2023 Pittsburgh Pirates MLB season predictions, odds and preview

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Pittsburgh Pirates 2023 Season Preview

The Pittsburgh Pirates franchise has been around since 1882 when the Pittsburgh Alleghenys began play in the American Association. In 141 seasons, they have only lost 100 games in three consecutive seasons one time (1952-54). They are in danger of doing exactly that this season. After going 61-101 in 2021, the Pirates improved by one game and went 62-100 in 2022. That was on the heels of going an abysmal 19-41 in the COVID season. The bar is probably as low as it’s ever been.

 

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In fact, with the expectation of three straight playoff appearances from 2013-15, the Pirates have ONE other winning season since 1992. They were 82-79 back in 2018. The apathy from the fans can be seen in the attendance numbers. PNC Park is widely-regarded as one of the top stadiums in baseball and the backdrop of downtown Pittsburgh makes for an incredible view behind home plate. But, fans aren’t going. The Pirates drew well under 1.3 million fans last season and under 1.5 million in 2018 and 2019.

There is a high level of disgust among fans regarding owner Bob Nutting, who will run out a bottom-five payroll for the sixth consecutive year. Manager Derek Shelton is entering the last year of his contract with a roster that isn’t ready to compete regularly at the MLB level, but is starting to show some signs of life.

Explanations of the stats used in this preview can be found in my “MLB Stats to Know” article.

2023 Pittsburgh Pirates Odds

(odds from DraftKings as of Mar. 18, click for updates)

World Series: +25000
NL Pennant: +12000
NL Central: +3500
Win Total: 68.5 (-105/-115)
Make Playoffs: Yes +1200 / No -2500

Pittsburgh Pirates Offense

The Pirates finished 28th in wRC+ last season and actually finished with a lower wOBA than the season prior at .289. This was a group that finished 16% below league average by wRC+ and had one of the highest strikeout rates in the league. Pittsburgh did hit 34 more home runs as a team, but it came with a cost in the form of more walks of shame back to the dugout.

Only the Angels (25.7%) struck out more than the Pirates (25.3%) and that is a major concern heading into a post-shift world that is going to reward making contact. At least when the Pirates made contact, it was of a higher quality. Pittsburgh was dead last in Hard Hit% in 2021 (34%) and Barrel% (5.4%). This past season, the Pirates were 18th in Hard Hit% (37.1%) and 21st in Barrel% (6.6%).

Oneil Cruz posted a 106 wRC+ and flashed some violent contact with 17 homers, but he only played 87 MLB games. The Pirates didn’t bring him up until June 20. He took some time to get acclimated to MLB pitching, but finished on a high note with a .288/.359/.525 slash over his final 131 plate appearances. He had a 119 wRC+ in the second half after starting with a 74 wRC+ in his first month or so as a big leaguer in the first half.

Cruz accounted for a lot of the big spike in Hard Hit% and Barrel% with a 45.6% Hard Hit% and a 15.5% Barrel%. The unfortunate part is that he struck out nearly 35% of the time. Cruz has always had holes in his swing, but the power and the upside were also evident. There’s a good chance that he makes more contact as he gets more comfortable at this level.

Pittsburgh’s asking price for Bryan Reynolds must be sky-high because they haven’t traded him, despite a ton of interest in a really good player. He posted a 125 wRC+ last season, which wasn’t quite on the level of the 141 he posted in 2021, but he still had a fine season. He struck out more, walked less and wasn’t as solid defensively, so his WAR value took a sizable hit, but he’s the best player on this team at present.

Unfortunately, the Pirates did lose the contact quality of Daniel Vogelbach, who posted a 117 wRC+ and blasted 12 homers in 278 PA before getting traded to the Mets. In his place, the Pirates spent money (gasp) on some proven Major Leaguers. They reunited with Andrew McCutchen, signed Carlos Santana and also acquired Ji-Man Choi via trade. Cutch was about a league average hitter for the Brewers last season in what was his first year with a wRC+ below 100. He’ll try to bounce back where it all started and where he was an elite player from 2009-17.

Santana is a guy that profiles to be one of the primary benefactors of a post-shift world, particularly when batting from the left side. He squeezed out a league average offensive season after a couple of down years in 2020 and 2021, but the low BABIPs that have plagued him since teams started shifting a ton should normalize a little here and projection systems are pretty high on him to return to his 2017-18 levels with around a 110 wRC+.

Choi is a productive hitter, but the Pirates are going to have to find positions for all of these dudes. Cutch is dwindling a bit as an outfielder. Santana and Choi are going to trade off at 1B and DH. This won’t be a very athletic team and this is a league where singles and stolen bases will be handsomely rewarded this season. Choi, like Cutch and Santana, walks at a really high level. The Pirates are trying to offset their ability to create wind energy by getting some guys that can work counts and get on base without having to hit their way aboard.

I won’t pretend that this is a good offense, but it is an improved group from last season. If Ke’Bryan Hayes can get the bat figured out and live up to his minor league numbers, this may even be an offense that gets within a few points of league average. At least he’s still an elite defender at third. Austin Hedges is an elite defender behind the plate as well. Just close your eyes when he bats.

This group has a good mix of vets that produce professional plate appearances and youngsters who can learn from those guys and continue to develop. This will be a station-to-station team in  a lot of ways that will run a low batting average, but the increased ability to get on base at least gives the Pirates more chances to score. For a team that was 28th in plate appearances with a runner in scoring position, that is a big positive.

Pittsburgh Pirates Pitching

Losing 100 games is hard and it takes a total team effort. Obviously the offense held up its end of the bargain with an 84 wRC+, but the pitching staff provided plenty of contributions as well. This was the 26th-ranked team in ERA and finished 23rd in FIP. To be honest, I would have expected worse, given that the Pirates were 24th in K% and had the fourth-highest BB%. The four components of FIP are strikeouts, walks, home runs and hit by pitches. So, the Pirates did well enough with home run prevention to not quite be among the league’s worst in FIP.

Usually there are some bright spots on bad teams surrounded by a whole lot of bad performances. The Pirates were no different. Jose Quintana’s career renaissance got him traded to the Cardinals after posting a 3.50 ERA with a 3.23 FIP in 103 innings of work. We’ll see if Rich Hill can replace Quintana, as the 43-year-old plays for his 12th different team. He had a 4.27 ERA and a 3.92 FIP in 124.1 innings with the Red Sox last season.

Maybe the most important development for the Buccos last season is that Mitch Keller finally looked like the pitcher he was supposed to be coming up through the system. He’ll turn 27 less than a week after Opening Day on the heels of a 3.91 ERA and a 3.88 FIP over 159 innings of work. The concern with the Pirates as a whole is that they’ve done a lot to work with sinker development, so most of their pitchers are ground ball, pitch-to-contact guys. Keller was one. His K/BB numbers were pretty average, but he kept the ball in the park and mostly kept it on the ground.

How that translates in a post-shift world is tough for me to figure out. It wasn’t just that Keller improved with his batted ball distribution, he also saw a huge decrease in Hard Hit%. The sinker was far and away his worst pitch anyway, so I think the Pirates can decrease the usage of that while focusing on his four-seam fastball above the belt and slider (now classified a sweeper). I’ll be curious to see how this plays out and also if he stays healthy.

JT Brubaker is a guy that I’ll key in on more later, but he had a 4.69 ERA and a 3.92 FIP, so he got unlucky in high-leverage spots last season. He also has more strikeout upside than Keller and this is a big year for the 29-year-old. Personally, I’m rooting for him to get traded to a team that does a better job with pitchers.

Roansy Contreras is the guy that the Pirates need to see a leap from this season. The wins and losses don’t matter. It’s about seeing Cruz and Contreras, along with some of the other young guys, improve and solidify themselves as legit big leaguers. Contreras had a 3.79 ERA with a 4.38 FIP in his 95 innings of work at the MLB level and nine dominant starts in Triple-A. What worries me is how he responds to the innings increase. He worked 129.1 innings after throwing just 61 innings in 2021 and missed all of 2020 when there were no minor league games.

While he had a low ERA, he had a 45.9% Hard Hit% against and an 11% Barrel%, so he yielded a lot of hard contact. His .257 BABIP was a stroke of luck, particularly when you look at what guys like Keller (.320) and Brubaker (.334) dealt with. Contreras did have a lot of swings and misses that didn’t translate into strikeouts, so there’s room for growth there.

Vince Velasquez will eat innings until others are ready. The Pirates have a couple of top-110 prospects per FanGraphs in Luis Ortiz and Quinn Priester. They got Johan Oviedo in the Quintana trade. There isn’t a ton of immediate upside and depth for this rotation is a huge worry, particularly given the health histories of Keller and Hill.

Speaking of health, David Bednar dealt with a bad back from carrying the Pirates bullpen for a good chunk of last season. He’ll hold down the closer’s role once again, with Duane Underwood Jr. and Chase De Jong. Underwood had a 4.40 ERA with a 2.92 FIP and De Jong had a 2.64 ERA with a 4.74 FIP, so those guys will likely cancel out as regression hits. The rest of the bullpen is simply not very good and Bednar will be a sought-after trade candidate if he proves the barking back has lost its bite.

Miscellaneous Notes

The Pirates were a special kind of bad last season. They were actually five games worse by Pythagorean Win-Loss and had a winning record against three teams – the Dodgers, Nationals and Reds. No, that is not a typo. The Pirates were 5-1 against the Dodgers. They were 12-7 against the Reds and got outscored by five runs. They were 4-3 against the Nationals and 3-3 against the Rockies. They had a losing record against everybody else.

The Pirates were only 36-16 with a lead after five innings for a .692 win percentage. The league average was an .853 win percentage.

Player to Watch

SP JT Brubaker: Brubaker’s contact management metrics are not special, as he ranked in the 22nd percentile in both exit velocity and Hard Hit%. He had a huge spike in sinker usage last season, which I don’t like at all, especially heading into this post-shift season. However, I really like Brubaker’s two breaking balls and I wish he’d hone in on them more. His slider had a very strong Whiff% and his curveball ranks in the 89th percentile in spin rate. I really think a smarter team could maximize what he brings to the table, but the Pirates don’t really fit that description. Late in the year, Brubaker really expanded on his sinker usage and allowed a .373 wOBA in the second half with a 5.94 ERA, though he also battled injury. In other words, I’d stop throwing one. I think there’s something here. I just don’t know if the Pirates are the team to unlock it.

Pittsburgh Pirates Season Win Total Pick

I don’t know how bad the Pirates will be, but I know they will not be very good. Cruz is a true impact player at the MLB level, but Reynolds could get traded at some point this season and some of the other vets could be on the move if teams develop position player needs by the time the Trade Deadline rolls around. Reynolds and the Pirates were reportedly $50 million apart on an extension per The Athletic. I also wouldn’t be shocked if a smarter team sees what I see in Brubaker. Nor would I be surprised if Keller battles injury again.

To put it nicely, Cruz is not a good shortstop. He was -15.4 in UZR/150 and -9 in Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric. With the shift ban and a pitching staff that has been instructed to throw sinkers, I really hate that for this team. The names acquired on offense have track records, but Santana and McCutchen have left their primes in the rearview mirror. The Pirates will get on base more, but this offense was far from competitive last season.

As I mentioned in my Reds write-up, I’d take Cincinnati head-to-head from a win total standpoint, even though Pittsburgh’s line is three wins higher. I’m really tempted to look at the under with this team. They were -226 in run differential last season and they’re better, but I don’t think they’re that much better.

This may be an addition for me prior to Opening Day.

Stronger Lean: Under 68.5