On Tuesday, Pittsburgh Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle talked about how teams needed depth in the rotation, and needed to think about Plan B, Plan C, and beyond. That’s been true for the Pirates this year, as seen by the fact that they currently have three starting pitchers in the majors who were in Triple-A to start the season.
One of those starters is Vance Worley. At the start of the year he looked like a guy you could place in the “beyond” category, just past Plan C. The Pirates acquired Worley for cash from the Minnesota Twins at the end of Spring Training. Worley had struggled with the Twins during the 2013 season, and had been outrighted to Triple-A a few days before the Pirates acquired him. The Twins had planned on making him a set-up man. The Pirates still saw him as a starter.
As for where he fell on the depth charts, they felt he had a good chance to get back to where he was before 2013, and had his chances of reaching the majors higher than everyone else.
“I guess in other people’s eyes he was beyond a plan C,” Hurdle said about Worley surprising everyone this year. “We signed him for a reason, because we thought he could help at the Major League level. He’s been a Major League pitcher. He’s had success here. The fact that he was able to clean up some things, just re-visit the delivery, the mindset when he was having success. Feel that again. Talk about some of the challenges that came after that. And then just start over. Start with a new organization. Clean chalk board. I’ve seen him pitch very, very well. I saw him a couple of Spring Trainings ago, it was lights out. Saw him last Spring, it wasn’t.”
Worley had good numbers in the Philadelphia Phillies rotation in 2011 and 2012. He had a 3.01 ERA and a 3.66 xFIP in 131.2 innings in 2011, making his jump to the rotation after a few outings in relief. In 2012 he had a 4.20 ERA and a 4.04 xFIP in 133 innings, but dealt with elbow issues. The issues started in May with inflammation, and he ended up missing all of September with bone chips. He ended up having surgery to fix the problem.
After the 2012 season, the Phillies traded Worley to the Twins, along with Trevor May, in exchange for Ben Revere. All of Worley’s pitches were up after the surgery, due to some mechanical issues.
“The mechanics were off because of the injury from 2012,” Worley said. “I was protecting my elbow because of the bone chips. And then after I had the surgery, that was why my mechanics stayed the same.”
The Pirates felt they could get Worley back on track, while the Twins had pretty much given up on him. Two days after he was acquired, he talked to Jim Benedict, who works with a lot of pitchers in the Pirates’ system. Benedict went over film with Worley, dating back to 2008 with the Phillies’ system. He watched Worley’s bullpens, watched him play catch, and watched him every time he had the ball.
“I’m happy they came and got me. I know they knew who I was and what I was capable of doing,” Worley said. “For them to come and swoop me up and be as confident in me as if they knew I was in their organization already. ‘We got you. We know what you can do. Come over and get things right, and we’re looking forward to having you here.’ I just said thank you. Thank you for getting me out of there.”
Worley has been outstanding in his first three starts with the Pirates. He has a 1.83 ERA in 20.2 innings, after giving up one run in seven innings tonight. The advanced metrics don’t have him keeping this up. He’s got a 4.15 xFIP, with that number being much lower than his ERA due to a lack of strikeouts. Worley has a 5.2 K/9, which is down from where he was in 2011-12. However, it’s too early to really put much stock in xFIP. Before tonight’s start, Worley had a 3.89 xFIP. When one start causes a swing in over 25 points, you know you’re dealing with a small sample size.
While Worley won’t be as good as his ERA, it’s not out of the question to think he could be back to his pre-injury form. He believes that he’s back to that point, at least from a mechanical standpoint.
“I think my mechanics are comparable,” Worley said about the comparisons to before the injury. “Ball and strike ratio has been really good since I worked with Jim. Just pounding the zone. I’m back down in the zone and throwing strikes.”
He should be safe when the Pirates activate Gerrit Cole from the disabled list this weekend. When Francisco Liriano eventually returns, the Pirates will have an interesting decision for their starting pitchers. Worley should get strong consideration for a rotation spot, simply due to his previous success, the current success that indicates he might be back to those levels, and the fact that the Pirates control him through the 2018 season.