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.
To evaluate the differences, I’m going to use Baseball Reference’s sOPS+. It measures OPS, adjusted for park and season, relative to the position, rather than relative to all batters. For example, Pirates first basemen had an OPS of .757 last year. In a league with an average OPS of .734, that’s decent. The first basemen’s OPS+ relative to the league (tOPS+ per Baseball Reference), is 106, meaning that Pirates first basemen were 6 percent above average.
But relative to other first basemen, the sOPS+ was only 93 or 7 percent below average, given that first base is an offense-oriented position where the average OPS was .809. Similarly, Pirates shortstops, with a .726 OPS in 2016, had a 98 tOPS+ but a 101 sOPS+, reflecting that shortstops generally don’t contribute as much to offense (.726 OPS in 2016) as other positions. Here’s the breakdown by position, with sOPS+ listed for 2015 and 2016:
Catcher: 120 in 2015, 79 in 2016. The Pirates saw a big decline at three positions last year, and catcher was one of them. In 2015, the team got a career-year out of Francisco Cervelli (5.7 WARP compared 5.1 WARP in the prior seven years combined) and a solid performance (.289/.320/.340) from backup Chris Stewart. More importantly, the team got a lot of Cervelli and Stewart. The duo caught 98.8 percent of the Pirates’ defensive innings. That’s not as uncommon as you might think (between 1969-2015, there were 240 teams whose top two catchers caught at least 98.5 percent of all innings, about 4.5 per non-strike-shortened season), but replicating that is pretty tough.
Put another way, an exceptionally durable catcher tandem appears to be mostly a function of luck. And boy, were the Pirates ever unlucky in 2016. After using, effectively, two catchers in 2015, the team used six last year as Cervelli and Stewart both missed significant time with injuries. Eric Fryer started 23 games after being waived by the Cardinals. Erik Kratz started 15 games after the Pirates purchased him from the Angels, where he was catching at Triple-A after being released by the Astros. Two farmhands who hit a combined .228/.262/.336 at Triple-A started four games. And, of course, this occurred in a season during which the small-budget Pirates signed Cervelli to a three-year, $31 million contract extension and Stewart to a two-year, $3 million deal.
First Base: 82 in 2015, 93 in 2016. At some point during Jaso’s swoon—he was hitting .308/.374/.449 on May 28, but .196/.301/.268 with one homer over the next two-and-a-half months—some Pirates fans expressed nostalgia for Pedro Alvarez, who, as noted above, was the team’s primary first baseman in 2015. Alvarez experienced somewhat of a career renaissance in Baltimore, batting .249/.322/.504. But in Baltimore, Alvarez benefited from a favorable home park (14 of his 22 home runs went out of Camden Yards) and a manager who limited his exposure to left-handed pitchers (89 percent of his at-bats were with a platoon advantage) and didn’t make him wear anything but a batting glove on his left hand.
In 2015, Alvarez committed 23 errors at first, the most errors by a first baseman playing fewer than 1,000 innings since Dick “Dr. Strangeglove” Stuart had 22 in 831 innings in 1959. In 2016, Alvarez was limited to 53 fun-filled innings at third base, where he compiled a lower fielding percentage, .556 (really: five assists, two fielding errors, two throwing errors), than Madison Bumgarner’s OPS, .629. Besides, Jaso redeemed himself somewhat, hitting .338/.420/.648 from August 16 to the end of the season. First base was a relative weak spot for the 2016 Pirates, but not as weak as it was in 2015.
Second Base: 110 in 2015, 85 in 2016. The Pirates expected an offensive decline at second, as Josh Harrison took over from hometown favorite Neil Walker. They just didn’t expect that much of a decline. Walker hit .268/.330/.428 as a second baseman in 2015, Harrison .282/.310/.386. In 2017, Harrison will turn 30 and will be three years removed from his .315/.347/.490 career-year in 2015, which accounts for 55 percent of his career WARP but only 26 percent of his career plate appearances.
With Walker’s future uncertain given season-ending back surgery, the Pirates' front office probably doesn’t much regret going forward with Harrison. He’s two years younger, signed through 2018 (Walker can be a free agent in 2018 after accepting the Mets’ qualifying offer), a better runner (3.1 BRR in 2017 vs. 0.3 for Walker), and by most accounts a better fielder (though advanced metrics are mixed on that score). But a little more pop would be nice; Harrison’s .386 slugging percentage ranked 21st out of 22 players with 400+ plate appearances as a second baseman.
Third Base: 95 in 2015, 111 in 2016. In 2016, Pirates third basemen were Jung Ho Kang (50 percent of plate appearances) and David Freese (43 percent). In 2015, they were Harrison (35 percent), Kang (35 percent), and Aramis Ramirez (27 percent). Much of the improvement was just a case of more Kang, who despite injuries, hit .259/.361/.522 with 20 homers as a third baseman. Freese’s .724 OPS as a third baseman was more or less a push compared to Harrison and Ramirez’s combined .732.
Shortstop: 99 in 2015, 101 in 2016. This actually represents a nice improvement for the team, again for personnel-related reasons. In 2015, Jordy Mercer battled injuries and hit .246/.296/.322 as the team’s primary (65 percent of plate appearances) shortstop. The play of Kang, who batted .295/.347/.519 in 30 percent of the Pirates' plate appearances at short, buoyed the offensive numbers, but at a defensive cost. Mercer had 2.8 FRAA in 2015, Kang -3.2. In 2016, a healthy Mercer played 86 percent of the innings at short and his TAv recovered from .228 in 2015 to .258 in 2016. Playing exclusively at third, Kang’s FRAA rebounded to 8.5.
Left field: 101 in 2015, 136 in 2016. Now that we’re in the Pirates' outfield, the personnel is pretty constant. The improvement in left field is Starling Marte (81 percent of plate appearances in left in 2015, 66 percent in an injury-shortened 2016) moving from a very good to an elite player.
Center Field: 141 in 2015, 97 in 2016. If I’d told you before last season that biggest decline in offense for the Pirates would be in center field, you’d assume that Andrew McCutchen would be missing a big chunk of the year and they traded to get somebody like Peter Bourjos to replace him, right? Nope, Cutch accounted for 93 percent of center fielder plate appearances in 2015 and 91 percent in 2016.
He was bothered by a thumb injury early in the season that may or may not have persisted for the entire year. But the falloff was dramatic. After batting .291/.403/.490 as a center fielder in 2015, he hit .255/.336/.430 there in 2016. He went from having your basic Andrew McCutchen season to having your basic Jason Varitek (.256/.341/.435 career) season. As you read this, somebody is writing an article about McCutchen getting traded.
Right Field: 87 in 2015, 102 in 2016. Yeah, sure, the 15-point increase is pretty nifty, third-best on the Pirates. But that mostly means Gregory Polanco has gone from being a below-average right fielder to an average one. His percentage of Pirates right field plate appearances declined, from 83 percent in 2015 to 63 percent in 2016, but that’s mostly because he started 24 games in left and two in center.
In fairness, the 25-year-old Polanco is heading into his fourth season as a Pirates starter, but he's younger than Tyler Naquin, Trace Thompson, and Aledmys Diaz, so he has room to improve. Also in his defense, he was dealing with injuries to both his knee and his shoulder in 2016. That being said, he stood at .308/.391/.556 on June 5 and hit .228/.278/.407 the rest of the year.
Pitchers: 70 in 2015, 110 in 2016. Yeah, they improved all the way to a .147/.173/.178 slash line. That passes for above average in the National League, where the average pitcher OPS was .340, the sixth-lowest in history.
Clearly, the Pirates’ failure had many fathers in 2016. Obviously, the team needs a pitching makeover, and there’ll be turnover at first base for sure (Josh Bell), catcher with hope (more than 120 games started between Cervelli and Stewart would be nice), and center field possibly (perhaps by the time you read this, which would likely move Marte to center and Polanco to left). Change may be jarring to Pirates fans, but the worst year-over-year decline in the National League demands it.