I’ll start with some honesty. This has been a difficult year to write about the Pirates. Pandemic aside, almost everything that could go wrong for the Pirates did go wrong. A glimmer of hope emerged in the last weeks of the season, but it was an absolute slog to get that point and still have any energy left to enjoy it. That said, with the MLB Playoffs and exciting World Series providing some renewed spunk, I want to give Prospects1500 readers a breakdown of the good, the bad, and the ugly from the 2020 Pittsburgh season so that we can all get through a long, hard winter with something to look forward to in spring. We shall begin with….
The Pirates were the only team in baseball to win less than 20 games this year. Their team OBP and SLG ranked 30th in baseball. The pitching wasn’t as horrific as the hitting, but if you can’t score runs, a 4.68 team ERA won’t get anything done. It was a long, long season of what felt like helpless and impotent losses. Let’s take the worst of the worst and just rip the band-aid off.
In perfect contrast to 2019, Mitch Keller‘s ERA (2.91) was great but his xFIP (6.57) was atrocious. Keller didn’t look right from pitch one of the season. His velocity was down from 95 to 92, his dinger issues continued, and, frankly, he looked about as comfortable on the mound as a long-tailed lemur in a room full of rocking chairs. After a stint on the IL, Keller had one good start this season, but boy was it special. On 9/19, fueled by the resurgence of a controllable 95 mph heater, he tossed six no-hit innings vs. the Cardinals with two walks and six strikeouts. THAT is exactly the kind of pitcher I think Keller can be next season. Sadly, in his final start of the year he again allowed no hits, only this time he walked eight batters in five innings and never looked like he had a clue as to where the ball was going. Here’s hoping the offseason is a productive one for Keller and he can get off to a good start in 2021 and be the rotation anchor the Pirates so desperately need.
Josh Bell batted .226 and was worth -0.4 fWAR. He seemed to pick things up a touch towards the end, but he was downright unwatchable at the dish or in the field. The Pirates have an OBVIOUS candidate for the DH next year, and if Bell doesn’t start 99% of his games without a glove it will be a complete mystery to me.
Bryan Reynolds hit .189. One-Eight-Niner. Was he batting with a walkie-talkie? Frankly, Bryan looked as if he was pressing the entire season. His BABIP was very low (.231), but his K% did jump 5% in 2020 compared to 2019 and the whole statline was simply a mess. Let’s just chalk this up to a weird COVID season for a sophomore player and expect a return to the .280-300 hitter he has been for his entire professional career.
Gregory Polanco hit .153 with a 37.4 K%. It does not matter that his average exit velocity was 92.9. “El Coffee” was worth -0.7 fWAR. Time to brew a new pot.
Oneil Cruz was in a postseason car accident while back on his home island (DR) that killed three people and left him physically unharmed. Initially the reports were that he was driving under the influence of alcohol, but his lawyer and the organization have both vehemently denied these charges, claiming defamation. It’s a terrible situation no matter how you present it.
Phillip Evans was absolutely killing the ball to the tune of .359/.444/.487…and then Polanco broke his jaw in a collision. This was about the point of the season where I started to lose it. It was only 1/6th of the way done at that point. Evans should be a nice role player for the Buccos next season assuming his recovery goes smoothly.
Cole Tucker couldn’t hit the ball or take walks. I am ready to close to book on him being anything other than a solid bench option you can slot in at any position. Great hair, though.
Kevin Newman hit .224 and provided negative value with both the bat and the glove, yielding a red-hot -0.4 WAR.
Adam Frazier struggled so much that the Pirates couldn’t even trade him.
Trevor Williams provided value with his willingness to just continue to pitch in games where he was getting absolutely lit up, saving the Pirate bullpen from getting overworked for no reason at all.
Chad Kuhl threw his best pitches WAY more often this season and found some moments of true dominance. Despite decent velocity (94) but a fastball that isn’t his best pitch, Kuhl’s slider and curveball are fantastic. Each of the last three seasons Kuhl has lowered his his fastball usage, starting at 63.5% in 2018 and ending with 43.9% in 2020. His slider usage was all the way to 34.9% this year and his curveball usage rose from 13.2% to 17.2%. The walks were still very much a problem, but hopefully he can figure out how to use his best weapons more effectively in 2021. I will hope for more starts next year like his last start of 2020 vs. the Cubs where he went seven innings, allowed two hits and two walks, and struck out five guys.
Richard Rodriguez was dominant in the closer role. The Pirates didn’t give him many chances to actually earn a save, but he did have a 13.11 K/9 and a minuscule 1.93 BB/9. If he is anything close to this next season the Pirates should be able to trade him to a contender for something, or someone, useful.
The Jarrod Dyson signing worked out very well. Dyson was terrible, but his fleet feet allowed Cherington to flip him to the White Sox for some international signing budget. The Pirates used some of this money to make a million dollar investment in a Taiwanese pitcher named Po-Yu Chen. I am super pleased that the Pirates were active on the international market this year, signing 48 players in total.
Sam Howard emerged as a solid lefty option out of the pen after being cast out of Colorado. I watched a lot of Howard this year and was really impressed by his slider and his poise on the mound in tough situations.
Colin Moran, who was part of my Pirates 10 Names You Need To Know, had a very nice season amid the minefield of mediocrity surrounding him. Moran posted his best ever walk rate (9.5%), slugging (.472), and average exit velocity (91.9) in the 60 game sprint and finally gave the Pirates some semblance of value in return for….let’s not talk about it. In Moran’s previous 293 games as a Pirate he only managed to hit 24 home runs, so the 10 dingers he smacked this season in only 52 games is very exciting.
JT Brubaker was a nice surprise for the decimated rotation. Another feature of my 10 Names piece and my #20 prospect to start the season, Brubaker was given a chance to slowly ramp up his workload throughout the season, ending the year with six consecutive starts of five innings pitched or more. The jewel of the campaign came in a game against the Cubs where JT dominated for 6.2 innings, tallying nine strikeouts against one walk. Brubaker has two above average pitches, his curveball and his slider. His curve generated an xwOBA of .245, had a spin rate in the 87th percentile, and generated whiffs 38.1% of the time. The slider had an xBA of just .166 (!!!) and yielded an 84.2 EV (the lowest for any pitch he threw 100 times or more) with a whiff percentage of 37.2. Much like Kuhl, Brubaker has a weak fastball and will need to rely heavily on his secondary offerings to continue his upward momentum in 2021, but he should have a spot in the rotation locked up for next year.
Joe Musgrove really leaned into the philosophy of throwing his best pitches as often as possible in 2020. His fastball usage dipped below 40%, with his slider and curveball usage both increasing from the previous year. After a rough start and a brief break, Musgrove was lights out the rest of the season, finishing it off with back-to-back 10K+ games versus two playoff bound teams. If he can put that kind of production together for 30 starts, he can take some of the pressure off of Keller’s shoulders heading into 2021. Make it so, Joe.
HAYES! HAYES! HAYES! KE’BRYAN HAYES!!! SWEET SASSY MOLASSEY!!! What can I say? I have lost my natural mind over the debut of my #3 prospect, Ke’Bryan Hayes. In my Pirates Top 50 Prospects this past spring I highlighted a late power surge from Hayes in the 2019 AAA season and ended my write up with this auspicious sentence: “Juiced ball caveats aside, the increase in power for Hayes is a great sign, let’s hope it continues.” Well, it continued. Hayes completely demolished the ball in 95 plate appearances this season. His average EV was 92.8 and helped create a triple slash of .376/.442/.682. So now we can all just fully expect Ke’Bryan to become the best player in the history of baseball? Dramatic pause…..probably not, but his debut was easily the best thing to happen this season and makes me excited for the future infield of Hayes, Cruz, Nick Gonzales and Mason Martin, which doesn’t even factor in other promising names like Liover Peguero and Ji-Hwan Bae.
The Pirates were bad enough this year to secure the 1st overall pick for the 2021 draft will likely be using that pick to select Kumar Rocker out of Vanderbilt. This is fantastic news. Rocker has the chance to be a true ace and media darling, both of which the Pirates need to create a window of relevance. If we look a couple years down the road, the Pirates rotation could easily be some combination of Rocker, Quinn Priester, Keller, Cody Bolton, Brubaker, Kuhl, Tahnaj Thomas, Brennan Malone and Jameson Taillon. The arms that don’t perform as starters can be pushed to the bullpen and hopefully find new pathways to productivity. The future outfield will be made up of Bryan Reynolds, Jared Oliva, Calvin Mitchell, Sammy Siani, Lolo Sanchez, and Jasiah Dixon. Don’t put that Jolly Roger into storage just yet, we are gonna need it sooner than we think.