In some ways it feels like it was just yesterday, while in others it could have happened in a different lifetime, however, in all actuality I sat down to write the 2021 Edition of My Pittsburgh Pirates Prediction Piece a full six months ago.
Obviously, I wasn’t super optimistic about the upcoming season as my record projection sat at 63-99; slightly higher than the eventual 61-101 mark that came to be, which I could have been a little closer to had I possessed the fortitude to actually type nice round total of 100 losses on to my screen. Nonetheless, this isn’t really significant at this point, and neither are the wins and losses as the Pirates move into their second full off-season with General Manager Ben Cherington at the helm; one that could be extremely crucial to the future of the organization, but also his first without a major trade piece on the roster-or at least one the Pirates would be willing to part with. But, I need to slow done as I am getting way ahead of myself.
Now is the time to focus on the 2021 season, as much as some of us would probably like to forget it. Although, the year did start off with, and end with a blast.
Now, the in between, that’s where things get interesting, or simply frustrating at times; often highlighted by the constant replays of the Will Craig incident, Ke’Bryan Hayes missing first base on a home run or Wilmer Difo letting an infield pop up fall to the ground to allow a walk-off in Chicago. However, this wouldn’t be close to the entire story.
In the beginning of the year, as it is every year, hope springs eternal. Maybe not for a contending team, but possibly that things might go better than expected; at the very least on an individual level, which is exactly what happened with Kevin Newman.
In 13 games, and across 33 at bats, Newman accumulated a .606 batting average, hit 6 doubles and didn’t strike out once. And it wasn’t just the results that looked different, it was his overall approach at the plate, but more importantly a revamped swing. Unfortunately, as we all know now these results, and at times his new swing, didn’t translate into the regular season. Prior to the All-Star Break, Newman had an abysmal .210/.252/.273 slash line; and although it wasn’t great, after some adjustments, he was able to improve to .249/.283/.359 during the second half of the year. For Newman it was a year of disappointments, with his only saving grace being his 3 OAA and 8 DRS at the shortstop position; as compared to his -6 OAA/-7 DRS in 2019 and -2 OAA/-3 DRS in 2020.
Then there was Bryan Reynolds, who came into the season with everything to prove; especially to himself after a shortened 2019 were he hit .182 with 7 homers. Obviously, he did just this, and possibly more as he hit .302 with a .912 OPS, to go along with 24 homers and a total of 67 extra base hits; including a tie for the MLB lead in triples with 8. Figuring in his 11 OAA in centerfield-a position he didn’t even start at in the beginning of the year-and a 6.0 bWAR/5.5 fWAR it ultimately generated an NL All-Star, Team MVP and a player that will surely garner a few MVP votes.
Next, the Pirates had who many thought to be a shoe-in for the NL Rookie of The Year, based upon his unbelievable September of 2020, in the form of Ke’Bryan Hayes; which may I remind you started off with a bang. Regrettably, Hayes would be removed from the second game of the season with a wrist injury and not be seen again until the beginning of June. After, the abrupt interruption and eventual return he would go on to bat .257 with a .689 OPS and 6 homers. A clear disappointment based only the original expectations, which was compounded to a degree when Hayes’ season ended early with wrist discomfort. Luckily for Hayes and the Pirates it was always known that the glove would more than make up for even an average bat, or slightly below average. On the year Hayes totaled 13 OAA-second to only Matt Chapman and his 17 OAA at the position-and 16 DRS; resulting in a 2.4 bWAR and 1.5 fWAR in spite of his struggles at the plate.
Along with Hayes. another player who caught the injury bug was Colin Moran; who had been given the reins to first base after the off-season Josh Bell deal. At the beginning of the year had the opportunity to show that the Pirates made the correct choice by cementing himself in his new role, while building upon his 10 home run, 114 OPS+ and 113 wRC+ shortened season; which he pretty much did until the last month of the season, even after missing most of May and all of July. Leading into September Moran was batting .285 with 7 homers. However, after a disappointing final month, Moran ended the year with a .258 AVG, 10 total homers, a 97 OPS+ and a 98 wRC+.
Last, but certainly not least add in the best half season of Adam Frazier’s career. Prior to being traded to the San Diego Padres, Frazier hit .324 with 4 homers and was consistently in the battle for the most hits (125) and doubles (28) in all of Major League Baseball. In addition to this, Pirates we’re fortunate enough to get a little over a month of Yoshi Tsutsugo at his best. After surprisingly joining the team on August 16th, Yoshi proceeded to hit 8 homers, while batting .268 with a 136 OPS+. Nonetheless, and not that you need yet another reminder, Yoshi will be a free agent this off-season; one in which he turns 30 years old.
Unfortunately, there was also an outfield carousel for a good portion of the year; illuminated by the press of a cast of castoffs, such as Ka’ai Tom, Dustin Fowler and the early season version of Anthony Alford; with a few games of Troy Stokes, Jr., Ildemaro Vargas, Phillip Evans and Jared Olivia sprinkled in.
And, who can forget the Todd Frazier saga? I sure can’t, as it led to a discussion on Twitter between Jason Mackey and myself as to who was the better pinch hitting option for the Pirates; me with Wilmer Difo and Mackey with Frazier. Not that it means much, but I got to claim victory in this one. On the year, Difo tied Ehire Adrianza of the Braves for the most pinch hits with 16.
Or on a more positive note, Rodolfo Castro’s 5 homers accounting for his first 5 Major League hits or the short lived Big Nogowski-Mania? Man that was fun for a couple of weeks.
Overall, with this much movement, and a few career years mixed in, it ultimately led to the Pirates finishing with the 28th ranked offense in all of Major League Baseball. For the year they ended up dead last in homers (124), runs (609), RBI (570), wRC+ (83) and offensive WAR (9.1). They also found themselves at 25th in Batting Average (.236) and 23rd in OBP (.309); or, not good, which is probably why Hitting Coach Rick Eckstein is out of a job.
And that brings us to the other side of the aisle; the Pittsburgh Pirates Pitching Staff. Spoiler alert…also not very good.
In the beginning of the season there was hope for Mitch Keller, in yet another prove it season, JT Brubaker set a feverish pace and rental Tyler Anderson led the starting rotation. Out in the bullpen, David Bednar arrived from literally out of nowhere as a toss-in from the Joe Musgrove Trade. Other than that, there were some flashes from others like Chris Stratton, Duane Underwood, Jr., Chasen Shreve and the since departed RichRod. However, as a whole the bad undoubtedly outweighed the good.
Mitch Keller found himself demoted to Triple-A toward the beginning of June, JT Brubaker went from a 4.47 ERA/1.150 pitcher in the first half to a 7.57 ERA/1.65 one in the second and staff ace Tyler found himself moving into a playoff race with the Mariners after posting a 4.35 ERA and a clean 1.200 WHIP for Pittsburgh in 18 starts.
Then there was the Man From Mars, David Bednar, who just went off. In his first full season in the Majors, Bednar hung a 2.23 ERA and a .973 WHIP, as well as 77 strikeouts in 60.2 innings on opposing hitters; earning Pitcher of the Year honors from the Pittsburgh Chapter of the BBWAA.
The rest as I said before; not very good. On the year the Pirates finished 27th overall in MLB as a staff, coming in at 28th for both the starters and relievers. They had a combined 5.08 ERA (28th), gave up 213 homers (surprisingly 23rd), struck out 1312 batters (24th) and had the second worst WHIP (1.44). Considering all of this, Oscar Marin could be the Pirates next coach on the hot seat.
All in all, the Pirates used a franchise record 64 players to complete what was the 8th 100 loss season in the organization’s history. But, hey our defense was good! Yes, that is somewhat sarcastic, because truthfully, as a unit the Pirates put together a -11.3 defensive WAR season; finally arriving at 21st in the league, with much of their success falling on the shoulders of Ke’Bryan Hayes, Jacob Stallings, Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds. Former Gold Glove Candidate Adam Frazier had his worst season as a Pirate at Second Base with a -2 OAA, as opposed to the 5 and 9 he had posted during the previous two years.
Yes, you can point to a league low in errors with 70, or a league high .988 fielding percentage; but those numbers only count when you can actually get to the ball. Is it an improvement? Absolutely. Does it show a level of competency? Without a doubt. Is it mission accomplished? Far from it.
For now, that’s a wrap on the Pittsburgh Pirates 2021 season; a year of evaluation and development.
Bring on the off-season, and hopefully a March, 31, 2022 Opening Day.