First Pitch: The Pirates Starting Rotation Woes

Last year the Pittsburgh Pirates had an offense that was ranked in the lower half of the league. Despite this, they won 94 games in large part due to their pitching. They saw a ton of injuries to their starting staff throughout the season, but still maintained strong pitching thanks to their depth.

Heading into this season, most of that pitching was returning. The Pirates were getting Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton for full seasons. They had two question marks at the back of the rotation, with Wandy Rodriguez returning from an injury, and Edinson Volquez being a reclamation project. The Volquez signing was controversial, because the Pirates had passed on A.J. Burnett, letting him sign with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Prior to tonight’s game, the Pirates ranked 27th in the majors in ERA from their starting pitchers, with a 4.59 ERA. If they would have gone with Burnett over Volquez, they would have seen an improvement on that number. Replacing Volquez’s numbers with Burnett’s numbers this year gives a 4.04 ERA. That’s still not good, and would currently rank 18th in baseball. Last year the Pirates had their success with a top five rotation.

It’s also not earth shattering to say that Burnett would have been better than Volquez. No one was saying otherwise during the off-season. My thought was that the rest of the rotation would be good enough that Burnett wouldn’t be a necessity.

As it stands right now, the rest of the rotation has been playing below expectations. They should be pitching better than this, as their xFIP is 3.95. Francisco Liriano (4.54 ERA/3.67 xFIP) is the biggest candidate to see improvements going forward. But even if the rotation was pitching up to their expected performance, it might not be enough.

That 3.95 xFIP is still around the middle of the pack in the majors. Charlie Morton and Edinson Volquez are looking like number four starters, while Liriano and Gerrit Cole are pitching like strong number three starters or weaker number two starters. The rotation last year that featured three pitchers throwing like number one starters by the end of the year hasn’t returned.

As we saw last year, and as we’ve seen in the past with other teams, strong pitching and defense can lead to a winner, even with a below average offense. The Pirates aren’t getting that pitching this year. The depth has been fine, with Brandon Cumpton and Casey Sadler stepping up. Jeff Locke was looking good through five innings tonight, before imploding during the sixth inning. But the depth isn’t going to provide a top of the rotation starter, and won’t take the starting rotation to a top ten group. The only way that can happen is if Liriano, Cole, and Morton start pitching the way they were pitching in 2013. And without a rotation that is better than middle of the pack, this team will continue to be in trouble.

Links and Notes

**Week In Review: OBP, Players of the Month, 2014 Draft Prospects

**Prospect Watch: Four Hits For Gregory Polanco; Tyler Glasnow Shows Better Control

**Minor League Schedule: Second Rehab Start For Wandy Rodriguez

**Pirates Recall Jeff Locke, Option Casey Sadler

**Jeff Locke looks to rebound career

**Top Performers: JaCoby Jones Leads a Huge Week For West Virginia Hitters

**Top Performers: Another Pirates 2011 Draft Pick is Stepping Up

**Pirates Have Had Success in International Market

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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  • emjayinTN

    Tim: I sat there wondering why they were going to send Jeff Locke out in the 6th inning after throwing around 60 pitches and getting the Pirates through 5 innings with an 8-2 lead. He just threw in AAA Thursday at Pawtucket where he warmed up and threw 46 pitches before being relieved because the Pirates had just decided he would be called up for the Monday start at PNC. So, a guy who is fresh out of rehab gives you 5 excellent innings on 3 days rest, but we want more? The Pirates 5th inning lasted a long time and he cooled down. When he started in the first his pitches were up in the zone and too much in the middle of the plate – command was lacking. The next 4 innings were excellent and he pitched well hitting his spots. After such a long period between innings, and knowing he had pitched that long in AAA on Thursday, why would you risk sending him out there in the 6th? To me it was a risk for the team, but even more of a risk on Locke’s arm and confidence.

    • emjayinTN

      BTW, I was impressed with the velocity of Locke. Regularly 91/92 and I think I saw him hit 93 with one. I do not recall him having that much velocity last year. Are we at Blown Save No. 4 or No. 5?

      • johndw28

        Locke retired 13 in a row but at the end of the day I see a guy with average stuff at best and below average control. I think he is always susceptible to innings like the 1st and the 6th and is especially dead in the water if you have an ump with a narrow strike zone. He is depth, spot start material at best as far as I’m concerned.

      • IC Bob

        If velocity was all it took then Locke would have been great. Fact is he should not have been recalled. He hasn’t had one strong outing and he gave up 6 runs in 5 innings last night. We sent Sadler down and he hasn’t had one bad outing this year. Bad move by NH. This team has major issues and like MLB network people said we chose not to sign anyone and we let good players walk and it shows up nightly.

        • emjayinTN

          I questioned the move when it appeared the first time on this board – I think I referred to it as a mystery. But he made it through 5 – and maybe he was lucky, but they should have cashed in and left the table with his confidence intact, and a fresh reliever coming in to start the 6th. Trying to get an extra inning cost us dearly.

  • R Edwards

    Who would have thought that our pitching would be this bad – when we all thought it would be the team’s strength? Even the bullpen has been spotty – although Locke was far from being efficient, he had the lead when he left – and the bullpen cost the team last night’s game. In fact, other than Gomez (surprise), none of the other relievers were effective last night. Just a very ugly loss – and given the shortage of major league ready and capable starters in AAA and AA, it doesn’t look like much help is available internally. Through a combination of bad player personnel decisions, poor performances, and bad luck with injuries – this team has earned its current position in the standings.

  • R Edwards

    On a positive note…say what you want about Josh Harrison – not the biggest guy, fastest guy, or the most athletic – but the kid seemingly produces every time he is given a chance to play. He is very versatile, can run a little, and is a better than average hitter. He is a winner – and has over achieved at every level – including college.

  • R Edwards

    Oh by the way, Ike Davis 0-3 – although he did draw 3 walks.

    • stickyweb

      So now we’re complaining about a .500 OPB? It’s not his fault the pitchers are afraid to pitch to him. LOL

  • Hawbs2

    How many blown leads/saves does the bullpen have? And how many losses does the bullpen have as one big unit?

    • Roberrto21

      Watching from Australia it has been unbelievably frustrating and discouraging. While there are 130 games left the schedule looks very difficult. There just don’t seem to be major league ready impact arms to help either, the loss of Taillon and Holmes seem huge!!! It sure would have been good to see th pursue Jose Abreu more aggressively, wonder what happened there and the AJ of 2012 – 2013 would surely have helped too! If they dip 10 games under they may be playing out the string in a very empty PNC and due for a major overhaul/rebuild. Can’t imagine what Cutch thinks of all of this, he cannot be happy.

      • R Edwards

        With what they are paying Volquez, Stewart, and Davis, they probably could have landed Abreu…..

        • Kevin_Young

          Don’t say things like that….it depresses me.

        • Andrew

          Those three would have got you a year of Abreu. That said he is looking like the latest white whale, but Pirates’ fans will always have those.

          • lonleylibertarian

            Wrong perspective. The Pirates have $30M+ deficit in payroll to the Reds Brewers and Cards more than enough to cover Abreu’s contract – and still do all of the other dumpster diving crap

            • Andrew

              Yes because being in the same division is a good proxy for having a similar revenue structure. Sustained periods of success have no effect upon a team’s revenue what so ever.

  • Monkshot

    Hurdle coached teams seem do this for whatever reason, they play well below expectations and then all of a sudden they exceed expectations, zero consistency. Abreu would have been great, but with the pitching we have at this point, he wouldn’t have mattered enough to make a difference. Anyone else see the stat for the starting pitchers before the game? Something like through 20 decisions, the pirate pitchers are 2-16, 2nd worst ever since 1914. That’s a crazy statistic.

  • Andrew

    The Pirates fielding independent pitching numbers aren’t middle of the pack, the starter’s are 14th in the NL in both FIP and xFIP, add in the bullpen and the Pirates claim 15th in both spots. The pitching has performed at replacement level, highest strikeout era ever and the Pirates staff cannot miss bats.

  • smurph

    We have given Ray Searage a lot of love around here. As the pitching coach, it is time for him to figure out what these starting pitchers are doing wrong and get it fixed. There are no outside answers. Quite simply, the pitchers (especially the starters) have to pitch better.

    • piraddict

      Does it seem to you that Liriano, Morton, Locke last night, Volquez etc. have all been subject to the “Big Inning” the third time through the lineup? Maybe there hasn’t been enough variation of approach as the game progresses. One of the best with this used to be Verlander who would crank up his velocity as the game went on. Few pitchers can do that. But almost anybody can vary their pitch sequence or speed as the lineups turn over. It’s like the other teams are doing a great job scouting us and anticipating where the pitch is going to be, especially the third time through the lineup.

      The solution? Different game calling with more variation, making it harder to guess what’s coming, and a quicker hook by Hurdle during the midde of the game when it seems like the “Big Inning” is making an appearance. But then the relief pitchers would have to do their job, and they haven’t excelled recently either. Pretty depressing!

      • smurph

        It’s all theoretical. Last year people were complaining that Hurdle had too quick of a hook and was burning up his bullpen. And it’s sometimes hard to determine if the opponents just had a couple of fluke hits, or this is the start of a big inning. I do agree with what emjay said about Locke. He is basically at the end of spring training. There was no reason to expect he could continue to dominate after 60 pitches.

    • IC Bob

      The problem is guys like Morton and Liriano never were as good as they pitched last year. We dumped Burnett so w could bring in the worst pitcher in baseball the last three year and we expected Searage to somehow change that. Whats scary is we should all have seen this coming and we ignored it hoping against hope that Searage and Huntington would pull another rabbit out of the hat.

  • johndw28

    I like using ERC instead of FIP or xFIP and if you look at career ERC’s the scary thing is most of our starting staff with exception of Cole are right what where you would plot them on a graph in terms of career averages and I’m including Liriano. The big leap of faith was assuming that the the improvements we saw in Morton and Liriano in 2013 were due to Searage/Pirates tutelage and could be sustained going forward but it looks like these guys are going back to their career norms. And if that’s the case with the exception of Cole we have a staff full of #3 to #5 pitchers, with Frankie maybe qualifying as a very poor #2 based on his career ERC.

  • johndw28

    Tim please correct me if I’m wrong- per Fangraphs I am seeing the Pirates with an xFip of 3.91 which is dead last in the National League- the next worst are the Rockies at 3.84. So we are not middle of pack or even close as far as I see it. We have the worst pitching in the National League with both the eye test and advanced metrics.

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

      I didn’t say they were middle of the pack.

      • johndw28

        Maybe I misread the article- I thought you were saying they were middle of the pack based on xFIP

        “That 3.95 xFIP is still around the middle of the pack in the majors.”

      • johndw28

        OK thanks- I break them up because I think it more constructive that way and it seems like pitching Xfips and ERAs will generally skew higher for American League teams because of the DH.

  • lonleylibertarian

    I posted it elsewhere – but it feels SOOOO good to say “I told you so”…

    Tim, you are WAY underestimating the intangibles and the little things.

    1. Burnett provides leadership – fire in the belly – and makes the rest of the staff better by example.
    2. He takes the pressure off of Frankie to lead – Liriano can just go out and pitch – as a #2 starter
    going into the season he was expected to be the #1 by fans and teammates.
    3. Cole gets some room to grow – he gets to pitch against the other teams #3 for the most part and
    while he is going to be very good – another year to learn and grow would be good for him

    The balance of the rotation to start the year should have been Morton and Cumpton – Wandy should have been
    put on the DL – and some sort of injury/settlement buyout would have been great if those things are possible in
    MLB.

    A Burnett-Liriano-Cole-Morton-Cumpton rotation would be at least 3 – perhaps as many as 5 wins better.

    • johndw28

      Nothing feels good to me about this season- nothing. I wiould never take joy in being right about a mistake I team I love makes. I would much rather be wrong about something that turns out well for the club. This season just has been a nightmare so far.

      • lonleylibertarian

        Yes – I would much rather be wrong – small consolation – if any..

        But I also think hubris is an ugly thing – and the front office has not served the team of the fans well they continue to think they are somehow smarter than everyone else and can get away with a low payroll and still be competitive.

        The first act of hubris was thinking that they could get along with the one player who did the most to get them in a position to compete – and to be a playoff team last year – yes – AJ faded towards the end of the season – but he chewed up innings – took on the other teams ace and never backed down – from the other team – or his manager at times.

        The second act of hubris was staying on the sidelines on Jose Abreu. A gaping hole existed at 1st base – and yes Cubans have risk – but at this point the White Sox have a huge bargain and the Pirates still have a first base problem.

        The third act of hubris was thinking that they were smarter than the Dodgers pitching coaches and could somehow fix Volquez. I do believe that Ray Searage is a good coach and can fix PHYSICAL things – but Volquez’s problem are not physical – they are in his head – something goes wrong – a bad call – a fluke play – something will trigger a melt down and once started, the melt down can last whole seasons. The silly thing is that Pirates should have known they could not fix head cases – James MacDonald was every bit as talented as EV – and where is he now.

        The fourth – and worst – and one the should get Huntington fired is believing that the Pirates had arrived. Last year was great for fans – and exciting. But there was a good deal of good fortune involved. The Brewers lose Braun for a long stretch and have a ton of other injuries. Lots of one run wins. A bullpen performance that seemed too good to be true – and probably was. Teams that have “arrived” can play silly little super two games – they can afford to go with a lineup that might be less than their best – they have a margin for error. The Pirates had NO margin for error – NONE – in fact one could argue they should have been aggressive in dealing with 1st base, RF and SS [did anyone really think Jordy Mercer was the long term answer?] Parking Gregory Polanco to get an extra year makes sense for a St Louis or a Boston or even a Tampa Bay. But sending a message – to fans and other teams that the fire and desire to win goes deep – beyond the players COULD have moved them closer to “arriving” – instead we see them take a big step back.

        • johndw28

          LL I don’t agree with all your posts but there is a lot of logic in your assertions here. I do sense a bit of hubris this offseason but maybe I’m wrong.

    • Andrew

      Well this is diatribe of the day. I like the numbers side of baseball, however I understand if other fans enjoy the game for other reasons. That said, the absolute best thing about the publicly available versions of WAR is they give an reasonable estimate of players value to a team, and with this provide an understanding that no one player makes a team. You can have the best player in baseball and only win 78 games.

      If you arrive at a conclusion that a player is worth 3-5 Wins over a 32 game span your perception of baseball is wholly divorced from any actual reality.