Pittsburgh Pirates 2013 Season Recap: The Starting Rotation

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.

A.J. Burnett was the Opening Day starter for the Pirates. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

A.J. Burnett was the Opening Day starter for the Pirates. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

Francisco Liriano

Francisco Liriano provided a huge boost to the starting rotation in mid-May. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

Gerrit Cole looked like an ace by the end of his rookie season. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Gerrit Cole looked like an ace by the end of his rookie season. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

The Pirates had the second best xFIP in the second half, in large part because Charlie Morton (pictured) and Gerrit Cole joined Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett with top of the rotation numbers. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The Pirates had the second best xFIP in the second half, in large part because Charlie Morton (pictured) and Gerrit Cole joined Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett with top of the rotation numbers. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

The Future

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.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

    Tim…a correction

    “In the long-term, the Pirates are HOPEFULLY loaded with pitching options”

    When it comes to pitching, S**t happens….lol

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      I think they’ve got enough pitching options that they’ll be able to overcome the s**t happens aspect of pitching. I’ve got another article going up later on the 2014 depth that looks at this.

  • piratemike

    Tim, do you know what happened to Locke? Was he just lucky in the first half and it finally caught up to him or did he wear out? I always heard during his great run that his numbers couldn’t hold up but I never really understood why. I guess when it comes to sabremetrics I don’t get the luck part.
    Is it possible for him to get back to where he was or will we never see that again?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      In the first half he wasn’t that good. He was due for regression since he was stranding an unsustainable amount of runners.

      But he wasn’t as bad as the second half. He had problems with control, but he also saw too many hits falling in.

      Going forward he should be somewhere in the middle, as a strong number four starter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

    Locke reminds me a lot of ex-Brewer/D-Back Doug Davis. In fact, if you take a look at their K/9, BB/9 and WHIP rates, it’s kind of freaky how similar they are. Davis was known for never giving in to hitters, which consequently meant he was always pitching out of the stretch, which, oddly, was effective for him (consider that he pitched during the heart of the steroid era – almost exclusively in hitters ballparks – and his metrics look even better).

    I bring this up because it seems everyone is trying to run Locke out of town on a rail, or at least push him to AAA. Crazy thought: maybe he’s just fine as he is. OK, a bit more consistency might be in order, but Doug Davis fashioned a nearly 300-start career of above league-average ball by pitching the same style. If that’s Locke’s destiny, just about any team would take him for its 4th/5th starter.

    I’d be interested in everyone’s thoughts.

    • emjayinTN

      I agree with tim’s estimation that he was too good to last in the 1st half and not as bad as it looked in the 2nd half. Locke said that his arm felt fine, but he will learn as he matures as a MLB pitcher that he was on overload in the 2nd half. He expended a lot of energy from February on trying to make the team and once he got a few victories behind him he started to pitch with confidence. He was a celebrity in his first time out and made the All Star Game.

      All of this took an emotional toll and when the base hits started falling in during the 2nd half, he quit attacking the inner third of the plate and started pitching very tentatively – in short, he lost his confidence and it showed. His pitches were over the heart of the plate and up. Not a whole lot of innings pitched compared to his previous years, but when you give up 80 walks in 30 starts, the number of pitches thrown per inning magnifies the wear and tear on the arm and the head.

      Locke and Cole are under contract for a long time. Wandy is going to pitch for us in 2014 because he has the option to do so. And, I hope we find a way to sign Burnett. From there, we have two guys we would like to keep, but they will both be Free Agents after 2014 – Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton. We all know about Liriano, but Morton was being paid $2.4 mil in 2012 where he only pitched 50 innings due to injury. He took a cut to $2 mil for 2013 as a result of the injury. He did very well in 2013 and I expect his Arbitration number will be in the area of $4.5 – $5.5 mil, and he will turn 30 a month from now. Liriano can bring a lot on the trade market; Morton not as much, but coming in as strong as he did after the TJ surgery, he could be a possible target for teams either in the off-season or at the trading deadline in 2014. The way the Pirates are set with young RH arms, I doubt he will be a target for us to sign to a Free Agent Contract.

      • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

        Matt Swartz (who is super-accurate at this) pegs Morton’s arb figure at $3.9m. Personally, I’d love to not only keep him but extend him while the cost remains reasonable and his trade value is low.

        • leadoff

          I agree, I would try to extend Morton, a good year next year and he is out of the Pirate price range.

  • skliesen

    It sure looks like this is the beginning of a sustained run of excellence on the mound at PNC. All the pieces are in place for, dare I say it, a Braves circa 1990′s type of pitching run.

    What a glorious time to be alive Pirates fans! Let’s enjoy the ride and trust NH doesn’t screw it up by deviating from the plan (trading away Liriano or Morton) to chase rainbows and unicorns.