First Pitch: Once Again, Starting Pitching is Keeping the Pirates as Contenders

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 rotation the Pirates have now is looking good. They rank 8th in the majors and 4th in the NL in second half ERA. Their xFIP rank in the second half is 10th in the majors and 4th in the NL.

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

Charlie Morton

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.

Edinson Volquez

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

Vance Worley

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.

Francisco Liriano

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

Jeff Locke

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.

Gerrit Cole

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.

Links and Notes

**Prospect Watch: Willy Garcia Continues Power Surge, Austin Meadows Heating Up

**Pirates Claim Infielder Tommy Field From Angels

**Neil Walker Could Head to the Disabled List

**DSL Pirates Report: Key Injuries Leave Team Short-Handed, Plus Struggles From Big-Bonus Players

**Prospect Highlights: Alen Hanson Triple, Andrew Lambo Breaks Up No-Hitter

**Minor League Schedule: Luis Heredia Has More Success At Home

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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  • swampirate

    Morton really did look good today from my vantage point at the park. It was hard for me to judge but my gut told me if Marte were in left field then he catches both of those bloops that fell in front of Snider today. If that happens Morton may have won that game 2-0 or 2-1.

    • Lee Young

      That’s what injuries do to a team, unfortunately. Makes you play guys somewhere that aren’t as good.

    • bucsws2014

      I hate having Snider in LF. I mentioned in the Field thread that I’ve counted four instances where he didn’t make a putout that Marte would have. Personally, I’d move Polanco to LF. I don’t think that’s as big a deal as some would make it as I don’t believe it would affect Polanco’s plate approach one iota.

      As to the pitching, I’m pretty comfortable with the rotation, although Locke is the one who worries me most as IMO, his success is highly predicated on the home plate ump and whether he gets favorable calls on pitches a couple inches off the plate, especially inside.

      Tell you what though, if I woke up today and found that the Bucs had traded Morton to the Rockies for Morneau & Hawkins, I wouldn’t have been the least bi surprised.

      • EWS34

        What about putting Polanco in CF? If memory serves me correctly he played there up until Indy. Marte is comfortable in the spacious LF at home at PNC. Why move everyone around?

        • bucsws2014

          Despite Polanco’s experience in AAA as a CF, I’d prefer Marte there. I trust Polanco’s skills. I don’t yet trust or sense his ability to take command of the entire outfield. And I think it would be a slight to Marte.

          Anyway, this is a pitching thread, so….

  • Scott Kliesen

    I wonder how Volquez would respond to being demoted? I realize he’s the right one from a pure who’s arm would play best perspective, but I’m concerned if he would be up for the hit to his psyche.

    As for Morton, he frustrates me to no end. He can be so dominant at times and then uncork a horrible pitch like the 0-2 curveball that hit Solarte in the leg to load the bases for Smith yesterday to essentially cost him the game. Far too many of his starts unravel quickly because he is unable to bear down when the situation calls for it.

    • moose7195

      The numbers tell a rather different story about Morton’s season. He’s been a good pitcher, a tad inconsistent, but overall good. If he was truly unable to bear down when the situation called for it, then his ERA would be at least a run higher.

      • Scott Kliesen

        I know W/L isn’t the best judge of Pitcher success, but in his case it may be. Morton is prone to pitching bad enough to lose more than any SP on the staff. Usually by either getting his team in a hole to start the game, or giving up a crooked # later in the game when given a lead.

        With his God given talent he should have a much better record this year and for his career. This the number which counts the most Moose.

        • moose7195

          I’m sorry but pitchers wins are never an accurate judge of pitcher success. Almost no part of it is reliant on the skills of the pitcher.

          • Scott Kliesen

            Of the top 50 SP’s in MLB, as rated by ERA, Morton is the only one w 11 losses. And this on a team that is 7 games over .500.

            Considering he is also 25 games below .500 for his career, I believe this is a valid concern the Pirates should have for him.

            • moose7195

              None of your comment is a valid concern. Charlie Morton shouldn’t be held responsible for the play of his teams offense, which is the biggest flaw with pitchers wins. He could give up 103 runs in a game and still get a win, how is a stat like that representative of anything.

            • FrankRestly

              Scott,

              Charlie leads the NL with 11 unearned runs allowed. His run support is lower than his ERA (3.54 runs per 9 innings). He has made every scheduled start (149 innings pitched is tied for 15th).

              Add it all up and he will end up with more losses than wins.

              But I get what you are saying. It seems as if Charlie loses focus at times.

          • bucsws2014

            There are exceptions to every rule and Morton might be that case here. I’ve been a huge Chuck fan since he got here and even I’m frustrated.

            If you look at what Volquez and Worley have done lately, when they’re in trouble they seem to find the right pitch. Charlie doesn’t.

            • moose7195

              How do pitchers wins represent an inability to get important outs? How is he an exception to that rather absolute rule?

              • bucsws2014

                Pitchers wins don’t. Pitchers losses do.

                I don’t know if there is a true comparable to Morton. I can’t come up with one. But if one were to run the numbers, I’d imagine Chuck comes up at or close to the bottom of the list of actual record to “projected record” based on his peripherals.

                What I do know is that I’ve watched the guy for several years now and regardless what his top pitch is, what his arm angle is, who’s catching, whether or not he has a lead, his ability to completely fall apart in the 5th or 6th after a dominant first few innings when faced with adversity is a pattern. More often than not it is a result of a defensive lapse (in this week’s case, Snider).

                As Don Johnson said to Kevin Costner in Tin Cup, “When you go down, you go down in flames.”

                And as far as his ERA not being higher, I’d suggest that has a lot to do with his not giving up many HRs.

                • moose7195

                  The argument against pitchers losses is the same. Did Liriano pitch poorly the other night? Did he even begin to deserve the loss? Absolutely not. It’s an archaic stat that lost all of its meaning when relievers started pitching in every game

                  I don’t know how you reached these lofty expectations with Morton. He can’t go out and throw 8 shutout innings every 5th night. Every pitcher is going to have an inning where they give up some runs. That’s just how guys not named Kershaw or Sale perform. Charlie has been solid throughout the year and his stats tell that story. Earned runs are earned runs whether they come in one inning or if they’re spread across 4. Whether it’s 3 singles or a HR. So if the earned runs aren’t there it means they aren’t there. And I don’t think Morton is bribing the official scorer

                  • bucsws2014

                    You’re only going to accept a statistical conclusion and I don’t have the sortable database to disprove you, so you win by default.

                    My instincts tell me the numbers are in there – that if you were to compare all MLB starters and see who gives up the most runs in 5th/6th innings, Chuck would be among the leaders. As with many other points, I’ll have to rely on the old eye test and repeated viewings.

                    Many other starters give you warning signs that they’re ready to come out. Chuck just implodes on a fairly regularly basis. So yeah, there’s a difference. IMO, Hurdle should just have someone ready in the bullpen in the 5th regardless if Chuck is pitching a perfect game.

                    • moose7195

                      Who wins and who loses doesn’t matter. I would like to see such a database. I’m not trying to say he’s blameless, but he can’t be expected to win games by himself either. It’s human to look for a scapegoat when the team loses like they did yesterday, but it isn’t fair to Charlie, who wasn’t responsible for the game getting out of hand. Sometimes the offense has to pick up the pitcher

                    • bucsws2014

                      I’m not looking for a scapegoat for yesterday. This is something he’s been doing since he arrived here. I recognize this year he hasn’t been getting run support (13th lowest), and at the same time he’s probably the guy most likely to toss a no-no due to weak contact. But when Morton goes south mid-game, he typically does it at Mach 3.

            • FrankRestly

              Some of that is pitch calling by the catcher and knowing who he is catching. Don’t know if Charlie shook off Stewart on the 0-2 count, but Stewart has to recognize that Charlie can be wild at times.

              Stewart was looking for a “chase me” strikeout pitch down and in to the lefty. Change up away would have been a better pitch call to generate the double play ball.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrishale525 Chris Hale

    The starter that should go the the bullpen but won’t is Charlie Morton. I just don’t see it happening with this guy. Sure he’s always had great stuff. Great movement on his fastball one of the better curve balls around. His pitches have as much movement as anyone’s . problem is he can’t consistently command any of them. He is the most up and down starter on this team. I can care less what the numbers say, We cannot depend on him in any given game. He’s either great or horrible. In his horrible starts it’s usually 1 or 2 bad innings where he goes from dominating to looking like a a complete head case. Uncertainty is a bad thing. There is no trust in Charlie to go out and give them a chance to win every time out. I just sit there and wait for the shoe to drop. It’s hard to say what happens. I think it’s his delivery. I think they need to shorten it up. It’s so LOOOONG and SLOoooooW. Too much room for error. his arm slot is always changing. of the 5 starters right now I would choose any of them over Morton. Last year was encouraging but he never been able to take the next step. Also, Morton is capable adding velocity. he’s got a mid 90′s fastball in him but has to dial it back because he’s not comfortable on the mound Every game he has pitches that get away and baffle you. He leads the league in hit batsmen Send this guy to the pen not Volquez

    • moose7195

      You are probably not saying a single word of this 5 days ago. And you’ll probably not say any of this if he goes out 5 days from now and throws 7 strong innings. Behind Volquez, hes been the most consistent starter we’ve had. But i dont think you want to hear that, which is why you choose to ignore his very solid numbers. And on top of it all, Morton is the last person I want in the bullpen for the exact reason you mentioned. His mental makeup is not meant for bullpen work

    • Andrew

      Morton is an average starter, average players are inconsistent by definition. I don’t follow the logic of keeping a starter in the rotation who has an xFIP (which includes HBP) 1/2 a run higher than Morton, while removing Morton.

    • jaygray007

      if he could consistently command it, he would probably be an ace.

      He is not an ace, and that is fine.

      he’s a perfectly adequate 3-4 starter because a lot of 3-4 starters have inconsistency problems.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrishale525 Chris Hale

    I’d go with any of the other 4 over Chuck right now

  • Andrew

    Interesting article but I have to disagree with the premise, the starting pitching has improved by jettisoning Wandy Rodriguez and Liriano’s
    improved performance, but some of that has been negated by Locke and Morton’s recent struggles. At best this rotation is average for the NL, outside Worley no current starter has a ERA – or FIP – below 100.

    In the 2nd half Pirates’ starters rank 11th by FIP WAR and 8th by RA-9 WAR, in the NL. The Pirates are contending because the
    offense,
    which is 5th overall in OPS, and 1st by wRC+ in the entire league. In the 2nd half the Pirates are first overall in both OPS and wRC+.

    • http://batman-news.com NMR

      Absolutely.

  • moose7195

    I have a hard time convincing myself that Volquez should be demoted based solely on an obscure stat like xFIP. The stat may have some prophetic use, but i find it hard to expect him to fail when he’s been effective and consistent for the most part. It’s like you’re demoting him for pitching well which is rather backwards. If it were me, Jeff Locke gets the demotion. I believe that he’s had a little experience in the pen, and again, I have a reluctance to trust xFIP for decisions like this. I don’t think every pitcher is going to follow their xFIP as you would like us to believe Mr. Williams. Edison Volquez had defied it for 4 and a half months now. If the shoe was going to drop, wouldn’t we be seeing it by now

  • pilbobuggins

    Morton has an oops inning everystart the only question is how bad it’s going to be and when, in addition to that i’ve noticed his really bad innings come when stewart is catching. When martin catches the pitching yips are minimized. Yet another reason ( as if we needed any) to resign martin.

    • moose7195

      Those words hold true for probably 70% of the starters in this league