Pittsburgh Pirates: How Teams Fare With Player Development

(Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images) /

Acquiring and developing young talent to be used to help the current Major League team is a staple of every franchise.  The Pittsburgh Pirates have seen two former prospects develop more slowly, and overall they’re in the bottom tier in generating value through their player development process.

Every stable of a Major League team is their goal in trying to develop minor league players acquired in the rule four draft, international free agency, or trade to supplement their roster; whether that supplement is from them being called up or being used as trade currency depends on the current state of the 25-man roster.  Teams like these young players as they are both cost effective and are under team control for up to six (or parts of seven) seasons.  The theoretical goal is these players can supplement the current core, or a team can supplement a young core by spending money in free agency.

Not all growth of players is linear, despite the old school thinking a prospect needs x amount of plate appearances or innings at level y.  Juan Soto last season progressed more rapidly than any prospect in recent history and Aaron Hicks took years, and getting out of Minnesota, to reach the talent evaluators thought he had.

For the Pittsburgh Pirates, there are two players that stick out in terms of growth in player development: current first baseman Josh Bell and former pitcher Tyler Glasnow.  Bell and Glasnow originally made their debut’s in the summer of 2016, and both saw time back in Triple-A Indianapolis after.  Both have had their ups and downs, but early on in 2019 the returns have been solid for both players.

Josh Bell

After clubbing 26 home runs in his first full season of 2017, Bell hit just 12 last year as his offensive profile went more towards an on-base approach; the switch hitter saw an increase in his on-base percentage going from .334 to .357.  But he’s produced similar wOBA’s in his career, hovering around the .337 range.  Below are his actual wOBA numbers, and then estimated wOBA’s from my own model and Baseball Savant’s:

Josh Bell Career Numbers

This season, it looks like Bell has turned a corner, already adding 9.0 runs above an average player (wRAA) to the Pirates this season.  For reference, Bell provided 9.9 runs in 2018 and 9.1 in 2017.  This version of the switch hitter has been much better, especially considering what he was seen as by scouts (note the grades go present/future).

Josh Bell Scouting Grades
YearFVHitRaw PowerGame PowerRunFieldingThrow
Only a power grade was available for 2016

In 2017, Eric Longenhagen wrote,

"“I think Bell’s ability to walk and limit his strikeouts makes for a promising big-league foundation. I also think the power he displays as a left-handed hitter will allow the overall profile to play at first”"

Bell’s bat played a bit average, as his wRAA borderlines the average to above average threshold.  He was a projected above average player, averaging around three wins a season.  Bell was supposed to be around a .280 hitter with 20 home runs a season.  Instead, combined with his below average fielding, Bell has been a seemingly disappointing player:

Josh Bell Wins

But this year, Bell is different.  He’s already been a worth a win via Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference’s model.  His wOBA, est_wOBA, and xwOBA show that Bell is hitting the ball hard at optimal angles, and he has simplified things and stopped tinkering.  The work he’s put in with Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz is notable when you look at the distribution of his exit velocity and launch angles:

This year, Bell has his peak centered around 94 miles per hour, and he doesn’t have much spread around it (standard deviation of just 11 mph).  Bell has consistently hit the ball hard through the first month of the season, and there’s not as much in the left tails as 2018.  Consistently hitting the ball hard is the most important part of this two part equation:

Bell has hit the ball harder and he has a higher percentage of his batted balls at an angle optimal for hitting the ball for doubles and home runs.  Hitting the ball at such high angles isn’t always good, but Bell is providing the speed off the bat to do so.  What he has done so far to start the season is optimize his attack angle and swing; the bat path and timing is allowing him to drive the ball in the air and get into that power.

It’s early on, but it looks like full year three is the year Bell has finally started to put everything together.  It took him to stop tinkering in the box, and the result is him driving the ball with power the size dictates.

Tyler Glasnow

Entering the 2018 season, I thought the Pirates should try to turn Glasnow into an Archie Bradley 2.0 type reliever.  He did only pitch out of the bullpen in Pittsburgh, to a 4.34 ERA, before being sent to Tampa Bay for Chris ArcherWhile the trade value of the players lined up, I concluded that,

"“Both teams are betting on the upside of the players, and if Meadows and Glasnow (the two Major League ready players) can stay healthy and get it to click, the Pirates will have overpaid.”"

So far this season, it looks like Glasnow has clicked; the right-hander has posted a 1.47 ERA, 28.8 percent strikeout rate, and 4.4 percent walk rate.  The thing for Glasnow is that the underlying numbers were already there:

Tyler Glasnow Career Numbers

Last season in Pittsburgh, Glasnow had a 2.88 DRA and 3.63 FIP.  He pitched better than the RA9 and ERA looked, in large part because he was missing bats.  Now, Glasnow is able to pound strikes (50.1 percent of his pitches are in the zone) and he gets ahead of batters (63.8 percent first pitch strikes).  He’s different, a change of scenery helped, and he said last year, “They gave me so many opportunities, and I didn’t show them what I could do.”  This year, Glasnow mentioned, “The work I put in the offseason and the changes I made in my mentality are really starting to pay off.”  This version of Glasnow is what the Pirates thought they were going to be getting, it’s what the scouts saw in him:

Tyler Glasnow Scouting Grades

Scouts saw him as a mid rotation starter with a plus fastball and curveball, but it came with risk, given his control.  In 2017, Glasnow was the 26th top prospect in the sport and he had the following right up:

"“He remains one of the higher-upside arms in the minors but needs to find a better changeup and command in the next year or two before he’s relegated to the bullpen. If he does he’s a front-end arm.”"

In 2017, Glasnow struggled and after starting the year in the big league rotation he was sent down to Triple-A Indianapolis.  Last season, he pitched all year in the pen as the Pirates tried to grow his confidence.  So far this season, Glasnow has put it all together and it has led him to win AL Pitcher of the Month in April.


For the Pirates, they do have some prospects in the minor leagues that could turn into solid hitters and they rank around the 10-13 range in farm systems.  We also know that Neal Huntington likes the upside in Tahnaj Thomas, and they made the move based on the acquisition cost and how they feel that Thomas projects.  It’s also estimated the Pirates have generated $10 million in value, ranking 19th, from their farm system in the years from 2012-18.

Bell and Glasnow, despite it still being early, finally look to be reaching their potentials in full year number three.  But for Glasnow, that realization is happening elsewhere, and it’s coming with him dropping from a 65 prospect entering 2016 to a 55 prospect entering 2017.  That difference is about $37 million in value, and for a team reliant on building from within, that’s a large loss.  That leaves a question: how much much should the Pirates be penalized for Glasnow and how much credit should the Rays receive?  Roughly the same question is there for Bell, but more in terms of length of time to reach this status, which is also there for Glasnow.

Driveline has published a mini series (part 1 and part 2) researching the impact and value of player development.  In their seven year period (2012-18), they found the Pirates have generated $10 million in value, but breaking that into buckets, the Pirates produced $12.5 million from 2012-15, and -$2.5 million from 2016-19.

Because of the difference in win cycles and chances to add prospects at different points, Driveline took this into consideration.  They found the Pirates from 2016-19 rank about two spots lower in Baseball America’s organization rankings than expected based off the surplus value they’re able to generate.  Their next section of what they looked at was wins above expectation,

"“To gain a sense of the savviest teams in the free-agent market and/or other means of player acquisition, we extrapolated our Value Generated metric into an expected winning percentage over the past seven seasons.”"

The Pirates are fourth, with 5.04 wins higher than expected over this period.  This is where Neal Huntington has most thrived, finding under valued players in free agency or trades and the coaching staff making small tweaks to improve performance with the Pirates.

For Glasnow, this is where the Pirates development becomes a concern.  Driveline found that in this seven year sample, the club has generated $26.1 million in value from hitters but -$16 million in value from their pitchers; a difference in $42 million in value.  But to answer the question regarding Glasnow and the changing of systems, this is the section of Driveline’s research that answers the question,

"“For our analysis, we assumed that any change in FV for a prospect within one year of being traded was caused by switching from one organization to another. As a result, a team would be rewarded for improving the FV of an incoming player within one year of arrival, whereas the other team would be punished by an equal amount……some teams will benefit from trading players to organizations with worse player-development departments, whereas other teams may fall victim to random variation or trading valuable pieces before maturation.”"

The Pirates have generated $40.4 million in value from the changing of systems by players ranking ninth, whereas Tampa Bay has generated -$137 million, but Driveline makes sure to note that a lot of the production by the players they acquired in the upper levels hasn’t occurred yet, mostly with their pitchers getting hurt.

This is a case-by-case basis, however, and selling on Glasnow when the underlying results were there indicates Pittsburgh did have *some* level of his development.  But his prospect status lost value in his last two years of eligibility and the results didn’t match the metrics.  In Tampa Bay, Glasnow polished some things and got his mind right, pitching like that 65 prospect.  If Glasnow was valued as a 50 in Pittsburgh at the time of the trade (a potential setup guy or low end closer), that’s a debit of $53 million to the Pirates and a credit to the Rays.  Even with conservative estimates of a 55 pitcher going to a 60 pitcher, that’s an $18.7 million credit to Tampa Bay.

The Rays, at minimum, gained around $20 million in value just by helping Glasnow maximize that potential, an indictment of the Pirates developmental process they had with the right-hander.  The club hasn’t had success with developing pitchers over the last seven years, and perhaps a change of strategy is needed; see Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton‘s success moving from a “three pitch or less, weak contact” philosophy to a “high breaking ball usage, miss bats” philosophy.

Chris Archer Trade: Be Careful What You Wish For. dark. Next

There is a chance that this is too much credit to Tampa Bay for development when luck could play a factor, so Driveline regressed their over all value generated number.  The Pirates, still 19th, have generated $1.7 million through their developmental process, essentially breaking even.  With the goal to not have windows and to build from within, the Pirates have struggled at developing players, and it’s perhaps time to start rethinking about the processes they go about in developing both hitters and pitchers.

*All scouting grades and reports from Fangraphs