Any time something crazy happens early in the season, such as the week that Adam Duvall was leading the league in WAR, I tend to dismiss it with a single word reply of “April.” But the calendar has now flipped, and the shower-month has become the flower-month, so it’s getting a bit harder to ignore the Pirates, standing at the top of the NL Central with a 20–9 record, a whopping 10 games above last season’s victor, the currently last-place Cardinals. Nearly 20% of the season is now done, and it’s probably time to talk about whether Pittsburgh is for real.
First off, going 20–9 is always an impressive run. Teams that do that aren’t always great teams, but they’re usually at least middling and only rarely actually bad. There have been exactly 1.21 craploads of 20–9 or better runs over the last 20 years, and only two with a run that solid, the 2021 Cubs and 2005 Orioles, finished with 75 wins or fewer. And while the Pirates had more than their share of basement-dwelling opponents (the average opponent has a .430 winning percentage), great performances in baseball tend to be in environments that are most conducive to those performances. The Yankees had the best 29-game run last year, at 24–5, with 21 of those 29 games coming against non-playoff teams.
Suffice it to say that the projection systems were generally not optimistic on the idea of the Pirates being contenders in 2023. Our preseason depth charts gave them a 3% chance to win the division and a 6.5% chance of making the playoffs. ZiPS, which liked the Cardinals better than the combined projections (a prognostication that’s not looking great right now), was even more down on Pittsburgh, with only a 0.7% shot at the NL Central and 1.8% for a postseason. These weren’t hopeless numbers, but they certainly left the Pirates as a longshot. But as of the morning of May 2, our projections now have the Pirates at 18.5% to win the division and 32.3% to make the playoffs. And the updated ZiPS projections for 2023 suggest a chaotic division if everyone’s somewhere around their median projection. When you take into account Pittsburgh’s hot start, the Cubs playing very well, St. Louis’ bleak April, and Milwaukee’s pitching injuries, ZiPS sees the NL Central as wide open:
ZiPS Projected Standings – NL Central (5/2)
|St. Louis Cardinals||85||77||—||.525||27.0%||17.6%||44.6%||4.3%|
The good news for Pirates fans is that the assumptions needed to get here are not particularly aggressive. Neither ZiPS nor our Depth Charts combined projections have decided that Pittsburgh is a great team, or even a good one. In fact, both methodologies still see them finishing below .500 — Depth Charts as a .467 team, ZiPS as a .490 team.
In other words, even as a mediocre team, the Pirates are a threat to take the NL Central. Plundering the NL Central is not like taking on the Spanish treasure fleet or defeating the garrison at San Juan or Santo Domingo. These Pirates don’t have a massive galleon or even a Dutch merchantman, but their sloop is enough to capture some pinnaces, loot Eleuthera, and get the map to rescue their kidnapped sister. A .500 team with the Pirates lead can do this, and I promise I’ll stop the nostalgia for Sid Meier’s Pirates!, which I played about a billion hours of when I was in middle school.
Let’s dig into the ZiPS projections for the Pirates first. A 79–83 team isn’t the most exciting one, but it might be enough at this point. Even a 79-win team would be a significant upgrade on what nearly everyone, including Pirates fans, thought of them coming into the season. And at this point, ZiPS only sees a 2% chance they finish with fewer than 70 wins!
You can see real progress when you look at the projections. Jack Suwinski is not really a 164 wRC+ guy when we talk the future, but he’s shown enough power (StatCast hard-hit percentage over 50%) that he might be a 115–120 hitter who could hit 30 homers in a season and plausibly handle center field. Similarly, Connor Joe has shown impressive pop this year, backed up by his Statcast data — both MLB’s xSLG and ZiPS’ zSLG are around .500 — enough that there’s a good chance he’s at least a league-average player at this point. Add in Bryan Reynolds, who we already know is good, and Ke’Bryan Hayes, who is better than his weak start, and while ZiPS (and probably everybody else on the planet) does not expect the Pirates to continue to lead the league in runs scored, you see a real foundation for them to have at least a decent offense.
There’s even more reason to be hopeful with the pitching. Roansy Contreras was on my pitcher breakout piece for 2023, and Mitch Keller was almost there, so it doesn’t shock me to see them pitching well. Rich Hill will continue to eat innings effectively. But the biggest surprise may be Vince Velasquez, who looks a lot like he did in his first couple of seasons in the majors, when he was a highly interesting prospect.
I’m not yet at the point where I’m a believer in Velasquez, but enough has happened that I’m at least reading the pamphlet at lunch. While he hasn’t added a fancy new pitch or found a Charlie Morton-esque hidden cache of fastball velocity, he is pitching differently than he has in past seasons. Like Kevin Gausman a few years ago, he’s simplified his repertoire, jettisoning his sporadically effective knuckle-curve and, instead of adding a different pitch, relying heavily on his slider. In the past, Velasquez leaned on that curve against left-handed batters, as his changeup is distinctively in the “meh” category. When using the slider against lefties, he usually tried to thread it over their lower inside corner, similar location to when he was throwing it against a righty. Ethan Witte over at the Good Phight actually suggested he keelhaul one of his pitches in favor of the slider years ago.
This is an 84 [mph] slider that Goldschmidt is way out in front of, which is very important to Velasquez if he wants to start to use the pitch more. The reason relates to sequencing and tunneling. Velasquez started this plate appearance with a 94 m.p.h. fastball in roughly the same area. He followed it up with this slider, the result of which you see above. According to Baseball Prospectus, Velasquez has followed up a fastball with a slider 21 times this season to a right handed batter. When he throws it, there is an average of 1.41 inches of distance between the two pitches at the tunnel point, a number that is on par with pitchers like Chris Archer (1.39 in), Gerrit Cole (1.42 in) and Max Scherzer (1.45 in). Put another way, his slider looks almost the same as those pitchers at the same tunnel point, pitchers right now with some of the best sliders in the game. While Velasquez’s slider is 2-3 m.p.h. slower than theirs, coming at the hitter, it resembles a fastball until late in the at bat, which is resulting in the groundballs. It’s a pitch he needs to start trusting more often.
Just as Gausman has started using his splitter as a pseudo-breaking pitch against lefties, Velasquez is using his slider against lefties this year as basically an alternative changeup, seeking to place it low or outside rather than trying — usually unsuccessfully — to nick the inside corner. Here’s his map against lefties this year:
Coming into the season, lefties had a career .321 batting average and a .524 slugging percentage against his sliders. This year, lefties are 2-for-25 with a homer against Velasquez when they successfully put the ball in play. Not bad at all; he’s already thrown more sliders against lefties than all but one season of his career. Overall, 34% of his pitches against left-handed hitters in 2023 are sliders. Is that enough to say we should think of him as a good number two or three starter now? Probably not, but the fact that he’s getting success with a changed approach should at least be looked at. A Vince Velasquez avoiding the gopher ball is an intriguing pitcher.
Are the Pirates a good team? Probably not. But they’re a dangerous team, and if the Cardinals and Brewers simply wait for Pittsburgh to turn into a pumpkin, they may have some unexpected time off in October.