' last few offseasons weren't that exciting at the time either, and they've turned out great.
This year, maybe Jon Niese will turn out to be worth considerably more than the 1.7 WAR Steamer currently projects for him. Maybe Juan Nicasio (0.3 WAR) or any of Neftali Feliz, Yoervis Medina or Trey Haley (all of whom are projected to be right around replacement level) will turn out to be significantly better than anticipated. And maybe the Pirates will get more than expected from someone like John Jaso or Jason Rogers.
Or maybe not. It all seems Pollyanna-ish to think about things that way (and the last thing I want to do is lead you astray by cheerleading for someone like Neftali Feliz, whose acquisition I didn't even completely understand). But that's exactly how things would have seemed in previous winters too. In the last few seasons, the Pirates have consistently outperformed projection systems as well as the conventional wisdom. That's not because projection systems are bad tools, it's because the Pirates have a decision-making process in place that has eclipsed them. We'll see if that continues. But I'm not sure I'd look at an 83-win projection and assume the Pirates will actually have 83 wins. We've made that mistake before.