The Pittsburgh Pirates wouldn’t be here today without their pitching. The team has been successful this year due to pitching and defense making up for an offense that can be weak and streaky at times. The amazing thing about that pitching staff is how cheap they have come. Most of the starting pitchers have been reclamation projects who were coming off down years, and bounced back once they came to Pittsburgh. The bullpen guys were either struggling starters in the minors, or guys who had low values with other teams.
“I think one of Neal Huntington’s strengths is in the pitching compartment of the game, a great reader and evaluator on pitchers,” Clint Hurdle said to the media today. “So from the selection process, the acquire process, I do believe we’ve got a program built up throughout our minor league system, our player development system with Scott Mitchell and Jim Benedict that’s as good as anybody’s. I also know the buy-in from Ray Searage and Euclides Rojas, our two pitching coaches here, has tremendous value as well.”
Here is a look at the pitchers on the current NLDS roster, with a snapshot of how they were doing before they became factors for the Pirates.
Francisco Liriano – He had a 5.23 ERA in 291 innings over his previous two seasons before coming to the Pirates.
A.J. Burnett – Like Liriano, Burnett struggled in his two years before joining the Pirates. He had a 5.20 ERA in 377 innings during that time.
Gerrit Cole – Cole was a first overall pick who was projected to be an ace, so he doesn’t fit in with the “reclamation” theme.
Charlie Morton – He had a 6.15 ERA in 74.2 innings with the Braves in 2008. The Pirates converted him to a sinker ball pitcher, and he’s been a totally different pitcher since 2011.
Jason Grilli – He was sitting in Triple-A in 2011, where anyone who wanted him could have signed him as a free agent.
Mark Melancon – He had a 6.20 ERA last year with Boston, although the advanced metrics suggested he would improve. The Pirates got him as one of four players for one year of Joel Hanrahan.
Tony Watson – Watson was struggling as a starter in Double-A, then was moved to the bullpen and is now one of the best lefty relievers in baseball.
Justin Wilson – The Pirates took Wilson in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. He was a college junior at the time, and signed for slot.
Vin Mazzaro – He was acquired from the Royals for two players from the DSL after being designated for assignment.
Jeanmar Gomez – The Pirates got Gomez in exchange for Quincy Latimore, who is now playing for the Washington Wild Things.
Bryan Morris – He was one of four players acquired in the Jason Bay trade, and one of the key parts of the deal. So he’s not exactly a “reclamation” project.
That’s a pretty amazing list, especially when you consider that the Pirates pitching staff this year as a whole was tied for third in the majors in xFIP. The Detroit Tigers were first, the Los Angeles Dodgers were second, and the Atlanta Braves were tied for third. All three of those teams paid a lot more for their pitchers, opting for a lot of “proven” pitchers instead.
“At the end of the day, the pitchers deserve a lot of the credit,” Hurdle said. “They’re the ones making the transition. They jokingly call themselves at times a bullpen of failed starters. And if you do the work on them, you’ll see every one of them has been tied to an opportunity sometime in their career they were starting.”
It’s true that the pitchers deserve credit here. A lot of them had to make adjustments to their game to see these results, with the biggest adjustment being the buy-in to the Pirates’ approach of throwing sinkers and two seam fastballs to generate more ground balls. But the Pirates are an interesting case study in building a pitching staff. With the volatility of pitchers around the league — both starters and relievers — does it make sense to pay pitchers big money? Can you get by with reclamation projects, failed starters in the bullpen, and banking on rebounds based on advanced stats like xFIP? Or is this a fluke for the Pirates that can’t be repeated on such a wide scale?
I’d have to think it’s something that can be repeated, since the Pirates had similar success in previous years. A big reason they’ve made it to the playoffs this year is because they keep adding to their group of cheap pitchers. In 2012 they added A.J. Burnett. This year they added Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon, Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro, and called up Justin Wilson.
The downside to volatility is that it works both ways. You can’t count on any of the above pitchers for success next year. However, you can count on the Pirates loading up with plenty of depth options who could be in next year’s successful group. As Hurdle said, Neal Huntington seems to have the eye for pitching. We can see that in the majors, and we can also see that with all of the pitching talent in the minors, even with middle round picks like Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, or even Brandon Cumpton and Phil Irwin. Ultimately that’s going to be the skill that determines whether the Pirates remain contenders, or go one and done this year.