Back at the start of April, when the 2023 MLB season kicked off, the Pittsburgh Pirates were doing Pittsburgh Pirate things. They lost their first two games, mustering a paltry three total runs. Their Opening Day starter, free-agent acquisition Rich Hill, lost despite seven strikeouts. Their other free-agent acquisition, Vince Velasquez, took the L in their second game. It seemed like we were heading toward another lost season for the Bucs.
That assumption has turned out to be outrageously incorrect.
The Pirates sit 17-8 atop the NL Central, fresh off an 8-1 shellacking of the Dodgers (yes, the Dodgers). Sure, it's only April, and the MLB season is LONG, but let's examine what's fueling the Pirates' early success and see if fantasy managers can capitalize.
Let's take a brief look under the hood. The Pirates' pitching staff is tied for second in MLB with 17 total wins. They're eighth in team ERA and first in saves (David Bednar FTW!). They're eighth in runs scored, ninth in batting average and seventh in OPS. They don't strike out; they're 24th in the category as a team. They sit seventh in team walks, and perhaps most interestingly, they stand alone at the top of MLB with 34 stolen bases.
Talk about taking advantage of the new rules, right?
The team has an xBA of .260 and an xBA against of .242. Basically, the Pirates are firing on all cylinders right now, playing fast and loose on offense along with some quality starting pitching to pair with an elite closer.
The last time the Pirates lost back-to-back games? That aforementioned two-game series against Cincinnati, back in the season's opening week.
While most of us don't expect this to last all season, I wanted to highlight three players in particular who are helping to fuel the Pirates' early run of success and see if they're just flashes in the pan or deserve to be rostered in more leagues.
Mitch Keller, SP, 44% rostered
Long considered one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, Keller has had quite the rough road in his early MLB career. It's not hyperbole to say Keller was one of the worst starters in baseball from 2019 to 2021. But things took a bit of a turn last season, and reports that Keller had been revamping his entire repertoire have carried over into this season, along with the increased fastball velocity he featured in 2022. His cutter, in particular, which he introduced this season, has been a boon, and the surface stats speak for themselves.
Of course, his 1.25 WHIP speaks with an ominous tone; he's still walking too many batters, and his BABIP might take a downward turn once things regulate. That said, Keller's advanced stats are likely inflated by his history of abysmal production, so while his xERA is 4.17, I don't expect it finish the season that high. Keller should definitely be rostered in more leagues, especially if you're in good shape in the WHIP category — just don't be afraid to jump ship if negative regression hits hard.
Jack Suwinski, OF, 27%
Another prospect the Pirates have had in the chamber, Suwinski has been fully unleashed this season, delivering eye-opening numbers across the board. He even stole two bases in the aforementioned win against the Dodgers — and this is a guy whose highest steals total in the minors was seven.
The 24-year-old is a Statcast darling as well; while his batting average looks set to regress, Statcast is loving and buying into his power numbers. He's currently projecting a gaudy .661 SLG!
The key for Suwinski has been an increase in walk rate and a slight decline in strikeouts; his patience at the plate is paying off. Twenty-seven percent rostered is too low for a guy who (don't laugh) has been one of the best hitters in baseball. Go add him and hope he not only continues to mash but also joins the Pirates' stolen base party the way he did Wednesday.
Vince Velasquez, SP/RP, 25%
Does the 30-year-old Velasquez qualify as a Scott Pianowski classic "boring veteran" play? Credit to him for bouncing back from an opening-week loss to deliver two straight quality starts (and two victories). Like Keller, Velasquez is walking too many hitters (4.10 BB/9), but that's elevated for him; he should be in the mid 3s, so expect some regression to the positive mean there. In fact, Statcast is projecting a .210 xBA against and a quality 3.54 xERA.
Of course, we can't ignore Velasquez's opponents: Neither the Reds' nor the Rockies' offenses have been particularly potent in the first month of the season. But therein lies the advice for him: For as long as the Pirates are winning, Velasquez looks like a quality one-and-done streaming option, and what better time to start him up than this weekend when the Pirates take on the lowly Nationals. He should see his rostered percentage balloon ahead of what could be a smooth win.