December 5, 2016
The 2016 Pirates finished tied for the franchise’s sixth-best winning percentage since 1992. For most teams, that wouldn’t be a bad season. The sixth-best Cardinals team since 1992, the 95-67 2000 team, won the division. The sixth-best Reds' record was 90-72. The sixth-best Brewers team, the 82-80 2014 edition, was at least above .500. We think of the Cubs as perennial losers until recently, but the sixth-best Cubs team since 1992, the 2003 club, won the division but ... well, you know. And that’s just Pittsburgh’s NL Central foes. The sixth-best Yankees team since 1992 (excluding strike-shortened 1994) won the World Series.
But this is the Pirates we’re talking about, the team that had 20 straight losing seasons, nine in last place. For the Pirates, the sixth-best record since 1992 was only 78-83, 25 games out of first, and the team’s worst record in five years. The only other National League teams for whom 2016 was their worst season since 2011 are the Padres and Cardinals. And neither of those teams suffered the slide the Pirates did in 2016, when the team won 20 fewer games than the year before, a total exceeded by only the clock-striking-midnight-on-Cinderella Twins, who dropped by 24.
And in doing so, Pittsburgh missed the postseason for the first time since 2012. The only other team to appear in the postseason in 2013, 2014, and 2015 was the Cardinals (whose five-year postseason streak was also snapped in 2016). So what happened with the Pirates? I mean, some regression was in order. The team was 98-64 in 2015, but its third-order record was seven games worse. Still, the team’s final record of 78-83-1 was three wins short of the gloomy 81-81 PECOTA projection. What went wrong?
A big part of it is pitching. In 2015, the team’s ERA was 3.23, its FIP was 3.39, and its DRA was 4.00. In 2016, those figures were 4.22, 4.34, and 4.62. And it was an across-the-board decline. The starters’ DRA rose from 3.86 to 4.64, the relievers’ from 4.27 to 4.60. Over the summer, I noted that the Pirates’ longtime pitching strategy—get batters to chase pitches outside the zone, inducing weak contact hit into shifted infielders—fell flat in 2016, as apparently a memo was sent around the league saying, “Lay off the stuff outside the strike zone.”
The Pittsburgh Tribune Review’s Travis Sawchik also observed that Pirates pitchers, with their emphasis on pitching down in the zone, were particularly hurt by a slightly higher strike zone this year. So a good chunk of that 20-game decline is pitching related. But not all of it! Scoring in the National League was up 7.8 percent in 2016. Pirates pitchers gave up a whopping 27.2 percent more runs, but their batters scored only 4.6 percent more. So the offense underperformed the league as well, if less spectacularly. Why?
To answer, I’m going to compare the 2015 and 2016 teams, position by position. The reason I’m doing it that way instead of player to player is that the players, obviously, change. The team’s primary first basemen in 2015 were Pedro Alvarez (65 percent of plate appearances) and Sean Rodriguez (17 percent). In 2016, they were John Jaso (56 percent) and David Freese (22 percent). But the first base position in total accounted for a similar number of plate appearances: 681 in 2015, 721 in 2016. By looking at positions rather than players, we can get a fairly apples-to-apples comparison in terms of role.