Top Notes From the Pittsburgh Pirates ZiPS Projections for 2024

After finally taking a step forward last season, how does the ZiPS projection system feel about the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2024?

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 09: Oneil Cruz #15 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in action against the Chicago White Sox during inter-league play at PNC Park on April 9, 2023 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Pirates are finally trending in the right direction. After spending several seasons at the bottom of the league, they seemingly took a step forward in 2023.

It was an essential assessment year for much of Pittsburgh’s young talent. They’ve identified several foundational roster pieces to build around, and it appears the organization is transitioning from being basement dwellers to an intriguing team worth watching in 2024.

With that being said, the Pirates aren’t quite yet ready to take the leap into legitimate contention. Or at least ZiPS doesn’t think so.

ZiPS is a player projection system created by FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski, who has spent the past two decades developing the model. Here is Major League Baseball’s summary of how the system works:

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ZiPS uses past performance and aging trends to develop a future projection for players. On FanGraphs, the projections are updated daily and predict each player’s numbers over the course of the remainder of the season… Obviously, no one is claiming that every ZiPS prediction will come true, but it is widely regarded as one of the most accurate predictors in the industry.

sZymborski Projection System (ZiPS)”

Back in December, Szymborski released his 2024 ZiPS projections for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and there was a good amount to dive into for the rebuilding ball club. Let’s take a look at who the projection system likes, and which players could be in line for a step back in 2024.

Pirates ZiPS: Position Players

Pittsburgh’s lineup will feature a mixed bag of players in 2024. The top half of the order will spotlight many of their foundational roster pieces, while the back half of the lineup will be a combination of young players looking to carve out a roll in the big leagues, and veterans yearning for a bounce-back campaign.

ZiPS isn’t particularly optimistic on any of the names in their lineup, but the system isn’t overly-negative on the group either. Here are the top takeaways from the Pirates’ position players:

  • Can Jack Suwinski be a foundational piece? – Suwinski took a major step forward in his sophomore season last year. He outperformed his 2023 ZiPS projections nearly across the board, and he ended the year with a 2.8 WAR (versus a projected WAR of 1.0). Suwinski is projected to be one of Pittsburgh’s best hitters in 2024, as he’s slotted for the highest wRC+ (118), the most homers (26), and the second-most RBIs on the team (73). He’s also projected to have the third-best WAR among positional players (2.2).
  • Which version of Bryan Reynolds will we see? – Bryan Reynolds took a slight step back offensively in 2023, and he widely underperformed against his 2023 ZiPS projections. This season, ZiPS has him slotted for very similar production to his 2023 output. With projections including a 112 wRC+, an OPS of .790, and a 2.6 WAR, the system thinks he will be closer to the version we saw last year rather than the player who put up a 140 wRC+ and a 6.0 WAR season in 2021.
  • Tame projections for Oneil Cruz – After playing just nine games in 2023, ZiPS is giving Oneil Cruz nearly identical projections from a season ago. While he’s tied for the fourth-best projected WAR on the team (2.0), the system projects just 15 steals, 19 homers, and a 102 wRC+. These projections feel quite modest for a player with his level of potential. Admittedly, he still needs to iron out some wrinkles in his game, but Cruz can smash these projections if he remains healthy in 2024.
  • Better days are ahead for Henry Davis – Davis came up well-short of his 2023 ZiPS projections last season. He ended the year with a -1.0 WAR (0.3 projected), 78 OPS+ (102 projected), and a subpar wRC+ of 76. However, despite the subpar performance, ZiPS actually has more optimistic projections for Davis heading into the 2024 season. He is slated for a 1.6 WAR and 103 wRC+ to go along with improvements in both the contact and power hitting departments. With Endy Rodriguez on the shelf, Davis now gets a full-time role behind the dish, and that serves to be favorable for his offensive expectations.
  • One final ride for Andrew McCutchen? – In 2023, McCutchen put up his best season since 2019. He ended the year with a 115 wRC+ and a 113 OPS+ in 390 plate appearances, but ZiPS believes there is a drop off coming for the 37 year old. He’s slotted for a noticeable dip in wRC+ (97), and the system is projecting his OPS to dip back below .720. McCutchen could be looking to empty the tank with the Pirates in 2024 while serving as a valuable mentor in the clubhouse for the young players around him.

Pirates ZiPS: Pitching Staff

Starting Pitchers

ZiPS doesn’t see a lot of upside in Pittsburgh’s starting rotation. Outside of Mitch Keller, the system has middling projections for many of the names in the rotation.

That being said, while they might not be standout projections, ZiPS feels there are a handful of players who can be viable starter options in 2024. Here are the top takeaways from the Pirates’ starting pitchers:

  • Mitch Keller is the anchor of the starting rotation – Keller was a fun breakout for the Pirates last season. He surpassed his 2023 ZiPS projections and became the rock at the top of the starting rotation. He ended the season with a 4.21 ERA (4.37 projected) and a FIP of 3.80 (4.06 projected). Additionally, he ended 2023 with a WAR of 3.3, which was over double his projected WAR of 1.5. ZiPS likes Keller to repeat a similar level of success in 2024, as he is slotted for the best ERA (4.11), FIP (4.01), and WAR (2.7) in the starting rotation for the Pirates.
  • Can Roansy Contreras stick as a starter? – Contreras had a brutal 2023 season (6.59 ERA, 5.19 FIP, 1.57 WHIP), but it was especially disappointing considering his ZiPS projections from last offseason were quite optimistic (4.05 ERA, 4.02 FIP). However, the system likes him to bounce-back to some degree in 2024 and be a serviceable arm for the Pirates. It has him at a 4.33 ERA to go with the best projected FIP in the starting rotation (4.01). Whether the Pirates use him as a starter or a reliever is yet to be seen, but he’ll have an opportunity to regain his footing in 2024.
  • Martin Perez was a valuable veteran addition – The Pirates signed Perez to a one-year contract back in December, and ZiPS feels he could be a valuable veteran addition to help keep the starting rotation afloat. The system is projecting him for the second-best ERA (4.16) to go along with the third-best FIP (4.20) and WAR (1.8) in the starting rotation.

Relief Pitchers

The bullpen is the area on Pittsburgh’s roster where ZiPS is the most optimistic. The system is projecting an abundance of arms who will be viable contributors in 2024. The structure of the bullpen outside of Bednar might be a work in progress, but ZiPS is high on a lot of the names in this group.

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Here are the top takeaways from the Pirates’ relief pitchers:

  • The Pirates could have a deep group of viable relivers – Last offseason, ZiPS only had two relievers projected for an ERA under 4.00 (David Bednar and Robert Stephenson, who is now a Los Angeles Angel). This year, ZiPS is a bit more optimistic by upping that number to four relievers (David Bednar, Aroldis Chapman, Ryan Borucki, and Dauri Moreta). If Pittsburgh’s bullpen can match or exceed their optimistic projections, the Pirates will have pretty deep group of serviceable arms.
  • ZiPS remains skeptical on Colin Holderman – Holderman was a steady performer in the Pirates’ bullpen last season. In 58 appearances, he put up a 3.86 ERA and a 3.29 FIP, which were both significantly better than his 2023 ZiPS projections (4.58 ERA and a 4.14 FIP). However, despite his successful season, not much changed with his ZiPS projections heading into 2024. He’s slotted for very similar ERA and FIP numbers (4.50 and 4.40, respectively) from an offseason ago.

Pirates ZiPS: Final Thoughts

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a solid foundation to build upon. They have some intriguing names who will carry the offense in 2024, but the lack of firepower in the back half of their projected lineup puts a cap on their potential. For the 2024 season, ZiPS believes Pirates fans should expect similar offensive results from a season ago.

The starting rotation has a lot of question marks. ZiPS once again likes Mitch Keller to lead the way as the team’s top starter, but it gets cloudy after that. The rotation features an abundance of decent arms with low upside, but high floors. That should provide the club with some solid depth options throughout the season.

As mentioned, ZiPS is high on Pittsburgh’s bullpen. It’s a deep group that features several reliable arms, and it could be the club’s greatest strength this season. There might not be a whole lot of star-power in the bullpen, but ZiPS likes them to have a successful 2024 campaign.

Overall, the upcoming season will likely be another developmental year for the Pittsburgh Pirates. ZiPS has them winning 75 games, and the system anticipates a lot of mediocre production from a vast majority of their roster in 2024. However, despite their underwhelming projections, there are a handful of players that will make the Pirates worth watching this season as they trend in the right direction.