If you look at the season numbers, the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t have the best results from their starting rotation. They rank middle of the pack in ERA and xFIP, and rank last in the majors in WAR. However, the season numbers don’t really tell the story of the current rotation. The season numbers include Wandy Rodriguez. They include struggles from Francisco Liriano before the All-Star break. They don’t include full seasons from Vance Worley and Jeff Locke, as those two have only been helping the rotation since June.
The Pirates have seen a lot of injuries to their offense. They’ve seen a bullpen with holes in the middle relief spots. And yet if the season ended today, they’d be in the playoffs, and that’s largely due to their starting rotation. That’s very similar to how they made the playoffs last year. Here is a look at each member of the rotation, to get an idea of what the Pirates currently have, and any improvements or concerns they might see going forward.
Steady All Season
Morton didn’t have the best start on Sunday. He started off great, then gave up four runs in the fifth inning. However, he’s been consistent on the season, with a 3.62 ERA in 149.1 innings, along with a 3.83 xFIP that says those numbers are legit. The Pirates signed Morton to an extension last off-season, buying out his first three free agent years. The type of numbers that he is putting up right now, at 150+ innings, is a very valuable pitcher. It’s not something that will carry the rotation, but those numbers will make it so that you have one less rotation spot to worry about. That’s what Morton is doing this year — giving the Pirates one less spot to be concerned with.
You can add Edinson Volquez to that list. He has a 3.70 ERA in 133.2 innings this season, although his 4.31 xFIP suggests he should be performing below that rate. Volquez has been performing above his xFIP all year, but you wonder when that might end. If Gerrit Cole comes back healthy (more on that later), then Volquez would be the top candidate to move to the bullpen, possibly giving the Pirates a nice power arm to get the ball from the starters to the combo of Tony Watson and Mark Melancon in the late innings. For now, he’s putting up good numbers, and taking up a lot of innings, which is both very helpful.
The Mid-Season Boosts
The addition of Vance Worley this year doesn’t get enough recognition. After another good outing on Friday, he has a 2.30 ERA in 62.2 innings, with a 5.6 K/9 and a 1.4 BB/9 ratio. He’s not a top of the rotation guy, as his 3.67 xFIP indicates, although he’s putting up top of the rotation numbers. It’s more likely that he’ll perform closer to a league average pitcher, but if he can continue putting up strong numbers and eating innings, he’ll have the value of a middle of the rotation starter.
This isn’t uncommon for Worley. From 2010-12 he combined for a 3.50 ERA and a 3.83 xFIP in Philadelphia. Those numbers are very similar to his current xFIP, which is the expected level going forward. He suffered an injury in 2012, and that injury altered his mechanics. The new mechanics stayed around in 2013, leading to a poor season. The Pirates added him this year, fixed his mechanics, and he looks like he’s back to the pre-injury version.
Because of when he was called up this season, Worley will have four more years of control beyond the 2014 season, and will be arbitration eligible all four seasons as a Super Two player next year. Since Worley looks like he’s back to his pre-injury form, you could say that the Pirates added a 3.50 ERA/3.83 xFIP pitcher at mid-season this year, while having that pitcher for the next 4.5 years. The cost? Whatever small amount of cash they gave the Twins at the end of Spring Training. Considering the massive prices paid for starting pitching mid-season, that small amount has been one of the biggest discounts in baseball.
The Pirates were counting on Francisco Liriano coming into the season, and he basically disappointed during the first half. Liriano had a 4.72 ERA in 76.1 innings prior to the All-Star break, with a 3.75 xFIP that suggested things should get better moving forward. Despite these struggles, the Pirates were still in the playoff race around the break.
Since the break, Liriano has looked more like his 2013 self. He has a 1.69 ERA in 32 innings, with a 9.3 K/9 and a 2.3 BB/9 ratio. This is the ace the Pirates have needed all year. They’ve been winning without that ace. If this continues from Liriano, and the rest of the rotation holds up, then the rotation will be looking strong the rest of the way.
The Question Marks
Locke was the best pitcher for the Pirates in the first half of the 2013 season, then fell apart in the second half. His first half numbers weren’t legit, with advanced metrics predicting regression.
This year Locke was one of the best pitchers on the team in the first half. This time around, the numbers were legit. He had a 2.89 ERA in 56 innings, with a 3.34 xFIP. Locke was looking better than he had ever looked in his MLB career.
So far in the second half, Locke has struggled. It’s only four starts, but he has a 5.76 ERA in 25 innings. So is this another second half collapse for Locke? I wouldn’t count on it.
Locke’s xFIP over the last four games was 3.83. He’s giving up a .320 BABIP and a 28.6% HR/FB ratio. Neither of those will continue. The big issue last year came with his walk rate. That has been low this year, including the last four games where he had a 2.5 BB/9 ratio. In his last outing, he gave up three runs in seven innings, with seven strikeouts and no walks. That’s a good start to turn things around. The only reason to be concerned with Locke is due to his second half issues last year. Nothing about his season, including the last four outings, says he will see a repeat of his 2013 second half struggles.
I’m more concerned about Cole than I am about Locke. Cole made his third rehab start today for Indianapolis. Last time around he struggled statistically, and dropped his velocity in the later innings to work on things. I wrote about the red flags surrounding Cole earlier this week. The results today were much better, although the velocity was still down a tick, and we don’t know yet how he will respond to the start. Basically, anything the Pirates get from him this season will feel like a bonus, since his rehab hasn’t been smooth at all.
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