The Pittsburgh Pirates enter their home opener this afternoon with a 1-5 record.
It looks like we’re off to the expected start of this season.
The team has already lost Ke’Bryan Hayes for a short time to a minor hand injury.
We’ve seen some positives and some negatives from the guys we’re watching for future hope from this franchise.
The Thursday First Pitch will be a trends article this year, and we’ll start this week by digging into the trends from the first week of the regular season.
A Good Start
I’ve mentioned a few times that the Pirates would benefit in the long-term by having a few players step up their performances unexpectedly this year. Phillip Evans and Colin Moran are two perfect examples of the type of player the Pirates need to emerge, and both are off to good starts.
Both hitters have two home runs, and that’s really the main reason why they’re here. It’s still very early, and all it would take is a few 0-fers in the next week to have them on the other side of this column.
I’m including Evans here to point out his collection of work with the Pirates. Last year he hit for a .359/.444/.487 line, although his season was cut short by injury after 45 plate appearances. In total, Evans has looked great at the plate with the Pirates, though that has come during a span of 58 plate appearances.
Can Evans become this rebuild’s version of Garrett Jones?
I like that we’re seeing early power from Colin Moran, because at this point, that is his game. He saw a power boost last year, improving to a .225 ISO from the .150 range the year prior. Moran is a first baseman only, and will need a boost with the bat to be more than an 0.5-1 WAR guy.
The interesting thing here is that we’ve come full circle. The Pirates added Moran in early 2018 as part of the Gerrit Cole trade. At the time, Moran had just seen a boost to his power in the minors, with a monster .455 ISO in just 12 plate appearances in 2017.
Since that point, his ISO with the Pirates has gone down to .130 in 2018, then increasing every single year after to .152, .225, and now .389. This year’s total comes with the same small sample disclaimer that the 2017 total had. As we saw there, it doesn’t guarantee any future production.
What I’m encouraged by is the growing positive trend for Moran on the power side. His power production in last year’s short season would have been enough to at least replicate Josh Bell’s overall production. Moran is under team control for two more years beyond this season. He’d primarily be a future trade option if he breaks out, with the hope of a similar or better return to what Josh Bell received last offseason.
My main concern for Moran is a 38% strikeout rate right now. His strikeouts have also increased each year with the power increase. His walk rate is at 14%, so he could end up a three-true-outcomes guy. Again, he’d need that power boost to be real in this scenario to have trade value.
Not a Good Start
It hasn’t been a good first week for Adam Frazier or Mitch Keller.
Frazier is hitting for a .652 OPS in his first week. We could chalk this up to a small sample size, but I think you could make an argument that Frazier’s good performances might be the sample size that can’t be easily replicated.
Frazier’s numbers this year are similar to his 2020 season, when he had a .661 OPS. I’ve pointed out in the past how Frazier has struggled in the first half.
In 2018, Frazier had a .678 OPS in the first half. He was sent down to Triple-A, and returned with stronger defense at second base, and an .890 OPS the remainder of the year.
The production in the second half of 2018 made Frazier the starter in 2019. Again, he started off slow, with a .655 OPS through the month of May. Frazier had an .808 OPS the remainder of the season, but that was mostly fueled by a massive month of July, and a strong finish in September. The remaining two months saw an OPS below .750.
It’s a small sample size, but Frazier’s .652 OPS so far is in a range that he’s consistently been in for the last few years, while the Pirates have been holding out for more consistency.
Mitch Keller only made one start, and it didn’t go well. I’m planning on digging into him a bit more after watching how he responds the next start out. Keller is a more straightforward case. He’s a top pitching prospect who has yet to have success in the majors, while pitching 72.2 innings so far.
That innings total, spread out over three seasons, is enough to raise concern that Keller might be the latest Pirates pitching prospect to fall short of his MLB projections. The small sample size, plus the likelihood that Keller still needs to be “untrained”, if you will, from whatever messed him up under the previous development system.
I’ll be looking into Keller a bit deeper in a future breakdown article. For now, I don’t need to explain why it’s important for him to have MLB success.
One to Watch
I love following starting pitchers, because you can set appointments to watch them.
I’ve got a recurring appointment this year to watch JT Brubaker. He looked good in his first start, using his slider heavily to shut down opposing hitters. I like his pitch pairing, with a four-seam and a sinker that average 94 and top out at 97. The sinker pairs with the slider, while the four-seam pairs with the curve, which Brubaker doesn’t use as often.
The Pirates don’t have a great situation with their long-term rotation. They have some very interesting prospects in the minor for the future, but that future rotation right now is largely going to be composed of those prospects. The hope is that Mitch Keller can emerge as one starter who can be productive in the majors before that group arrives.
If Brubaker can do the same, and give the Pirates another starter for a future contending rotation, it would be a nice boost. I think he can end up a back of the rotation starter on a contending team, as his slider is a quality pitch and he’s not afraid to use it often.