Part one of this series wrapped up with the 2015 season, after tracking how the Pittsburgh Pirates organization rose to being a contender from their depths in 2007.
The 2016 season is when things started to decline for the Pirates. It wasn’t a precipitous decline, which is why the current “rebuild” could be stretched back to that season. I disagree with this assessment. I don’t think the Pirates were in a true “rebuild” stage until Ben Cherington arrived. Perhaps you could include the 2019 season in that mix.
The reason the Pirates haven’t had a contending season since 2015, and have only had one winning season during that stretch, is specifically because they didn’t go for a full rebuild early.
It makes you wonder what might have happened if 2016 was spent as a true rebuilding year, rather than a bridge to the future, as Neal Huntington described the transition from the 2015 team to the wave of prospects that was starting to arrive.
If you missed the previous articles in this series, here they are:
One of the biggest benefits from 2013-15 was the emergence of impact talent at the top. In their worst years, the Pirates would struggle to have more than five players on either side of the ball with a 1.0 WAR or better. Having anyone above a 3.0 was the exception, and having multiple guys above 3.0, or anyone significantly higher, was unheard of.
The team started transitioning back to this trend in 2016. The leader of the offense was Starling Marte, with a 3.7 WAR. This is double-edged. First, it’s a massive drop from the previous three years, when Andrew McCutchen was putting up WAR totals over 6.0. Second, it’s a drop in Marte’s production from the promise he showed early with his 4+ WAR seasons.
The Pirates benefitted in a big way from veteran signings. The trio of Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, and David Freese combined for a 5.2 WAR. This offense didn’t have top-end talent, but it had depth, with 10 players putting up a WAR of 1.0 or higher.
On the flip side, they didn’t give up many wins, with a combined -2.6 WAR from the negative producers. The most playing time here went to Josh Bell, who had a -0.1 WAR in his rookie campaign.
Perhaps a team could contend with an offense fueled by depth and minimized losses. But they weren’t doing it with this pitching staff. Gerrit Cole led the group with a 2.5 WAR, which again is double-edged. That’s a massive drop from their best performer a year earlier, and a drop for Cole as well. Ivan Nova, Jameson Taillon, and Juan Nicasio were the only other players to put up a WAR over 1.0.
Here’s the interesting thing. That 2016 group didn’t give up much on the negative side. The combined total from the offense and pitching was -4.8 WAR. By comparison, the 2015 team only gave up -4.5 WAR, making 2016 the second most efficient season we’ve covered so far, in terms of avoiding playing really bad players.
The downside to this is that the Pirates didn’t have horrible players, but also didn’t have great players. This kept them close to contention, but never really truly in the mix, resulting in a 78 win season.
Negative War Loss
Up until 2014, the Pirates didn’t have much of an offense. In each season from 2007-13, they were giving 20% or more of their playing time to position players with a negative-WAR. The 2014-16 seasons saw better efficiency, with MVP-level production from the likes of Andrew McCutchen, and no more than three wins lost from the bottom players on offense.
In this season, the Pirates combined for -5.5 WAR from the 17% of playing time they gave to negative-WAR players. The biggest factor here was the injury to Francisco Cervelli, which resulted in a loss of almost two wins from Elias Diaz and Chris Stewart in replacement.
At the top of the group, Andrew McCutchen bounced back with a 3.7 WAR, after dropping to a 1.0 the year before. McCutchen’s rapid decline from an MVP to just another piece in a contender was massive for the Pirates. They had no one else to replace his impact, and thus had no one who could offset things like a catcher plagued with injuries his entire career dealing with injuries all year.
While the Pirates had depth in 2016, with ten position players posting a 1.0 WAR or better, that number dropped to six players in 2017.
There was promise on the pitching side. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon both posted 3+ WAR totals, while Trevor Williams, Ivan Nova, Chad Kuhl, and Felipe Vazquez were all in the 2-2.5 WAR range. The pitching was very efficient, only losing 2.1 WAR on the bottom half. Only 24 pitchers were used all year, including seven starters.
I would say that the 2017 pitching staff and the 2016 offense could have contended on the same team. Both lacked top-end talent, but had good depth and minimized playing time for negative-producers.
Unfortunately, both teams finished in the 75-78 win range, as this type of team profile is volatile. You need impact talent on one side of the ball, because something will usually go wrong on one of the two sides.
Negative War Loss
This is where things get a bit weird. The Pirates won 82 games this year, for their only post-2015 winning season. They also traded away Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole prior to the season. You kind of wonder where the system would be right now if they didn’t target upper-level guys in this deal. They got Bryan Reynolds in the McCutchen deal, along with Kyle Crick. The Cole trade brought back an immediate return in Joe Musgrove — which led to a long-term return when Musgrove was traded by Ben Cherington. The rest of the deal featured Colin Moran, Jason Martin, and Michael Feliz. This was an organization that would have benefitted from passing on Moran, Martin, Feliz, and Crick, and going for more guys in A-ball or lower like Reynolds, who could develop into more. Of course, that also would exclude Musgrove.
Unfortunately, this was an organization that was good enough to win 82 games without McCutchen or Cole. That’s probably what led the “close-to-the-majors” acquisitions.
Jameson Taillon stepped up with a 3.9 WAR to lead the pitchers. Trevor Williams (2.7), Joe Musgrove (2.2), and Felipe Vazquez (2.1) gave two additional starters and an elite closer. The pitching staff didn’t give away many wins at the bottom, with a lot of poor results coming from younger guys like Clay Holmes, Nick Kingham, and Steven Brault. They had decent depth, with seven players posting a WAR of 1.0 or higher.
The offense had similar results. Starling Marte led the way with a 3.6 WAR. The Pirates added Corey Dickerson in a trade almost immediately after dealing McCutchen, showing they still intended to contend after dealing away their best pitcher and hitter. Dickerson posted a 2.7 WAR, and was joined in the 2+ range by Cervelli and Gregory Polanco. There were eight position players with a 1.0 WAR or higher.
Remember what I said earlier about how that hybrid of 2016/17 teams could have contended with strong depth and minimized losses to offset the lack of top-end talent? This is that team.
This team gave 84% of playing time to positive-WAR players, which is the second highest from 2007-21, falling only behind 2015. Neal Huntington was probably right that the team needed a pitcher who could make an impact and boost their depth/boost their rotation. I just think that a J.A. Happ approach from 2015 would have been better than the detrimental Chris Archer trade.
At best, this team was the old Chris Archer away from another Wild Card appearance.
They were always a key injury away from another losing season.
Appreciate the impact players on your team while they are on the team.
Negative War Loss
We’ve reached the final year of Neal Huntington’s tenure, and this is where the lack of impact talent caught up to them.
Bryan Reynolds made his debut with a 3.2 WAR, providing some hope for the future. Kevin Newman also made his debut with a 2.4 WAR. Josh Bell showed some power and had a 2.4 WAR. Starling Marte dropped down to a 3.0, while Adam Frazier rose to a 2.2. This season also saw Jacob Stallings emerge as a starting option. Those six players were the only position players with a 1.0 WAR or better.
This group was very similar to the 2017 offense, mostly from the losses on the bottom half. The negative-WAR group lost 5.8 WAR, with the bulk of that coming from Elias Diaz (-1.5) and Jung Ho Kang (-0.9). Francisco Cervelli also had a negative-WAR, meaning that the success from Stallings wasn’t an added bonus, but making up for what the Pirates had already lost. Stallings, Diaz, and Cervelli combined for an 0.1 WAR. This season also saw Gregory Polanco drop to replacement level, while seeing Melky Cabrera post a -0.7 WAR in 397 plate appearances.
The pitching was very thin. Joe Musgrove led the way with a 3.3 WAR. Felipe Vazquez finished his career with a 2.1 WAR. Mitch Keller (1.3) and Steven Brault (1.1) were the only others with a WAR over 1.0. The negative earners combined for -3.7 WAR. The bullpen was the most significant source of struggles, with Richard Rodriguez, Kyle Crick, Clay Holmes, and Dario Agrazal combining for -1.2 WAR over 237 innings.
In total, the Pirates gave 30% of their innings to negative-WAR producers. The 2016 season was the worst at 35%, and no other season before this had worse than 22%. It would get worse. The offense gave 28% of plate appearances to negative-WAR producers, which was the worst since 2013, but not yet to the 2010-11 totals of 44%.
What worked so well for the Pirates from 2012 through 2018 — keeping them in grasp of contending all of those years — was that they didn’t give away wins. They minimized their losses, which allowed them to have a winning season in 2018, even without impact talent at the top. That all changed in 2019, and brought upon the real rebuild.
Negative War Loss
It’s difficult to evaluate this season for so many reasons. For one, there was a pandemic that shortened the season and brought a lot of players to the majors who wouldn’t otherwise be in the majors. This was Ben Cherington’s first season as GM, and while he didn’t go for the immediate rebuild, it was pretty apparent that he wasn’t trying to win at the MLB level.
The leader of the pitching staff was Joe Musgrove, with a 1.0 WAR. On the negative end, the Pirates gave 38% of their time to negative-WAR producers, leading to a -2.1 WAR. That amount offset Musgrove, Steven Brault, and Nick Tropeano, and I barely know who that last guy is.
By comparison, the best pitchers this year posted a WAR around 3.0, and there were only 57 pitchers with a WAR higher than Musgrove.
The highlight of the offense was the month of September from Ke’Bryan Hayes, which resulted in a 1.6 WAR. There were only 39 position players this season who had a better WAR. The next best performer was Jacob Stallings, who had a 1.0 WAR. The Pirates lost 3.5 wins on the negative side. Josh Bell, Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker, and Gregory Polanco combined for a -2.0 WAR over 685 plate appearances.
The Pirates gave 42% of their plate appearances this year to negative-WAR producers, which fell just short of 2010-11 totals. In total, this was the worst year for the Pirates. As a team, they only gave 45% of playing time to positive-WAR producers. The previous team low was 63% in 2010.
Negative War Loss
This was the first full season under Ben Cherington, and represented an improvement over 2020. I don’t know how much of that had to do with escaping the pandemic, but it didn’t seem like Cherington was trying to win in the majors during this season. The team gave 57% of playing time to positive-WAR producers, which is only a massive improvement over the depths of 2020. The 2021 crew gave 37% of plate appearances and 38% of innings to negative-WAR producers.
The highlight was Bryan Reynolds with his 5.5 WAR. For the first time in half a decade, the Pirates were led by an impact player with a WAR over 4. Adam Frazier had a 3.0 WAR before being traded. Jacob Stallings had a 2.6 WAR, then was traded in the offseason. Ke’Bryan Hayes had a 1.5 WAR, which was lower than his production in one month in 2016. Ben Gamel was the only other 1.0+ guy, with a 1.4 WAR. The hope from this group, after the trades, is that Reynolds stays the same, Hayes improves, and Gamel can remain productive.
Here’s where things went bad: Those negative-WAR producers combined for -6.8 WAR. The worst losses came from Gregory Polanco, Michael Perez, Erik Gonzalez, and Phillip Evans, who combined for -3.3 WAR in 1089 plate appearances.
The pitching didn’t have any top-end talent after the trade of Musgrove and Taillon prior to the season. Only four pitchers posted a WAR over 1.0, and none over a 1.3. Two of those pitchers (Tyler Anderson, Richard Rodriguez) were traded. On the negative end, the Pirates lost 3.4 WAR.
In total, this team lost 10.2 WAR from the 38% of time they gave to negative producers. By comparison, that’s 2011 totals, when the team lost 10.3 WAR while giving 31% of playing time to negative-WAR players. The breakdown of each team is similar, with a lot of wins given away on offense, and a pitching staff that had decent depth, but no top-end talent, or even mid-range talent.
We can only hope they improve the pitching from 2021 to 2022 in the same way they did from 2011 to 2012.
Negative War Loss
Tomorrow I’ll conclude this series by looking at what it all might mean for the future of the Pittsburgh Pirates.