Pittsburgh Pirates: Two Potential Surprise Veterans for 2023

Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays - Game Two
Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays - Game Two / Vaughn Ridley/GettyImages

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a few veterans who could deliver a surprising 2023 season.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a very young team. With many rookies and top prospects, it’s a team that has many fresh faces. But there are some veterans, many of whom have a decent chance of making a positive impact on the Pirates in 2023. But which could be the most surprising?

Robert Stephenson has some very under-the-radar potential. When the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Stephenson from the Colorado Rockies, he had a 6.04 ERA, 4.66 FIP, and 1.48 WHIP. The only positive of his season with the Rockies was his 6.6% walk rate. But this came with a strikeout rate of just 18.8% and a home run rate of 1.61-per-9. But after 13.1 innings with the Pirates, he only allowed five earned runs with just a single walk and 18 strikeouts.

13.1 innings is too small of a sample size to make a decent conclusion about his future, but he has displayed a strong slider throughout his career. Last year, Stephenson’s slider held batters to just a .179 batting average, a .357 slugging percentage, and a .264 wOBA. The 44.4% whiff rate was higher than Gerrit Cole’s, Dylan Cease’s, Shane Bieber’s, or Camilo Doval’s slider whiff rate.

With the new shift rules, I think Ji-Man Choi is going to have a big season. Last season he posted a solid .233/.341/.388 line and 115 wRC+ with the Tampa Bay Rays. Choi walked at an impressive 13.8% rate. His isolated slugging percentage clocked in at .154, which was still above the league average. Despite a down year for his standards, Choi still showed off great raw power, averaging out at 92.2 MPH exit velocity (top 93rd percentile) and 45.7% hard-hit rate (top 88th percentile). 

According to Baseball Savant, the only expected statistic Choi was below average in was expected batting average. Choi was in the 72nd percentile of expected wOBA so that already points to potential improvement next season. He also had an outstanding first half of 2022, where he had a 145 wRC+. An arm injury plagued him down the line, but he recently had surgery to fix the issue.

However, the most important stat to look at was his splits with the shift on vs. the shift off. Choi was shifted on 83.9% of the time and registered just a .304 wOBA when the position players changed their defensive positioning. But in the 16.1% of the time opponents didn’t shift on him, he had a .405 wOBA. A .304 wOBA is what Tommy Pham and Nick Castellanos put up last season. A .405 wOBA is what Ketel Marte posted in 2019 and slightly better than what Fernando Tatis Jr. had in 2021.

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Now that’s not to say that Choi will go from a solid platoon hitter to an MVP candidate, but it is reasonable to expect improvement. Choi is now fully healthy, with new rules favoring him. It wouldn’t be entirely unexpected for him to have a career year.