The Pittsburgh Pirates have been carried by their starting pitching all year. The reason the starting pitching has been able to carry the team all year has been due to depth, with the assist going to the defensive shifts that have kept the numbers down for everyone. But defensive shifts can only do so much, and they can’t do anything if you don’t have a good foundation of pitching to work with.

We’re getting to the end of the 2013 season, and about to enter the final stretch of the playoff push. The Pirates currently have a one game lead in the NL Central. In eight days, rosters will expand, giving the Pirates a chance to bring up more of their starting pitching depth. That depth might be coming at the perfect time too.

Yesterday we heard the news that Wandy Rodriguez would visit Dr. James Andrews. It’s not a guarantee, but this could mean that he’s done for the season. Last night Jeff Locke struggled for his second straight start, after putting up a series of average starts after the break. All season we have been talking about Jeff Locke’s regression. We’re now seeing it first hand, and it’s going a bit beyond regression in the last two outings. Gerrit Cole has also struggled at times lately as he has already reached his 2012 innings totals. The Pirates might need to consider giving these two young starters a break, and rosters expanding in September would be the perfect time to do so.

The Pirates have seen Brandon Cumpton and Kris Johnson come up to the majors this year to fill in for the pitching staff. Cumpton made a few starts, while Johnson threw six innings in relief last week. Jeanmar Gomez has filled in as a starter, and pretty much any other role the Pirates have needed. That group could help take some pressure off the Pirates’ rotation, especially Cole and Locke.

Cole has already passed his 2012 innings totals. He threw 132 innings in 2012 and has 146 this season. He could be on pace for much more than that if he stays in the rotation the rest of the year making regular starts. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him moving to the bullpen at some point in September when better options emerge.

Kris Johnson threw six innings in his major league debut. (Photo credit: David Hague)
Kris Johnson threw six innings in his major league debut. (Photo credit: David Hague)

Johnson has already thrown 136.2 innings, which is more than his 101.2 innings last year. However, he threw 130+ innings in four of the five years from 2007-2011, so this is somewhat familiar territory for him. Also, not to make it sound like these aren’t people, but Johnson is a 28-year-old pitcher who is one of the last options in a very talented pitching staff. Cole is a 22-year-old starter who is supposed to be the future of the rotation. If you’re going to give one a drastic increase in innings, you’ve got more reason to play it safe with Cole, since there’s a bigger investment in his future.

Cumpton threw 152.1 innings last year, and is currently at 144 this year. He doesn’t have a long track record of innings, so he could be in the same situation as Cole. He had eight shutout innings in his last start. He did give up ten earned runs in 17 innings over his three starts before that, so it’s hard to say how he’ll perform down the stretch as his innings increase. I’d be surprised if he’s used for more than a spot start.

Jeanmar Gomez has plenty of innings left, as he threw 160 last year, and currently has 76.1 innings this year. Gomez has put up some good numbers this year, with a 3.29 ERA, although going with him as a full-time starter over someone like Locke isn’t really learning a lesson from Locke.

Locke’s numbers have been better this year, with a 3.01 ERA compared to the 3.29 ERA. More important, Locke’s advanced metrics don’t suggest that ERA will hold up, and we’ve been seeing the regression lately. Locke has a 3.87 FIP. Gomez has a 3.90 FIP. Going forward, we could expect both pitchers to perform at about the same level. Locke also has innings remaining, as he threw 176 last year, and has 143.2 innings this year.

One option that I haven’t mentioned is Stolmy Pimentel. He has put together a tremendous season this year between Double-A and Triple-A. The problem is that he’s sitting at 163.1 innings, after throwing 115.2 innings last year. His career high is 128.2 innings. So to expect him to pitch as a starter down the stretch might be asking a bit much.

The options for the back of the rotation seem to be Locke, Cole, Johnson, and Gomez. Locke and Cole are obviously in the rotation, while Johnson and Gomez would be the replacement options if those starters need a break.

I’m not sure that the Pirates desperately need to replace either pitcher. If there’s one pitcher who needs to be replaced, it might be Cole. He has passed his 2012 innings totals, and he is starting to struggle. At his current pace, if he was left in the rotation, he would be in line for an increase of about 50 innings over his 2012 totals, not counting playoff innings.

Jeanmar Gomez Pirates
Jeanmar Gomez would be the top rotation replacement if the Pirates replaced one of Cole or Locke. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Gomez would be my top replacement. Sure, he’s a regression candidate like Locke. But even if he does regress, Gomez will put up numbers in line with a league average pitcher, which isn’t a bad thing. He also has plenty of innings left compared to his totals from last year and previous years.

As for Locke, everyone is down on him because he gave up 11 earned runs in 6.2 innings over the last two starts. I wouldn’t pull the plug on him just yet. The walks are bad, but the walks have been bad all year. He’s now starting to let some of those runners score, and that’s the main difference between first half Jeff Locke and second half Jeff Locke. That’s not to say he’s been pitching well in August. But if you take out those last two starts, Locke is out-performing his FIP numbers, no matter if you want to go back to the All-Star break, the start of July, or any other point in the season.

The argument all year with Locke has been that he will regress, and that we can’t assume he will continue to out-perform the advanced metrics over success in a small sample size. It would be hypocritical to turn around and remove him from the rotation after two straight bad outings. He might need to be skipped a turn in the rotation, but when looking at Locke versus Kris Johnson and Brandon Cumpton (who are both up against their career innings totals), I still think Locke is the best option.

That could change if Locke keeps pitching the way he did in the last two starts. The Pirates should definitely have someone like Jeanmar Gomez ready to step in if Locke doesn’t look good. They should also be willing to pull the plug quickly, and quicker than last night. That might be the biggest advantage of having guys like Johnson, Cumpton, and Pimentel up in September. If someone like Locke starts to struggle early, the Pirates can pull that pitcher early, replace him with a guy who can pitch several innings, and not have to worry about blowing up the bullpen.

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  1. I think a piggy back apporoach during the early stretch of tough road games would be a brilliant approach. Locke and Cole one maybe two times through the lineup and then whatever combination of Gomez, Cumpton, Pimentel matches up best for another time through. Keeps everyones innings down and keeps hitters off guard because they haven’t seen much of those guys and won’t have as much time to adjust. Maybe a good way to hedge our bets.

  2. It was not that long ago that some of the SP’s were struggling while others were carrying the load. Positions have reversed lately with Liriano about the only guy who has been strong throughout, except for one game. Locke has hit the wall as do all pitchers over a full season of work, and he knows what he has to do to overcome the problems. Cole is another issue altogether. The Pirates wanted to do well in 2013, but they were always aiming at 2014 as the breakout year. I would limit Cole on the number of pitches, but continue him throwing on the same schedule he has followed since June. My thought is that it is riskier to give him too much rest between starts than to keep him making his scheduled starts, but with less pitches. Jeanmar Gomez has earned the right to be the 1st SP in waiting. And, I would bet that if we handed the ball to Justin Wilson, he would get us 5 IP. I liked the work that Johnson did last Sunday, but I still like Cumpton and Jameson Taillon next in line. Taillon has started to come around at AAA and a brief exposure at the MLB level during one of the home stands would be a positive stroke.

    • Interesting notion about Jameson, emjay. Particularly if we get some light between us and the Reds and Cardinals. Perhaps he could take one of the remaining scheduled starts for Locke.

  3. It’s not hypocritical to pull Locke out of the lineup if his regression means he is due for a 4+ ERA the rest of the way. It means you got lucky, now try someone else with a similar FIP/projection. His walk rate is going to push his FIP up, why stick around while he now under performs his FIP? Try another option, if it exists.

  4. Tim, I don’t agree with the premise that Cole is struggling, at least not yet. His start at SD wasn’t the best, clearly, but he was still able to get through 6 innings on a reasonable pitch count. His game score of 49 was far from dreadful. Otherwise, he had a semi-rough start against the Marlins, sandwiched around a number of solid 6-inning efforts.

    Locke, on the other hand, is struggling mightily, and it’s not just regression of his batted ball and strand outcomes. The K rate is down, the BB rate is way up, the GB rate is down…hasn’t made it through 6 in his last 5 starts. He’s either wearing down or falling back on some bad habits, and may need some extra rest to work things out.

    In a perfect world, you could taper Cole off and let Locke take the ball every 5th day, but not while he’s so far off track. Really this is only an issue for the next two series, after which the options expand and you can take advantage of the September callups and the two off days to give Cole his rest and set the playoff rotation.

    I would let Cole make his Tuesday start against Milwaukee, skip Locke’s turn and pitch Gomez & Mazzaro in a tag team. That keeps the rotation in sync with Frankie and AJ going against the Cardinals, rather than the Brewers, which I think is important.

    The following Sunday when Cole’s turn comes up again against St. Louis, you have some flexibility (it’s September 1). Cole, Locke, Pimentel, Gomez – whatever makes sense.

    • I agree, Stephen, that Cole is not struggling. I like very much your idea of setting the rotation for Frankie and AJ to pitch against the Cardinals

  5. What about once September comes load up on arms and only have our starters go 4-5 innings a game with the relievers going 1-2 to finish it? That way you shorten inning counts and you’re not stretching anyone out.

    • I kind of like the idea of going with a piggy back approach with the 4th and 5th starters. If your roster is going to expand, then take advantage of it. I don’t think it’s a slight on Locke at all. You’re just telling him you want his very best for 4 innings. Pair that with Jeanmar for another 4 and hand the ball to Melancon. No biggie right? Do the same with any other combination for the 5th spot. I would think most of the guys would see their stuff play up a tick as well if they know they’re only going 4.

      The big thing to keep in mind is that you only need that approach for a handful of games, maybe 3 or 4 turns through the rotation to get you to the playoffs.

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