Bucs' 10 most intriguing storylines for '23

March 30th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Justice delos Santos’ Pirates Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

The regular season, at long last, is finally here.

We can no longer chalk things up to “just being Spring Training.” The stats will count. The wins and losses will count. Everything will count.

There was no shortage of Pirates who adjusted, who innovated, who tinkered during Spring Training. Now, it’s time to see how those adjustments shake out over a full season. Here are 10 things to keep tabs on this season:

’s pull rate
Since 2020, Hayes has a 25.7 percent pull rate, ranking 159th out of 160 players with at least 1,000 plate appearances. This spring, by contrast, Hayes had a 32.4 percent pull rate in ballparks with Statcast. Hayes, evidenced by his 89th percentile average exit velocity, can already hammer the baseball, but pulling the ball more consistently might help Hayes tap into that raw power.

& ’s changeup usage
At the beginning of Spring Training, Contreras and Ortiz both discussed that they were working on their changeups, pitches that they seldom used last season. Last season, Contreras threw his changeup 2.9 percent of the time, while Ortiz, in a very limited sample, threw his changeup 5.1 percent of the time.

Contreras’ fastball velocity
On the subject of Contreras, his average fastball velocity will be worth monitoring as the season goes along, especially with the Pirates counting on Contreras to pitch a full season. In April and May, Contreras’ fastball velocity sat just around 97 mph. By September, Contreras’ fastball was down to 94.5 mph. In a limited sample during Spring Training (not including his start in the World Baseball Classic), Contreras was at 94.3 mph.

’s sweeping curveball
Brubaker will begin the season on the injured list, but during Spring Training, Brubaker got roughly four more inches of horizontal movement on his curveball compared to last season. Brubaker said he wanted to “push the limits of not getting to a complete slurve, but get a little more horizontal with the vertical drop on it.”

’s cutter and gyro slider
Ever the innovator, Keller added a cutter and a gyro slider, both of which he throws with the same grip. As things stand, Keller has seven pitches in his arsenal: cutter, gyro slider, sinker, sweeper, four-seam fastball, changeup and curveball.

’s … everything
After teasing his talents last season, Cruz will play his first full Major League season and will have a chance to showcase what he can do over a full 162. Will he approach the 30-30 club or 40-40 club? Will he take a step forward on defense? Can he continue reducing his chase rate as he did at the end of last season? Can he hit a ball harder than 122.4 mph?

’s LH/RH splits
So far, Castro has been significantly better from the right side than left side of the batter’s box. As a right-handed hitter, he’s hitting .273/.322/.591 with a 148 wRC+. As a left-handed hitter, he’s hitting .201/.273/.336 with a 71 wRC+. The Pirates have not indicated that Castro would transition to hitting exclusively right-handed, but considering more switch-hitters are swinging from just one side, it’s worth keeping tabs on Castro’s splits.

’s K%
With the caveat that Spring Training stats should be taken with a grain of salt, Suwinski, who altered his batting stance this offseason, struck out in 24 of 52 (46.1 percent) plate appearances during Spring Training. As a rookie, Suwinski’s 30.6 percent K% would’ve been the fourth-highest in baseball had he qualified.

’ defense
Reynolds will play in left field on Opening Day, and it appears that there’s a good chance he could regularly see time there this season. In 2021, Reynolds was worth 10 outs above average in center field. In 2022, by contrast, Reynolds was worth -7 outs above average. Reynolds has graded out well in left field in his career, accumulating seven defensive runs saved across 1,080 2/3 innings. If Suwinski grades out well in center field, there’s a possibility Reynolds operates more like a full-time left fielder again.

’s milestones
In the coming months, McCutchen has several statistical boxes he can check off. He’s 105 games away from 2,000 games. He’s 13 home runs away from 300 home runs. He’s 17 walks away from 1,000 walks. He’s eight doubles away from 400 doubles. “I feel like I can do better than what I’ve done,” McCutchen said. “I don’t care about what projected numbers or what they say about age. I don’t care. I know in the back of my mind what I’m capable of doing.”