The Pirates Have a Playoff Pitching Staff of Reclamation Projects

The Pirates Have a Playoff Pitching Staff of Reclamation Projects

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 has gone from a guy with an ERA over 5 the last two seasons, to an ace. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Francisco Liriano has gone from a guy with an ERA over 5 the last two seasons, to an ace. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

The Pirates got five years of Jeanmar Gomez for Quincy Latimore. (Photo credit: David Hague)

The Pirates got five years of Jeanmar Gomez for Quincy Latimore. (Photo credit: David Hague)

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.

Pirates Prospects is FREE today in honor of the Wild Card game. You get special access to all of our content, which is typically reserved only for subscribers. We cover the Pirates 365 days a year, with live coverage all throughout the playoffs, and off-season coverage of the minor league players in the Arizona Fall League and Winter Leagues. During the season we average well over 6 articles per day on the Pirates. This is the best stop if you're a hardcore Pirates fan, and the subscription prices are very low.

Our lowest rates are $2.22 per month under our Top Prospect Plan, which also gets you a FREE copy of the 2016 Prospect Guide -- a book that features profiles on every prospect in the system. We also have a promotion with DraftKings where you can get a FREE one-year subscription to the site by signing up as a new DraftKings customer and making a $5 minimum deposit. Subscribe today for our full playoff coverage, and all of our daily coverage of the Pirates' system.

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, 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.

More in Analysis

(Photo Credit: David Hague)

Forget Jake Arrieta — Gerrit Cole Could Be This Year’s Madison Bumgarner

Tim WilliamsOctober 6, 2015
(Photo Credit: David Hague)

Jake Arrieta Doesn’t Think PNC Park’s Atmosphere Will Impact His Performance

Tim WilliamsOctober 6, 2015
(Photo Credit: David Hague)

Giles: Pirates Staying Aggressive on the First Pitch

Ed GilesOctober 5, 2015

Pirates Prepare For Another PNC Blackout After Today’s Victory

Tim WilliamsOctober 4, 2015
(Photo Credit: David Hague)

Home-Field Advantage for Wild Card Game Comes Down to Game #162

Pete EllisOctober 4, 2015
(Photo Credit: David Hague)

Here’s Why You Don’t Run on Starling Marte or Gregory Polanco

Tim WilliamsOctober 3, 2015

Pirates Prospects is an independent media outlet, and is in no way affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates, their minor league affiliates, Major League Baseball, or Minor League Baseball.

Copyright © 2015 Pirates Prospects