clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Predicting the 2020 Pittsburgh Pirates

Brett Barnett

MLB: FEB 24 Spring Training - Pirates at Yankees Photo by Icon Sportswire

This year will assuredly be different than anything we’ve experienced. From fan-less games to socially distanced and sometimes masked players. It’ll be a 60-game 5k in a bid to make it to the postseason and win a trophy in perhaps the strangest season the sport world has ever seen.

Many have made predictions about some of the oddities we’re going to see during the 2020 baseball season. I’m ready to start sticking to the games again. Fortunately, barring any major shifts in the virus, Pittsburgh Pirates’ games are set to begin on July 24.

Season Outcome

Going into the season under normal conditions, the projections for the Pirates weren’t sterling silver. RotoChamp predicted the Pirates to finish fifth in the National League Central, going 71-91, a .444 winning percentage.

PECOTA projections gave Pittsburgh a 1.4 percent chance to make the playoffs, which was the seventh worst odds in baseball. Of course, these were projections based on a 162-game season and were written in February and March.

I was tempted to just scale the Pirates’ win totals down to what would be reflective of a .444 winning percentage over 60 games – which would’ve been 26-34 or 27-33 – but that didn’t feel quite right. Even in a shortened season, the Pirates are likely, at best, a .500 team. I’m reluctant to place them even that high, though.

A year ago, the Pirates commanded a .426 winning percentage. Despite departures like Starling Marte, it may well be the case that others will have progressed and will be able to fill in for that production. For example, perhaps Ke’Bryan Hayes will work into a prominent role in 2020 which could carry to 2021.

Therefore, even during 162 games, I doubt the Pirates would play that poorly again. The 2019 Pirates weren’t supposed to be very good – just not 93 losses bad. On April 1, 2019, FiveThirtyEight projected the Pirates to go 79-83, with a 23 percent chance to reach the playoffs. Bottomline: They underplayed.

For this year, I expect the team to finish 28-32, a .467 winning percentage. As for the rest of the Central? The top four teams are so close that they’re largely interchangeable, but here’s what I’m going with:

1. Cincinnati Reds (33-27)

2. Chicago Cubs (32-28)

3. St. Louis Cardinals (32-28)

4. Milwaukee Brewers (31-29)

5. Pittsburgh Pirates (28-32)

Top Position Player

First thing’s first: My predictions are based on the appointed players performing in such a way that is more reflective of their outputs over a 162-game season, and therefore doesn’t take into account whether or not they “start” slowly or quickly over 60 games. This means I won’t make predictions like this: .160/.197/.222; conversely, I won’t make predictions like this: .397/.421/.700.

Then without further ado:

No suspense needed. I don’t see any reason why Bryan Reynolds won’t be the best player on the team for the 2020 season. Bucs Dugout had a writeup about Reynolds a week ago outlining just how good he was. Let’s rehash some of those numbers and more.

Last season was Reynolds first year in Major League Baseball. His slash line was .314/.377/.503, with a wRC+ of 131. Those are tremendous first year numbers. Those are great numbers for any season in a player’s career. But since Reynolds did it in his first year, and since those numbers stood in stark contrast to the win-loss column for Pittsburgh, he really grabbed hold of fans’ attention.

All predictive metrics expect regressions in Reynolds game. We likely should expect him to regress in some capacity – for reasons like sophomore slump or for no other reason than pitchers understanding him a little bit better.

But if Reynolds can dwindle his K% by two points from 22.2 percent, as well as increase his BB% by two points from the 8.4 percent it was last year, then he may be able to make up for some of those regressions that will likely befall him this year.

Prediction for Reynolds’ relevant numbers:

Slash: .306/.371/.499

wRC+: 122

WAR: 2.9

Top Pitcher

It would probably be easier to pick a reliever, like Keone Kela. But I’m going to choose someone that’s based partially in statistical analysis, but partially in wishful thinking: Mitch Keller.

I was in attendance for Keller’s major league debut at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati last season. On a May 27 game against the Reds, Keller pitched four innings, gave up seven hits, allowed six runs, and walked two.

It was a dreadful first inning that really did Keller in. But then he calmed down a bit and pitched pretty well. He ultimately struck out seven in that game and showed some promise for the future.

But over the course of the season, he controlled a wobbly 7.13 ERA. On its face, that number is startling. But if you look under the hood a little bit, the picture becomes clearer. According to FanGraphs, Keller had a 3.19 FIP, so there’s obviously a huge discrepancy between that number and his ERA. His season also resulted in 1.3 fWAR, which suggests more predictive metrics measure Keller favorably. In other words, his ERA isn’t indicative of his true talent, nor is it indicative of what we should expect from Keller, which is important to note.

Another important note is that while Keller didn’t pitch enough innings to be considered for league leaders, over the innings he did pitch, he carried the high K% of 28.6 percent. If replicated over a full season, that would put Keller as 10th highest in the National League over last season, sandwiched between Luis Castillo and Patrick Corbin. Additionally, his 7 percent BB% would be 18th in the NL.

FanGraphs expects Keller’s FIP to climb somewhat over the 2020 season, but also expects his ERA to be more reflective of his true output. Two of the most glaring issues on Keller’s line from a year ago: WHIP (1.83) and BABIP (.475). His success will be contingent on bringing these numbers down. Of course, those numbers aren’t entirely reflective of his ability, as they’re changed somewhat by the quality of defense behind him. But if these numbers dwindle to closer to league average, then Keller will assuredly experience success in 2020.

Prediction for Keller’s relevant numbers:

FIP: 3.89

K%: 30.5%

BB%: 5.5%

WHIP: 1.25

BABIP: .320

The Bottomline

This season will be interesting regardless of wins and losses, but what might be most interesting from a Pirates’ perspective is how some of the younger players progress throughout the season, and how they perform in relation to last year. It will be hard to draw hard and fast conclusions about player performance over the course of 60 games, but that amount of time should provide some pretty foundational understandings about how players have improved or regressed.

It will be an interesting season to watch unfold – from a variety of perspectives. I’ll be most interested to see whether or not those relevant to the Pirates’ future can begin to come into their expected forms.