The Pittsburgh Pirates had a winning season this year in large part to their starting rotation. It wasn’t the Opening Day rotation that led to their success. It was the depth throughout the season that kept the Pirates afloat. The Pirates ended up using 12 starting pitchers, and most of those starters made an appearance in the first three months of the season. They didn’t have many pitchers who were removed from the rotation for poor performance. Instead, they had an abnormal amount of injuries. The only way they were able to contend was because they always managed to have a pitcher available at the right time.
Below is a timeline of the starting pitching injuries, and the players who stepped up as replacements.
Opening Day Rotation – A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeff Locke (Starting Pitcher Count: 5)
It only took about two weeks until the Pirates needed a replacement. Wandy Rodriguez left his second start early with a hamstring injury, and needed a replacement for his third start. The Pirates called up Phil Irwin for the spot start. Irwin had only made one start in Triple-A prior to that outing. He didn’t have the best outing, but the Pirates ended up winning the game 10-7 in come from behind fashion. Irwin was shut down for a few weeks after that with dead arm. He made one more start at the end of April, then was shut down and eventually had elbow surgery.
Spot Starter – Phil Irwin (Starting Pitcher Count: 6)
The Pirates lasted a few weeks until they needed another starter. Jonathan Sanchez struggled in the rotation, and was replaced by Jeanmar Gomez. Gomez had been pitching long relief in a lot of the previous starts Sanchez made, due to his poor performance. That made him a perfect candidate to take over, as he was already stretched out, and already throwing on the same schedule as Sanchez. Gomez would remain in the rotation for another month.
Jonathan Sanchez Replaced by Jeanmar Gomez (Starting Pitcher Count: 7)
The Pirates had another starting pitcher struggling early in the season. James McDonald had a strange 2012 campaign. He looked like an ace in the first half, and looked like a Triple-A starter in the second half. The hope was that he would fall somewhere in the middle in 2013. Instead, his velocity was down early in the season, he was getting hit hard, and there was fear of an injury. The Pirates placed him on the disabled list in early May, which was convenient for them, since it coincided with Francisco Liriano getting healthy. Liriano made his first start on May 11th, and ended up turning into the ace of the staff. He pitched so well that he was a runaway winner for the 2013 Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year award.
James McDonald Replaced by Francisco Liriano (Starting Pitcher Count: 8)
From this point forward, the Pirates mostly had good performances. The only times they needed to replace anyone was when they had an injury come up. They also had an extremely lucky streak where they always had a starting pitcher available when someone else went down. The Pirates were hit with back to back injuries in the first few days of June. On June 2nd, Jeanmar Gomez suffered a forearm injury. Three days later, Wandy Rodriguez was removed from his start with a forearm injury. The injury for Gomez wasn’t as bad, and he was able to return by the end of the month. Rodriguez never returned, suffering a series of setbacks throughout the season.
The Pirates called up top prospect Gerrit Cole to replace Rodriguez in the rotation. Cole never went back down. He didn’t start off looking like an ace, but never really had a bad start in his first few months of the season. Cole really took off toward the end of July when he started using his slider more as an out pitch. In the month of September he looked like an ace, and the Pirates trusted him enough in the playoffs to pick him over A.J. Burnett for Game 5 of the NLDS.
Two days after Cole made his debut, Charlie Morton returned from his recovery for Tommy John surgery. Morton had inconsistent command at first, but looked good when his command was on. Command is one of the final things that comes back after Tommy John surgery. Morton’s command finally returned in the beginning of August. In his final 11 starts of the season he put up a 2.67 ERA in 67.1 innings, with a 47:24 K/BB ratio. Morton’s sinker was also working well, leading to the biggest ground ball percentage (62.9%) of all starting pitchers with 110+ innings pitched (Morton had 116). This was also the 15th best ground ball rate by a pitcher with 110+ innings since 2002 (ground ball percentages weren’t available before that). In that time, Derek Lowe (5 seasons), Brandon Webb (5 seasons), Roberto Hernandez (2 seasons), Chien-Ming Wang (1 season), and Tim Hudson (1 season) were the only starters to go 110+ innings in a season with a ground ball rate better than Morton.
Morton and Cole were a huge boost for the rotation, especially in the second half when they both were putting up top of the rotation numbers.
Wandy Rodriguez and Jeanmar Gomez Injured; Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton Added (Starting Pitcher Count: 10)
The next injury to the rotation was to the leader of the staff, A.J. Burnett. The right-hander went down with a calf tear on June 9th. This came shortly after Rodriguez and Gomez went down. As a result, the Pirates had to turn to Brandon Cumpton. Lost in all of the previous injuries was the fact that the Pirates entered the season expecting to have Jeff Karstens and Kyle McPherson as depth. McPherson went down early with an elbow injury, and eventually needed Tommy John surgery. Karstens ended up missing the entire season with a shoulder injury. So at best, Cumpton would have been the 13th best option for the rotation on Opening Day.
Perhaps that makes Cumpton the poster child for the depth of the 2013 rotation. He ended up making five starts and six appearances for the Pirates. He threw 30.2 innings, and had a 2.05 ERA, with a 6.5 K/9 and a 1.5 BB/9. If you would have said on Opening Day that Cumpton would have made five starts, no one would have thought the Pirates would have been a playoff team. But by the end of the season, there were some who wanted Cumpton to replace the struggling Jeff Locke. Cumpton made two starts to replace Burnett, then was optioned when Jeanmar Gomez returned. He returned a week later for another spot start after Jeff Locke was unavailable, due to warming up in the bullpen in an extra innings game.
Burnett returned to the rotation on July 7th, after missing a month of action.
A.J. Burnett Injured; Brandon Cumpton Added (Starting Pitcher Count: 11)
The Pirates had a long stretch without needing another starter, after using 11 in the first three months of the season. After Burnett returned, they stuck with the same five man rotation of Liriano, Burnett, Locke, Morton, and Cole. The only time they used another starter was on July 30th, when Cumpton came up to pitch Game Two of a doubleheader. Technically Jeff Locke missed a start, but that came right before the All-Star break, and the Pirates used the break to skip Locke without using another starter.
They didn’t need another starting pitcher until September 1st when rosters expanded. Locke had been struggling in the second half, with a 7.94 ERA in 22.2 innings in the month of August. During that time he had a 16:16 K/BB ratio. The Pirates decided to skip him on September 1st, giving Kris Johnson a spot start. Johnson had an appearance a few weeks earlier in an extra innings game. He threw six innings, giving up two runs on five hits. The two runs ended up being the deciding runs, but the overall performance was enough to get Johnson another start. There was also the fact that his opponent, the Cardinals, did worse against left-handers. The start didn’t go well, with Johnson giving up five runs on seven hits in two innings.
Jeff Locke Skipped; Kris Johnson Spot Start (Starting Pitcher Count: 12)
The Pirates went with their second half rotation for the rest of the month of September. The only changes came in the final weekend of the season. The Pirates used an off-day to skip Jeff Locke and keep everyone on five days rest, allowing them to line up A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton, and Gerrit Cole for the final weekend of the season in a critical series against the Reds. The Pirates won the first two games, making the final game of the season pointless. As a result, they turned to Cumpton for the final start of the season, saving Cole as a backup for the Wild Card game.
Final Rotation: Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole
The Pirates had a tale of two seasons. In the first three months of the season they needed 11 starters. Two members of the Opening Day rotation were removed due to performance, although you might be able to chalk James McDonald up to an injury. Wandy Rodriguez was eventually removed with an injury. Burnett and Locke were the only starters who began and finished the year in the rotation. Burnett missed a month in the middle of the season, and Locke struggled in the final two months.
In the second half the Pirates only used seven starters. They used Brandon Cumpton twice — once for a spot start and once in a meaningless game. They used Kris Johnson once in order to skip Locke. Other than that, the rotation was pretty steady in the second half, with the Pirates sticking to the same five starters for the final two and a half months.
The results in the first half were good. The starters combined for a 3.27 ERA, although the xFIP for the rotation was 3.82, showing that they probably were a bit lucky. That xFIP was tied for 14th in the first half, showing that the Pirates had an average rotation before the break.
It was a different story in the second half, to the point where it was the exact opposite. They had a 3.80 ERA in the second half of the season, which was largely due to the struggles from Jeff Locke. However, the xFIP was 3.26, which was the second best in the majors behind the Dodgers.
In 2014, the Pirates will have four members of their final rotation returning. Francisco Liriano has a vesting option which was already vested. Charlie Morton is arbitration eligible for one more season. Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke are both under control, with Cole being a guarantee for the rotation. Locke had a poor finish to his season, but overall his numbers were good, and he deserves another shot at the back of the rotation.
Wandy Rodriguez is likely to return next year. He has a $13 M player option, and he will almost certainly pick that up due to his injury in 2013. The Pirates are only on the hook for $7.5 M of that, with Houston picking up the rest. If healthy, Rodriguez will be in the rotation, although the Pirates need to consider any production from him as a bonus.
The other key is whether A.J. Burnett returns, or whether the Pirates find a free agent alternative for Burnett. If Rodriguez is healthy, then that would most certainly push Jeff Locke to Triple-A at the start of the year, serving as the sixth starter.
In the long-term, the Pirates are loaded with pitching options. Jameson Taillon will be next year’s version of Gerrit Cole, and will be followed in future years by top pitching prospects like Nick Kingham, Tyler Glasnow, and more. The Pirates have a very pitching rich system. They have also shown the ability to find buy-low options like A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano. The 2013 season was an example of what happens when a team is loaded with quality starting pitching options. The internal options, and the ability to find gold on the free agent market should ensure that the Pirates are led by a successful rotation for years to come.