The 2022 Pittsburgh Pirates finished an abysmal 62-100. They were 31 games back of the NL Central division winner St. Louis Cardinals, a team that finished 93-69 and was widely considered the weakest division winner in the National League. Given the Pirates atrocious run differential of -226, they were expected to lose 4 more games than they actually did. The offense didn’t hit; they were 28th in MLB with a .655 OPS. The pitching didn’t prevent runs; they were 26th in MLB with a 4.66 ERA. The defense didn’t field; they were 26th in MLB with -22 outs above average. Nothing went right for this team.
The 2023 Pirates are an entirely different story. At the time of writing, Pittsburgh has the best team in the National League with a record of 18-8. The offense ranks 8th in MLB with a .765 OPS and the pitching ranks 8th in MLB with a 3.63 ERA. Not only is 2023 shaping to be a strong year, but the franchise seems to be heading in the right direction as well. They just inked star outfielder Bryan Reynolds to an extension of 8 years, $106.75 million. Let’s take a look at why the Pirates have gone from dumpster fire, to on fire.
Picky and Powerful
Other than Bryan Reynolds (who continues to do Bryan Reynolds things), the Pirates have received heavy doses of offense from unlikely suitors. When Andrew McCutchen signed with the team on which he rose to stardom, fans were elated that their hero was returning home. What nobody expected was for McCutchen to turn back the clock to his All-Star days of the early 2010s. McCutchen is slashing .275/.381/.507 with an OPS+ of 144, meaning he hits 44% above league average. One look at McCutchen’s Baseball Savant page will tell you why he is enjoying so much success. His vision is among the best in the league. He maintains a walk rate in the 85th percentile and a chase rate in the 85th percentile. He is getting on base more and is more selective, a big reason why he is in the top 9% of the league in expected batting average and the top 30% in hard-hit rate. Not to mention, McCutchen’s defense has remained elite. His metrics on reads and jumps in the outfield rank in the top 5% of the league and his sprint speed puts him in the 87th percentile. After 6 years away from the team that drafted him, it seems like McCutchen has returned to form.
Jack Suwinski has been another offensive juggernaut in the Pittsburgh lineup. He is slashing .255/.383/.638, good for an OPS+ of 177. This should come as no surprise. By all advanced metrics, Suwinski is punishing baseballs. I’m about to throw out a lot of numbers, all of which are extremely impressive and tell the story of his season. Suwinski is currently in the top 3% in average exit velocity, top 2% in barrel rate, top 5% in hard-hit rate, top 5% in walk rate, and top 1% in chase rate. He doesn’t swing at bad pitches. And the pitches he does swing at come off the bat at threatening velocities. Suwinski also grades as a lockdown outfielder. His sprint speed is in the 88th percentile, allowing him to chase down balls and put himself in the 82nd percentile for outs above average.
The most intimidating bat in the Pirate lineup belongs to Connor Joe. Joe is slashing an absurd .357/.455/.643. His OPS+ is 201, a whole 101% better than league average. He has already accrued 1 bWAR in just 56 at-bats. A theme among the Pirate offense appears to be elite plate vision and swing selection. Incredibly, Joe is in the 100th percentile in chase rate. His unmatched ability to swing at good pitches warrants his hard-hit rate in the 92nd percentile and his barrel rate in the 82nd percentile.
(Soft) Contact is King
The Pirate arms have seen an immense increase in success, thanks to their newfound ability to avoid barrels. Young righty Johan Oviedo has taken charge as the leader of the rotation. The 25-year-old boasts a 3.03 ERA and a 29/10 K/BB in 29.2 innings, good for a 144 ERA+. Oviedo’s overpowering fastball and ability to get down the mound makes life difficult for hitters. His fastball velocity is in the 89th percentile, averaging 96.3 miles per hour and getting whiffs 23.2% of the time. He is in the 91st percentile for extension, meaning his hard fastball looks even harder to the eyes of hitters. Oviedo’s healthy mix of fastballs, sliders, curves, and changeups allow him to toy with hitters and has helped him reach the 89th percentile in barrel rate.
Highly-touted prospect Mitch Keller, now 27 years old, seems to have finally found his place in the major leagues. Early on, Keller is 2-0 in 5 starts. He has an ERA of 3.54 and a 30/11 K/BB rate. Keller’s arsenal consists of 6 pitches: a fastball, cutter, sinker, sweeper, curve, and changeup. His usage for each pitch is balanced, keeping hitters on their toes with the numerous options he could deliver to the catcher. The movement profile on these pitches is elite; Keller’s fastball spin is in the 82nd percentile. These qualities assist him in missing barrels, as shown by his average exit velocity in the 88th percentile and his hard-hit rate in the 96th percentile.
In the pen, closer and 2022 all-star David Bednar has taken another step forward. Last year, Bednar pitched to a 2.61 ERA over 51.2 innings, good for a 156 ERA+. This year, in 11 innings, Bednar has allowed just a single earned run. He has struck out 14 and walked only 1 (an intentional walk). Bednar’s ERA+ is an astronomical 546. He is pitching 446% better than the average MLB arm. Bednar’s Baseball Savant page is plastered with red circles. He throws gas (86th percentile fastball velocity, average velocity of 95.9 miles per hour) and spins the ball (89th percentile fastball spin, 2457 spin rate) like few others. His arsenal consists of that heavy fastball, a curve, and a splitter. Bednar competes in the zone (97th percentile walk rate) and induces ugly swings outside of the zone (99th percentile chase rate, 97th percentile whiff rate). All of these attributes justify his 93rd percentile rank in average exit velocity and his 86th percentile rank in barrel rate.
Raise the Jolly Roger
The counting stats show it, and the advanced metrics support it; The Pirates are really good. Pittsburgh fans have much to look forward to barring any catastrophic decline in production. Raise the Jolly Roger!
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