The Pirates Rotation Has Some Red Flags, But Still Projects to Carry the Team

The 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates season begins on Monday when the Pirates take on the Cubs. To prepare for the start of the year, I’ll be previewing all of the position groups on the Opening Day roster. Here are the previews we have so far.

The Pirates Rotation Has Some Red Flags, But Still Projects to Carry the Team – READING

The Pirates Won’t Have to Wait For Gregory Polanco to Have a Top Outfield

Pirates Will Once Again Have Strong Infield Defense and Offensive Questions

The Pirates are Returning a Bullpen That Was One of the Best in Baseball

The Pirates Have a Bench That Can’t Hit Right-Handers

Last year the Pirates were successful in large part due to their rotation. The rotation combined for a 3.50 ERA, which ranked fifth in baseball. Their 3.57 xFIP, which tied for third, suggested that this was no fluke. The 2014 rotation will be missing A.J. Burnett, but the Pirates are also getting full seasons from Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton. The rotation does have some red flags due to injury concerns, but the Pirates have plenty of depth, which played a big role in their ability to maintain a strong rotation throughout an injury plagued season last year.

The Pirates still have a few cuts to make, so some position groups like the bullpen and the bench aren’t finalized. The rotation is finalized, which makes this group a good place to start the season previews. Although the fact that the rotation played such a huge role in the success of the 2013 Pirates is all the reason you’d need to begin any group of previews with a look at the 2014 starting staff.

Francisco Liriano was the ace of the staff last year, and projects to be the ace again this year.

Francisco Liriano was the ace of the staff last year, and projects to be the ace again this year.

Francisco Liriano

Liriano is coming off a year where he looked like an ace. In 161 innings, he had a 3.02 ERA, which was supported by his 3.12 xFIP. A large portion of his success came at home. Typically, players perform better at home than on the road. In Liriano’s case, the split was extreme. He had a 1.47 ERA at PNC Park, and a 4.33 ERA on the road. The xFIP numbers were both in the 3.10-3.15 range, so this could just be a combination of luck, and PNC’s park factors helping a left-hander.

There are two concerns with Liriano heading into the 2014 season. The first concern is the fact that he has never put up two good seasons in a row. He had a 3.62 ERA in 2010, then struggled in 2011 with a 5.09 ERA. He had a 3.91 ERA in 2008, followed by a 5.80 ERA in 2009. In 2006 he had a 2.16 ERA, and he missed the 2007 season with an injury.

I’ve never really bought in to the “every other year” theory, because there’s no reason to justify that this is predictive analysis. It’s ridiculous to say that Liriano won’t have a good season this year because last year he had a good season. His performance last year will have no impact on his pitching this year.

If you look at the advanced metrics, you’ll see a trend that explains the “every other year” phenomenon. Here are the xFIP numbers for Liriano by year, along with his BB/9 ratios.

2006: 2.38 xFIP / 2.38 BB/9

2008: 4.25 / 3.79

2009: 4.48 / 4.28

2010: 2.95 / 2.72

2011: 4.52 / 5.02

2012: 4.14 / 5.00

2013: 3.12 / 3.52

When the walks were up, Liriano struggled. When they were down, he produced some of his best seasons. Liriano had decent control last year with the Pirates. He’s always been a guy who can strike out nearly a batter an inning, with the exception of the 2011 season, when the strikeouts were down. PNC Park will help reduce his home runs, as will the focus on generating ground balls. As long as Liriano maintains his solid control numbers, he should have another good season.

The second concern with Liriano is his tendency to be injury prone. This is more concerning than the “every other year” issue, because it does provide some sort of predictive analysis. When healthy, Liriano should do well in the rotation. But expecting Liriano to make 32-33 starts and pitch 200 innings is a stretch. Last year he threw 182.2 innings between the minors and the majors. In 2010 he threw 191.2 innings. In 2008 he went 199.1 innings between all levels. In 2005 he went 191.1 innings between all levels. Liriano has been playing full-season ball for ten years now, and in that time he has only gone over 160 innings four times.

There’s not much the Pirates can do about this, except to be prepared with a lot of depth. When healthy, I expect Liriano to do very well.

Steamer: 192 IP, 3.41 FIP

Oliver: 164 IP, 3.72 FIP

ZiPS: 161 IP, 3.12 FIP

Charlie Morton looked like a strong middle of the rotation starter after returning from Tommy John surgery.

Charlie Morton looked like a strong middle of the rotation starter after returning from Tommy John surgery.

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton returned from Tommy John surgery in the second half of the 2013 season, and by the end of the year he was pitching like a strong middle of the rotation starter. However, his history raises questions as to whether he can repeat that success. With most players, history is a good thing to look at when determining the future possibilities for a pitcher. In Morton’s case, you can throw all of that history out the window.

The Charlie Morton today and the Charlie Morton before the 2011 season are two different pitchers. The Pirates overhauled Morton’s game in 2011, making him a sinkerball pitcher with a new delivery. The result was a 3.83 ERA in 171.2 innings. However, that success was short-lived.

Morton struggled in 2012, then went down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. His struggles were tied to the injury, since he couldn’t throw his sinker or his curveball without pain, thus eliminating his two best pitches. Since the switch in 2011, Morton has been a strong pitcher when he is healthy.

Health would be the big concern going forward with Morton. However, he did combine for 156.2 innings last year between all levels, and the Pirates have been taking steps with his mechanics to avoid stress on his arm. You could probably pencil him in for at least 160 innings, with anything else being a bonus. Personally, I think he will exceed that 160 inning mark this year. As for the results, most of the projection systems factor in his entire body of work. It’s not the most scientific approach to eliminate everything and just point to last year, but in Morton’s case, I think the circumstances warrant that type of approach.

Steamer: 182 IP, 3.79 FIP

Oliver: 130 IP, 4.10 FIP

ZiPS: 121.1 IP, 4.06 FIP

Wandy Rodriguez Pirates

Wandy Rodriguez looks healthy heading into the 2014 season. (Photo by: David Hague)

Wandy Rodriguez

Rodriguez has looked good in his time with the Pirates. In 2012 he had a 3.72 ERA in 75 innings after the trade that brought him to Pittsburgh. In 2013 he had a 3.59 ERA before the injury that shut him down for the year. His advanced metrics were both worse than his ERA, although as a lefty, PNC Park probably helped him out-perform those metrics.

The biggest question coming into the year was whether Rodriguez would be healthy. He tried returning last year, but had setbacks each time. All throughout Spring Training he looked good, and said that he was healthy after each start. After his last start, Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle said that Rodriguez still isn’t where he was before the injury.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s competitive,” Hurdle said. “He’s not where he can get. But it’s good to see him healthy, it’s good to see him taking the ball.”

It’s possible that Rodriguez could continue to improve as the season goes on and he gets back to pitching. He looked good enough in Spring Training that he could probably go out and put up league average numbers at the start of the year. He’ll still get help as a lefty in PNC Park. Rodriguez is a wild card, but he’s not the huge question mark he was coming into camp.

Steamer: 144 IP, 3.86 FIP

Oliver: 142 IP, 4.09 FIP

ZiPS: 119 IP, 3.85 FIP

Gerrit Cole looked like an ace at the end of the 2013 season. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Gerrit Cole looked like an ace at the end of the 2013 season. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Gerrit Cole

If I’m listing these pitchers based on their expected production, and not based on the Opening Day rotation order, then Cole would be at least number two on the list. He was exceptional during his rookie season, looking like an ace by the end of the year. He had a 3.22 ERA, which was supported by a 3.14 xFIP. He also threw over 190 innings when you include the playoffs and the minor leagues. There’s a good chance that Cole could throw 200 innings this year, while putting up numbers that would rank him among the top 30 starters in the game.

Last year, Cole relied heavily on his fastball when he first arrived in the majors, throwing the pitch about 80% of the time. Eventually he started moving to his slider, which is his best out-pitch. Once he incorporated the slider more often, the results started to come and he started looking like an ace. He’s been working on a slurve, which would give him more separation from his upper 90s fastball and his upper 80s to low 90s slider and changeup.

As long as Cole goes with the slider as his primary out pitch, he should be great. The curveball can help, since it will give him another look, and a pitch that isn’t in the 88-101 MPH range. Cole is still young, and still improving his game — whether that’s adding new pitches or making his current pitches more effective. He was already looking like a future ace in his rookie season, and if he continues to improve, the results could be scary.

Steamer: 182 IP, 3.62 FIP

Oliver: 149 IP, 4.05 FIP

ZiPS: 163 IP, 3.53 FIP

Can Edinson Volquez be the next big reclamation project?

Can Edinson Volquez be the next big reclamation project?

Edinson Volquez

The biggest question mark in the rotation is Edinson Volquez. He’s the latest reclamation project for the Pirates, although the early results don’t look promising. I wrote about Volquez extensively here. The summary is that his curveball and changeup look good, but the mechanical adjustments and his fastball command lack consistency at the moment. Some innings he’ll look great, and some innings he will struggle.

The Pirates are going with Volquez in the rotation, much to the dismay of Pirates fans. I’m a little more optimistic on Volquez than most. I’ve liked the secondary stuff, and I trust the Pirates’ pitching coaches to do a good job and get his mechanics to a consistent point. I don’t know if Volquez will be the next Liriano, but I do think he will be capable of producing league average numbers. It seems that the projection systems agree.

Obviously the uncertainty makes Volquez the biggest red flag in the rotation. If people were taking bets on where the depth would be used first, I’m sure almost everyone would predict Volquez. I’d expect the Pirates to give him two months, or a month if his results are Jonathan Sanchez-esque. But I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that Volquez will be a disaster.

Steamer: 48 IP, 4.12 FIP

Oliver: 180 IP, 4.36 FIP

ZiPS: 164.2 IP, 4.15 FIP

The Depth

The Pirates have the makings of a talented rotation, but they also have some injury concerns. Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, and Wandy Rodriguez all have a poor injury history. Edinson Volquez raises red flags due to his recent struggles. It’s very likely that the Pirates will need to turn to their rotation depth this year, possibly more than normal.

Last year the Pirates’ starters pitched 925 innings. If you average the above innings projections for all three projection systems, you get about 750 innings from the above five pitchers. That means the Pirates will need to find 175 innings from their depth, or about a full season. Fortunately they have enough options that they should be able to get that amount, and more if necessary.

Brandon Cumpton would be the top option as far as early-season depth. He looked good in Spring Training, and had a lot of success last year in his brief time in the majors as a depth option. Cumpton isn’t as good as his 2013 results would indicate, but he does profile as a guy who could be a back of the rotation starter in the majors.

Jeff Locke had a great first half last year, then a horrible second half. He wasn’t as good as the first half, but he also wasn’t as bad as the second half. I view Locke as a guy with strong number four starter upside, which is about the mid-point between his two halves last year. I think Cumpton has jumped him on the depth chart, especially with Locke dealing with an injury this Spring, which prevented him from getting fully stretched out. However, he could make it back to the majors for another shot at the rotation this year.

Phil Irwin is another early-season depth option, although he needs to show that he is healthy first. Irwin has been starting at Pirate City and getting stretched out, and looks to be ready for the start of the season. He’s another guy with back of the rotation potential, but the Pirates would need a lot to go wrong in the first month of the season to go to him.

The biggest depth option this year is Jameson Taillon. The top pitching prospect was expected to arrive by mid-season, much like Gerrit Cole did last year. However, an elbow injury has him sidelined for a month, and he will go on Monday for a second opinion. This could push back his debut, although he should pick up the bulk of the necessary innings, even if he doesn’t arrive in mid-June.

Of course the Pirates have Jeanmar Gomez and Stolmy Pimentel at the major league level, and both pitchers could make early season starts, before the team would have to turn to Triple-A. They also have Casey Sadler in Triple-A. Sadler is a good sinkerball pitcher, and those guys tend to have success in Pittsburgh with the defensive shifts and a strong infield defense. Nick Kingham will start the year in Altoona, but could make the jump to Pittsburgh by the end of the season, much like Cumpton and Locke have done in the past.

The depth options above give the Pirates eight pitchers who can start in the majors, beyond the Opening Day rotation. That doesn’t include Kyle McPherson, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and could return in the second half. It doesn’t include the deep emergency options like Jay Jackson or Vance Worley, who currently profile as Indianapolis rotation depth with Taillon out and Locke not fully stretched out. But if the Pirates get to Worley and Jackson, they probably won’t be contending this year. Then again, you could have said the same thing about Kris Johnson before the 2013 season.

The Pirates maintained a successful rotation in 2013 in large part because of the deep rotation depth that they had. It looks like they’ll have similar depth this year, which is good due to the red flags in the Opening Day rotation.

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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  • https://www.facebook.com/steve.peipock Bonds Top Hand

    Tim: While I agree whole heartedly with the depth in our system. But how many times can you go to the well before the bucket comes up empty, or with a snake inside and you get bit? Hopefully, we don’t have a need to go 12 deep this year for starting pitching options.

  • bmcferren

    You don’t win the comeback player of the year award twice for no reason. Our starting pitching is the biggest weakness of the team. This first base gossip is just a facade. With Taillon down, we need to go out and get an ace. Now that we’ve locked up Marte, that makes Meadows, Bell, OF prospect etc… accessible! Bring in Price and lets win the World Series

    • Mr_Southpaw

      But seriously….please do. It’s not like this team won 94 games last year…oh wait… And Tallion is supposed to out for about a month, so that’ll just move his MLB debut back to sometime in July, sometime between the All-Star Break and Trade Deadline. So why would we give up the farm to get a pitcher who would only be blocking one of our top prospects in a few months? C’mon man.

      • bmcferren

        For the same reason that we signed a guy to a 6 year contract that will block prospects that we’ve accumulated in depth at the same position. We let go a starting pitcher who produced 10 wins and a 3.30 era and replaced him with a guy who won less games and a 5.71 era. A few less wins and we wouldn’t have played the wild card game in Pgh and Cueto would have heard his name in a different tune and we wouldn’t have advanced in the playoffs. Acquiring a bonafied ace would block noone but Volquez

        • Ian Rothermund

          Just….baffled. Baffled.

        • leowalter

          That is about as ridiculous a comment as I have seen this side of Smizikstan.

    • leowalter

      Are you serious ? If so, you had better get a reality check .

  • https://profiles.google.com/105668650510920614054 Brian Bernard

    Any staff with 3 or 4 potential aces is an awesome staff. I loved Burnett but this staff is just as good without him, and I mean that. If Volquez doesn’t perform, which is worth the effort, you have a 2013 all-star and a young and really accurate righty to choose from – how many teams have that kind of depth? That is putting aside Taillon, due to – if it’s me – being ULTRA cautious with him. He’s too important. I love the rotation as the strongest, by FAR, part of this Pirates team.
    Now that all the positives are out of my system, I am less optimistic about the bullpen repeating the sucess of last year and in particular, I am less optimistic about our closing options. However, spring brings hope!

    • piraddict

      I agree with you Brian. Starters look solid. But relievers look primed for regression. Will Grilli stay healthy at what, 37? Will Melancon regress if teams mimic the Cards in the playoffs and are patient on his slider off the plate against RHH, looking to dump it into RF? I think Watson will be solid, but Wilson needs to recover last year’s form. Which relievers further down the pecking order will they keep? So a lot of questions will need to be answered.

  • leadoff

    I like Cumpton a lot and think he could be as high as a number 3 in some rotations. I also like Volquez. He hit 95 last time out, mechanics looked good, breaking stuff was very good, location was off a bit early, did not get hit hard at all, not to mention there was no game planning, he was not on the same page as Sanchez early on, but Sanchez said when they got on the same page everything started to click. I think Volquez was a very good pick up, you never have enough depth and he is not normally an injury red flag situation, can get you a lot of innings normally. Last year I said I liked Gomez out of ST and some people thought I was nuts, how did he do last year?

  • leadoff

    One more thing about Volquez. The guy most responsible for bringing him here was Ray Serage. Serage said that he told Huntington at the winter meetings that he though Volquez would be a good pickup and Huntington went with it. A lot of people are claiming they know more than Serage these days, I am not one of them.

    • leowalter

      Obviously,mcferrin knows a LOT more than Searage and Benedict.

  • esd4

    “I do think [Volquez] will be capable of producing league average numbers. It seems that the projection systems agree.”

    What? This is insane. You quote the projection systems just four sentences later, and it’s clear that they don’t think he’s league average. Are you under the impression that the league average FIP is somewhere between 4.12 and 4.36? It’s not. Last year, it was 3.87. For the NL only it was 3.77. Even if you use starters only, it was still just 3.95.

    You can tell the projection systems don’t think he’s average by looking at WAR. Volquez’s Oliver projection is worth 0.3 WAR in 180 innings. Steamer is 0.2 WAR in 48 innings (0.75 WAR per 180). ZiPS says 0.7 WAR in 165 innings. These projections are much closer to replacement level than they are to average.

    That’s on fangraphs, so it’s using FIP, just like you do. But all these projection systems project Volquez’s actual production (ERA) to be at least a third of a run per nine worse than his FIP, because he’s a terrible pitcher and terrible pitchers tend not to live up to their peripherals.

    You can think Volquez is average all you want, but no one who’s looking at it objectively believes that, and the projection systems most certainly don’t. What you are saying here is flat-out false.

    It might be worth pointing out that fangraphs, using only ZiPS and Steamer projections, ranked our starting rotation 22nd in MLB. They could certainly outperform their projections, but it’s a much less rosy outlook than the one you provide here.

    • Y2JGQ2

      4.12 is not much different than 3.92….. what are getting so fired up about. The difference is insignificant. Volquez is horrible, with the upside of being average. Think Andrew Lambo.

      • Y2JGQ2

        and i’m also kind of interested in what you think the difference between “average” and “replacement level player” is. By definition, they are equal

        • esd4

          What? replacement level is far, far below average.

      • esd4

        2/10 of a run per nine innings is not insignificant. It will add up to about four runs, which is almost half a win, over 180 innings. And comparing Volquez to 3.92 makes no sense, since I already explained that NL average is more like 3.77.

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

      A 3.95 ERA over 180 innings equals 79 earned runs in a season.

      A 4.15 ERA over 180 innings equals 83 earned runs in a season.

      So you basically are arguing over four runs spanning the course of a season.

      • leowalter

        You are getting more than a couple of shaky comments here recently Tim.

      • esd4

        Four runs is about half a win. That is not insignificant. Besides that, average isn’t 3.95. I already told you that NL average was 3.77 last year. The difference between 3.77 and 4.15 is 7.5 runs. Based on last year’s run environment, 7.5 runs is about .85 wins. Again, this is not insignificant.

        Furthermore, I also pointed out that the projection systems think that Volquez will be much worse than his FIP. They project an ERA between 4.48 and 4.71. The average NL ERA in 2013 was 3.74. The difference between 4.5 and 3.74 is 15.2 runs over 180 innings, which is almost two wins.

        Not surprisingly, the result is that these projection systems call for WAR of 0.5, give or take, for Volquez over 180 innings. As I already pointed out, this is closer to replacement level than average.

        I don’t know whether you consider it inaccurate or petty or incorrect or what that I’m arguing about a few runs. But whatever the case, you are being even more inaccurate or petty or incorrect or whatever. The projection systems do not agree that Volquez will be average. It would be more correct to say that the projection systems agree that Volquez will be replacement-level, although that isn’t correct either. What the projection systems say is that Volquez projects to be about 1.5 wins below average if the Pirates are dumb enough to let him pitch 180 innings.

        It does not surprise me that you don’t think 1.5 wins is a big deal, since you didn’t think it was important that the Pirates sign A.J. Burnett, which would have improved the team by roughly that much. If you want to dismiss 1.5 wins, fine. That’s just like your opinion man. But don’t straight-up lie about what the projection systems say.

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

          Last year the NL average ERA was 3.86. The FIP was 3.82.

          The debate isn’t about wins. It’s about classifying a guy as having league average numbers. When you’re talking about that, you’re not talking about one specific number. You’re talking about a guy who could come close to that number.

          If you’re talking about a specific number, then there was only one league average pitcher in the NL last year, and that was Marco Estrada with a 3.87 ERA (I’m assuming we’ll give a 0.01 difference a pass). So do we expand that number to include guys who surround the actual league average? Or do we go with an extremely specific term, and in the process, give zero value to that term since it only talks about 1-2 players who rank somewhere in the middle of the pack as far as performance goes?

          This has nothing to do with the win value of the extra runs. It’s about haggling over the definition of league average numbers. You’re using a very specific number, and I’m using a range.

          • Dom DiDominic

            If you are talking about two #1 type guys, two better than league average and one slightly above league average……SIGN ME UP. Especially with Cumpton & Locke early and JT & Philthy Phil close behind.

          • esd4

            I don’t know where you’re getting your numbers, but BB-ref lists 2013 NL ERA as 3.73. Fangraphs has 3.74.

            Using fangraphs, let’s get a range of average NL pitchers from last year, as you suggest. Fangraphs lists 352 NL pitchers for last year. Let’s divide that into quintiles, and we’ll say that the middle quintile (41-60%) is average. That will give us a nice range – a fifth of NL pitchers – and we’ll call that range average. So a quintile would be 70 pitchers, and the middle quintile would be numbers 141-210. What’s the range for average, then?

            Well, pitcher 141, Patrick Corbin, had an ERA of 3.41, and pitcher 210, Kevin Slowey, had an ERA of 4.11. So that’s the “average” range.

            And what do you know? Volquez’s projected 4.48+ ERA does not fall in that range. Even his FIP does not fall in that range, though the most optimistic projection, 4.12, is close.

            So even if you use a range, Volquez does not look like an average pitcher, according to the projections.

            I do not have a problem with you using a range to define average. That’s not the problem. The problem is that Volquez just isn’t average, or even particularly close to it, by any definition of the word. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, he is closer to replacement level than he is to average, so if there’s any “range” that he could accurately be said to belong to, it is the range of pitchers who provide no value at all.

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

              You’re using NL pitchers. I’m using NL starters. You add relievers and specialists to the mix and you’re going to lower the overall numbers.

              • esd4

                Okay. The middle quintile for NL starters is from 3.60 to 4.46. Again, Volquez’s projected ERA falls outside of that range. If you limit it to pitchers who threw more than 100 innings, Volquez looks even worse, so I won’t bother.

                If you use FIP to make Volquez look better, the middle quintile would be 3.81 to 4.30. Two of the projections think he’ll be in that range, while one doesn’t. Maybe you can hang your hat on that.

                Tim, do you disagree with me about Volquez being closer to replacement than to average?

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

                  I think Volquez will be closer to average than replacement.

                  • esd4

                    Sorry. Let me rephrase. Do you disagree with me that the projections systems (Oliver, ZiPS, Steamer) project Volquez to be closer to replacement than average?

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

              Last year, 50 IP minimum, there’s 187 NL starters.

              Using the 41-60% range for FIP, you get 3.79-4.12.

              Volquez is projected for a 4.12, 4.15, 4.36. The one I respect the most, ZiPS, has him as a 4.15. So it’s not a stretch to say that he will have league average numbers.

              Also, you’re using NL only. I typically think of things from an MLB average, since that’s the approach you usually take when projecting prospects and their future potential. The MLB average is higher.

              • esd4

                How is it not a stretch? Because he’s in the range of being in the range? That doesn’t make any sense. I gave you a full 10% on either side of average for your range, and Volquez couldn’t even get there.

                By the way, the numbers you’re using *are* for all MLB. The middle quintile for NL only (50 IP minimum) is 3.67 to 4.00.

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

                  Correct. I had it set to NL, then it switched back somehow. Seemed high to have 187 starters for the NL.

                  I honestly didn’t look at the 2013 league numbers when writing the article. The league average range has been higher in previous years, usually in the 3.95-4.30 range. So I guess the question we’d have to ask is whether the drop in numbers in 2013 is something we should use as gospel (in which Volquez falls just outside of the range), or something that is an outlier from normal years, where Volquez is in the average range.

                  • esd4

                    Actually, we don’t have to ask ourselves that question at all. We can just look at the projected ERA+, which will tell us exactly what the projection system thinks about Volquez’s ERA relative to league average. I don’t know where to get projected ERA+ for Oliver or Steamer, but it shouldn’t matter, because ZiPS is the system you respect most. ZiPS projects an ERA+ of 80 for Volquez. That’s 20% below average. That’s a hell of a range.

                    Or you could look at WAR, like I’ve been saying, which is right there on Volquez’s player page, and it clearly indicates that the projection systems do not think Volquez is anywhere close to average.

                    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/2014-zips-projections-pittsburgh-pirates/

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

                      I don’t use ERA+.

                    • esd4

                      Fine. ERA-? Volquez is 121, 21% worse than average. FIP-? Volquez is 111, 11% worse than average. WAR? Volquez projects for 0.2 WAR per fangraphs at the link above. Do you use any of those stats?

                      I’ll ask again, straight up: according to ZiPS, your preferred projection system, does Volquez project closer to average or replacement?

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

                      I’ll just go with my answer from earlier. I think he’ll end up being closer to average than replacement this year.

                    • esd4

                      So you won’t answer the question?

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

                      I’m trying to get the rest of my season previews done. I don’t really have time for this pointless debate.

                    • esd4

                      So you won’t answer the question. Got it.

                      Since you won’t answer the question, I’ll go ahead and answer it for you (since it’s not a matter of opinion but one of fact). The projection systems available at fangraphs think that Volquez is roughly a 0.5 WAR player if given a full season of IP. This is nowhere close to average. In fact, it is closer to replacement level. You were either lying, mistaken, or delusionally optimistic in this article when you said that the projection systems agree with you that Volquez could be a league average pitcher.

                      You may think this debate is pointless, but I will try to explain to you why I think it matters. You are the preeminent Pirate blogger and among the fanbase what you say carries at least as much weight as what anyone else says. Yet because you’re your own editor and publisher, you’re not subject to any accountability, so you can be dishonest or make mistakes or get delusionally optimistic and there’s no one to stop you or call you out. The problem with that is that this dishonesty and mistaken-ness and delusion leaks out to the fanbase, poisoning the whole discussion.

                      I’m sure you’re aware that there’s a large segment of the fanbase that thinks Volquez is pretty decent, and the reason they think that is because you’ve been pushing that opinion since he signed. But if you’re disingenuous or mistaken or delusional, then all these people are being misled. I think that’s a bad thing. I think, if you have values higher than making money or promoting the Pirate organization, you too should care about whether or not you are misleading people. That is why I think this debate matters. And I would assume that you’d think so too, for the same reasons.

                      Saying it doesn’t matter is basically telling me, just one guy among many guys who read your blog, that you don’t care about getting things right. You don’t care whether you tell us the truth. You don’t care whether we get accurate information from your site. That bothers me. In fact, it pisses me off.

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

                      Yeah, I’m not reading this essay.

                    • zombie sluggo

                      Yeah, I was semi-enjoying you trying to justify the numbers to esd4 until his last rant. I skipped right over esd4’s post to see yours telling us you skipped over that post. :)

                    • esd4

                      zombie sluggo: Do you disagree with my claim that the projections say that Volquez is closer to replacement level than to average?

                    • zombie sluggo

                      Hardly the point.

                    • leowalter

                      You are a complete fool if you think you are going to win a completely pointless debate on this,or any blog. Go back and bury your nose in Fangraphs while you try to find the numbers to make your case …….with yourself.

                    • esd4

                      leowalter: Do you disagree with me that the projections say Volquez is closer to replacement level than to average?

                    • leowalter

                      you have already won the ” smartest kid in the room ” award for Friday,s give it a freaking break ! Let be.

                    • piraddict

                      esd4: The projection systems are based on historical data and can’t account for any improvements that Searage and Benedict may be able to accomplish with Volquez. Tim believes that Volquez will be improved by the Pirates staff and will be an average or better pitcher as a result. I certainly hope so since the Pirates are committed to him, even though I opposed signing of Volquez believing pitching either Pimental or Cumpton this year would likely lead to the same or better results and set the Pirates up better for 2015. You may be correct in the way you cite statistics, but statistics may mislead in many ways. We will find out soon enough if Volquez can be improved. Let the games begin!

                    • esd4

                      I am not arguing about whether Volquez can outperform the projections. I am arguing about what the projections are. Tim said something about the projections that is demonstrably untrue. I am just pointing that out.

                    • stickyweb

                      esd4, has it really been worth the thousands of words you typed when you look at it like this:

                      Tim’s original comment – “I do think he will be capable of producing league average numbers. It seems that the projection systems agree.” – Actually a little squishy in that he’s saying Volquez is “capable” of being avg, not that he definitely will be. And the projections “seem” to agree, not that they are saying definitely he will be.

                      And from one of your myriad posts – ” If you use FIP to make Volquez look better, the middle quintile would be 3.81 to 4.30. Two of the projections think he’ll be in that range, while one doesn’t. Maybe you can hang your hat on that.’
                      Tim didn’t use FIP to make Volquez look better, he used it because he thinks it’s the best stat. That’s why it’s the only stat he listed (other than IP) for each starter in his story. So once you looked at the stat Tim was using and employ NL starters to establish the avg range (seems pretty reasonable), 2 of the 3 projections agree with Tim’s assessment. “The projections seem to agree” seems like the perfect wording for this analysis.
                      So your accusations of Tim being dishonest, mistaken, delusional and demonstrably untrue seem a little harsh, since you showed the majority of the projections agree with him.

                    • impliedi

                      What a funny world we live in, where people are arguing over which PROJECTIONS are more CORRECT! There’s this weird thing about the future…it’s in the future. Anyways, I don’t have any worries about Volquez. Almost every single #5 in a rotation in MLB is a question mark: usually a young guy trying to prove he belongs, an older player trying to reestablish value, or a journeyman. So, if we’re really worried about comparing who’s projection is the most accurate, I submit that we compare Volquez with all of the other #5’s in baseball and project how he’ll do in comparison to those guys, instead of comparing him to all of the starters in baseball.

                    • esd4

                      We are not arguing about which projections are correct; we are arguing about what the projections actually say. Tim thinks they say Volquez is pretty close to average, but he is wrong.

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

                      I’m not wrong. This is your quote:

                      “If you use FIP to make Volquez look better, the middle quintile would be 3.81 to 4.30. Two of the projections think he’ll be in that range, while one doesn’t. Maybe you can hang your hat on that.”

                      I used FIP in the article. Two of the projections have him in that range for FIP.

                      You point out that the average for FIP is in the 3.81-4.30 range. And you point out that two of the projections think he will be in that range. Yet you’ve spent 13 hours now arguing over me saying the exact same thing.

                    • esd4

                      Tim, I do not point out that average is in the 3.81-4.30 range. I point out that the middle quintile for NL starter (no IP minimum) FIP is that range. That is only one way to define average, and it’s a very liberal way, since it includes 10 percent on either side, and few reasonable people would describe a 110 FIP- as average.

                      Moreover, that is the only one of the many ways we looked at this in which Volquez looks close to average. All of the other ways of looking at it (correctly) indicate that Volquez is not close to average. And even by this one and only way of looking at it, he’s only in the indicated range, at the very (below average) tail of it, in 2/3 projections. You really have to selectively apply the facts in order to make the argument that Volquez is close to average according to the projections. Which of course is exactly what you seem to be committed to doing, disappointingly.

                      But again, the most clear-cut argument is that the projections actually list projected war, and Volquez is closer to replacement level than he is to average. Again, it is completely disingenuous to talk about a player who is closer to replacement level than to average as if he is close to being average.

                      And of course, if you want to play this intellectually dishonest game where you selectively use other people’s words, without any context, to try to make your argument look better than it is, I could do the exact same thing to you, since you said:

                      “Last year, 50 IP minimum, there’s 187 NL starters.*

                      Using the 41-60% range for FIP, you get 3.79-4.12.

                      Volquez is projected for a 4.12, 4.15, 4.36. The one I respect the most, ZiPS, has him as a 4.15.”

                      You point out that, using this definition of average, Volquez does not project to be in the range of average, yet you’ve now spent however many hours arguing over me saying that Volquez is not, according to the projection systems, average.

                      *And of course you were wrong, because this is for all MLB starters, not just NL. And of course comparing a projection for an NL pitcher to all MLB starters is dumb, because the projection does not project that pitcher to pitch against a DH every time he starts. If you want to compare an NL pitcher to all MLB starters, you have to project him in a neutral context, which is not what projection systems do.

                    • esd4

                      The problem, as I’ve pointed out many, many times, is that Volquez, according to the projections, is closer to replacement level than to average. So you can get as squishy as you want, but it’s still disingenuous to say that the projection systems agree that he can be average.

                      So I’ll ask you the same question I’ve asked everyone else, and maybe you’ll be the first brave soul to risk answering it: do you disagree with my claim that the projection systems say Volquez is closer to replacement than to average?

                      and I’ll ask you a further question: is it better to spend thousands of words arguing against a lie or a hundred words arguing against the truth? Physician, heal thyself!

                    • stickyweb

                      I’m flattered you think I’m a brave soul for answering your question again, but it’s the same answer. The majority of the projections agreed volquez would be closer to avg than replacement using the stat Tim used to evaluate the rotation. And you even stated as much.

                      Can you find other projections or stats that say volquez will be worse, closer to replacement, below replacement, the worst pitcher in mlb, etc, etc, absolutely. If you had presented them without accusations of fraud, you probably would have received some support and certainly could have saved everyone half a day. A lot of fans are very concerned with the volquez signing, regardless of what Tim has said. But to say Tim is dishonest, mistaken, delusional and demonstrably false, is um, disingenuous when you have conceded his point was correct.

                    • esd4

                      How can you possibly, with any shred of dignity, say:

                      “The majority of the projections agreed volquez would be closer to avg
                      than replacement using the stat Tim used to evaluate the rotation.”

                      when Tim himself said, upthread:

                      “Last year, 50 IP minimum, there’s 187 NL starters.

                      Using the 41-60% range for FIP, you get 3.79-4.12.

                      Volquez is projected for a 4.12, 4.15, 4.36. The one I respect the most, ZiPS, has him as a 4.15.”

                      Those are Tim’s own words, his own evaluation, using exactly the stats and parameters he wanted, and he found that he was completely wrong about Volquez being in the middle quintile of projected FIP. And of course to get even that close we had to define average as middle quintile, which is a pretty liberal definition.

                      And I did point all this out without accusations of fraud. My original post was simply about how Tim was wrong, not about him being fraudulent. But he immediately got defensive, even after I pointed out, in many ways, how wrong he is. It’s certainly possible to make mistakes without being fraudulent, but you have to be dishonest or delusional to refuse to admit mistakes once confronted with evidence.

                      To be clear, I have never conceded Tim’s point. I would be very stupid indeed to agree with Tim’s argument, given how obviously wrong he is.

                    • stickyweb

                      Also, the truth has set me free!!! I am healed!!! Hallelujah!!!! Can I get an amen, Brother esd4?!?!?

                    • Andrew

                      Year: Observed NL League Average Starter FIP / NL Replacement Level Starter FIP

                      2008: 4.37 / 5.34
                      2009: 4.28 / 5.20
                      2010: 4.05 / 5.09
                      2011: 3.94 / 4.85
                      2012: 3.97 / 4.95
                      2013: 3.86 / 4.70

                    • esd4

                      I’m curious where you get these numbers from. There is no such thing as observed replacement level starter FIP, because replacement level is a theoretical benchmark, not an empirical one. So where are these numbers coming from?

                      Also, do you disagree with my claim that the projection systems think Volquez is closer to replacement level than to average?

                      Hint: you can figure out what the answer should be by looking at projected war, which is right there on Volquez’s fangraphs player page, and just so everyone understands, fangraphs uses Tim-Williams-approved-stat FIP to calculate war.

                    • esd4

                      In conclusion, I love you all. I think being intellectually honest is important, but I love even those who don’t. I’m sorry to let everyone down, but this thread is really bumming me out, so I’m going to have to peace out now.

                    • Andrew

                      It is not observed replacement level FIP, the observed applied only to the first number which was the league average FIP for NL starters in that year.

                      The second number is the replacement level FIP given the run environments in that year. If you know the run environment you can then calculate the theoretical replacement level FIP of replacement level .380 starting pitcher.

                      ZiPs seems to project league average FIP for a Pirates pitcher around 3.70, so a run environment of 4.02 runs/game. The simplest way to approximate the replacement level is to use the multiplier of 1.28 for starting pitching so the replacement level would be 4.73 FIP. Thus is it not conceivable that someone might, see a projected FIP of 4.15 and consider it closer to average than replacement, possibly even more so given the replacement level over the preceding seasons?

                      Your concern is that Tim is poisoning the discussion; consider how the human mind seeks out, filters, and interrupts information and then consider if it is prudent to stake a claim on three tenths of a win.

  • KauaiCoffee

    The rotation is not particularly good, nor is it deep. When the news finally breaks that Jameson Taillon needs TJ surgery, it will be a serious blow to the Bucs 2014 season. Volquez is not Liriano, and Liriano himself might not be the 2013 Liriano. We could have a dozen Brandon Cumptons and collectively they would not be worth a single Michael Wacha or Sonny Gray. The Bucs have a great outfield and are a well-run team. But their rotation and infield are not particularly strong.

  • lonleylibertarian

    So I read Tim’ open 3.50 ERA – 5th in baseball
    3.57 xFIP – tied for third…

    And I say WOW – what a solid pitching staff we have to build a team arou

    Then I go over to Fangraphs and I see this article – ZIPS Starting Pitching – 1-15 and I am REALLY excited…

    Can’t wait to see where this stellar staff ranks in the ZIPS top 15 – heck with Wandy back it has got to be in the top 3 – Right?

    I scan through the top 15 and guess what – no Pirates!
    Hmmmm
    I do a google and finally find the 16-30 rankings – and I am sure the Bucs will be in the first couple right – they were a TOP 5 rotation last year!

    Well I hit the Reds at 17 – ok the Reds have a nice staff – might be as good as Pirates if it stays healthy…

    Then at 20 there are the Cubs – THE FRIGGIN CUBS!
    that Jeff with the unspellable last name must be awesome – better than Cole? – better than Frankie? – better than Ground Chuck?

    Finally at 22 there are the Pirates – 22!!!!!!!

    So what the hell happened?

    – AJ left – hmmm – a lot of folks are predicting a big flop for him in Philly but would any of you not give a body part of minor importance to see him in Black and Gold and not have to suffer through a half a dozen Volquez starts before the white flag – not the Jolly Roger gets raised.

    – Projections are not much use – problem with that is that all of the projection systems are data driven – there is not a whole lot of room for subjective opinion – adjustments for the fact that Cole looks really like a beast when he is in the zone [and is probably a better pinch hitting option than Barmes].

    – We Pirate fans have a very distorted view of how good this staff – and yes this team is – sadly I have come to conclude after a spring of research – looking at data – trying to learn a lot about advanced stats and projections that we have very rose colored glasses as a group.

    And so does the FO – 75 wins will be tough to get to with this team.

    I know I annoy some of you guys a lot – but here is one example of what I think defines a good front office versus a NH front office.

    Last year if the Cardinals had an obvious weakness it was at SS – Pete Kozma was WORSE than Barmes believe it or not.

    Going into the off season the Cards said to themselves – “We will not put that SS on the field again next year”

    The FA market for SS was really just two players

    Perralta and Drew.

    Even before the season was over we had talking heads telling us how great a fit Drew would be for the Cards – heck I bet Scott Boras hat is Cardinal hat ordered – Drew would sign for 4+ years – 70+ Million – no need to even think twice about the QO- Happy Days!

    But as the great Lee Corso would say…

    NOT SO FAST!

    We wake up right around thanksgiving the news that the Cards have inked Jhonny P to a four year $52 Million deal – Drew is screwed which is not good – he is a nice guy by all accounts – but so is Boras – which is good because fans hate Boras only slightly less than owners and GMs

    But as with all of this sort of thing there are other implications – Drew is it for teams wanting an upgrade at SS – and if any team should want an upgrade it would be the Pirates – he is going to cost a LOT and a draft pick pretty much making it certain that the Pirates will decide to go with Jordy Mercer and hope he some how turns into a 2-3 WAR player – miracles do happen.

    What does a NO front office do – I leave it to you to google this site and the Pirates site to see what great middle infielders we added to make this team better – my favorite being Rober Andino – but there are others.

    • stickyweb

      No doubt the Cards have a great FO. But I’m kind of glad NH runs the Bucs’ and not you. Drew’s and Mercer’s projections (Steamer/Oliver/ZIPS) 1.7/1.8/1.5 and 1.1/3.9/1.5. You think the first one of those is worth a 1st round draft pick and $50 – $60 million over the next 4 years. NH seems to think the latter is worth playing time at $500K each of the next 2 years. Who knows, maybe there’s a miracle in our future and the Bucs can squeak out 76 or 77 wins.

    • stickyweb

      So they’re going to struggle to win 75 games? They’ll be at least 4 wins worse than the 2012 team that gave half seasons to Barajas, McGehee, Presley and a full season to Barmes. Marte got 182 PAs and Mercer got 68. The following SP got the following # of starts that year: JMac 29, Correia 28, Bedard 24 and Karstens 15.
      I know you’re kind of old school and a bit of a pessimist, but I can’t believe even you would think this 2014 team will be worse than that 2012 team, barring massive injuries to key positional players. Do they have holes? Yes. Is Dee Gordon starting at 2B for the Dodgers? Ryan Goins for the Blue Jays? Nobody at 2B or 3B for the Yankees? Rajai Davis in LF for the Tigers? Etc, etc.
      In summary, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised this season.

    • leowalter

      All I can say to that is WOW ! Robert Andino yet ??? Your favorite ?

    • Andrew

      Why appeal to Fangraphs starting pitching rankings, and the predict 75 Wins? Why not go to the projections pages and see the projected 84-78, with 46.7% playoff odds (4th in the NL)?

  • mam995

    ESD4, I totally Agree with your eloquent and empirical analysis. Calling you a fool is just baseless. That’s something that a “sports head” would do. Your fortiori treatise is spot on and convincing. You are RIGHT with you’re projections. I would simply give pause and say that baseball people have to “look” BEYOND the numbers sometimes. They have to see with their eyes. Cincinnati GM Walt Jocketty always says this when talking about player evaluation. He say’s ” I see the Sabermetrics, but I see with my eyes too. Tim also see’s a player from a scout’s perspective. The Pirates would have never found Tyler Glasnow if they just went by the numbers. As Tim has said, in evaluating Volquez, he see’s a plus curve and a plus changeup. Those are 2 of the hardest pitches to master…and this kids got em down pat That’s the foundation package of a number one starter. Well, actually, the fastball is and the kid throws in the mid 90’s.If given time, (with Volquez’s willingness to learn) they can TEACH this kid how to pitch consistently to his proper release spots. The Dodger’s Rick Honeycutt started fixing this kid last year. Of course, part of the psychological package of a WINNING major league pitcher is his “mental toughness”. The ability to COMPETE. Inner city kids, kids from poor countries…it doesn’t come to them naturally. This kid once won 17 games. This kid is not pitching to his potential because he’s either a head case or he needs better technique. Or encouragement. Bud Black had this kid for years. Bud Black has never made the playoffs in eight seasons at San Diego. He can’t win. Maybe he can’t teach either. Just because you’re in the Big Leagues doesn’t alway mean that you get the best instruction. Maybe this kid didn’t get the best teaching. I know that it sounds implausible, but it is possible. Why do you think that so many teams are STILL trying to lure retired St Louis pitching coach Dave Ducan out of retirement? Besides scouting, perhaps one of the Pirates competive advantages is TEACHING.

    • leowalter

      Any one who carries on a pointless circular argument for over 12 hours over that subject IS a fool if he doesn’t already understand the very facts you bring up.