First Pitch: The State of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Rotation

For most of the season the Pittsburgh Pirates have been carried by strong pitching, especially out of the starting rotation. Almost all of their starters have performed well this year, including most of the depth options that have come up to fill in for injuries. Now we’re approaching the end of the season, and the Pirates have their best starters in the mix.

The Pirates are also pretty much a lock to make the playoffs. The only question is where they will end up. If they win the division, they will need a 3-4 man rotation for the post-season. If they make it to the Wild Card, they will need one key starter, and then three other starters if they advance.

The one starter who is a lock for the rotation, and who is the top candidate for that one key start is Francisco Liriano. He has been the Pirates ace this year, and has been huge in big game situations. Liriano would be the obvious choice for the Wild Card game, and would be the number one starter in a division series. Beyond Liriano, things get questionable.

A.J. Burnett has had trouble avoiding the big inning lately. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
A.J. Burnett has had trouble avoiding the big inning lately. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Based on his overall numbers, A.J. Burnett would be the second best starter. However, Burnett has struggled since his second start of August, giving up a 5.75 ERA in 40.2 innings over seven starts. He’s mostly been a victim of the big inning. Here is a rundown of the worst of his starts in that period.

August 10th: One run in the first five innings. Five runs on a walk and four hits in the sixth inning, with only one run coming off Tony Watson.

August 15th: No runs through four innings. Five runs on six hits in the fifth inning. The lone out recorded was on a bunt pop-up by Lance Lynn.

August 25th: This wasn’t a bad start, but he did have the one bad inning. Burnett gave up one run in the first seven innings. In the eighth inning he gave up three runs, with one of them coming off Tony Watson. It wouldn’t have mattered in this case, since the Pirates were shutout 4-0.

September 6th: Burnett didn’t have his stuff on this day. He gave up two runs in the first, then three in the third, which ended his day.

September 11th: He threw five shutout innings, then gave up two runs in the sixth. That was largely due to back to back walks to start the inning, followed by two straight singles. In the seventh, Burnett gave up three hits and recorded one out. Three runs scored, with two scoring off Jeanmar Gomez.

In almost every start, Burnett has had an inning that has spiraled out of control. In most of those starts, he looked great until that inning. That’s not to say that he’s only had starts like this. There were two starts in August where he went seven innings, giving up one run. There was another where he pitched a complete game with one run. But the big inning trend is a concern, and it’s hard to explain. You pretty much have to go with Burnett because his stuff gives you the best chance to win. But considering the recent history, Clint Hurdle might want to have a quicker hook when things start looking bad.

Charlie Morton has been the third best starter in the rotation in the second half, although he recently suffered a minor foot injury. That shouldn’t impact him the rest of the season. He wasn’t exactly pitching well in that start before the injury. However, in his previous six starts he had a 1.74 ERA. Those were sandwiched between two bad outings against the Cardinals. I’d mention how they might not want him to go up against the Cardinals, but that’s not really an issue. The Pirates can only play the Cardinals in two scenarios. They could play them in the Wild Card if Cincinnati wins the division. I don’t see this happening, but if it did, Liriano would start, and not Morton. The only other way they’d meet is in the NLCS if one team won the Wild Card and then beat the Braves. It’s not impossible, but if that does happen, then that’s the point to have the “Should Morton pitch against St. Louis” discussion. For now, Morton seems safe in the playoff rotation.

Then there’s Gerrit Cole, who has been quietly improving in the second half. I wrote about this before his last start, and then he went out and threw seven shutout innings, with nine strikeouts. The issue with Cole is innings. If the Pirates have four starters who are capable, then they might want to use Cole as a reliever. For one, he’s a rookie in the playoffs, so his performance wouldn’t be guaranteed. He also has 166 innings this year, after throwing 132 last year. He’ll have about three starts remaining during the regular season, which should push that innings total over 180. That’s a big increase, and he probably shouldn’t be expected to pitch his best at that point.

Next is Jeff Locke, who has struggled in the second half, prior to tonight’s outing. Locke has been giving up too many walks, and unlike the start of the year he is allowing a normal amount of runners to score. That’s a problem when combined with the free passes. If Locke can turn things around and pitch more like tonight, he could be a playoff option. That would require him to keep the walks down, and have success because he’s keeping runners off the bases, rather than finding a way to avoid those runners scoring once they reach base.

Finally there is Wandy Rodriguez, who threw a sim game today. Based on normal rehab progression, his next start would normally be a five inning outing, with 80 pitches. The Pirates could easily have him make that start in the majors. However, they might also want him facing actual live competition. Since the minor league season is over, the only option would be an intrasquad game against minor leaguers during the Fall Instructional Leagues, which starts next week. At any rate, Rodriguez is getting stretched out, and should be ready for the playoffs. He’d be a great candidate for the rotation in the playoffs, since he has previous playoff experience.

The Pirates have options, although they only have one starter that makes you comfortable. After Francisco Liriano, my playoff rotation would include A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton, and Wandy Rodriguez. Burnett isn’t going to make you comfortable due to the big inning issues, but he’s the best option in the group, and he has previous playoff experience. You just hope he can avoid the big inning. Morton has been great, and is an easy choice if he continues what he’s been doing this year. If Rodriguez is healthy and stretched out, then he’s also an easy choice for me. If one of these guys can’t go, the decision would come between Locke and Cole. If Locke finishes strong, he’d look like a much better option. You don’t want to take too much from tonight’s start, since it did come against the Cubs. Locke would need to show this in his final starts before being an option. The only way I’d use Cole is if it was an emergency and two of the above starters were completely unreliable or unavailable.

The good thing is that the Pirates have plenty of options to choose from. They don’t have a roster full of Liriano’s, with a bunch of easy decisions. Then again, I don’t think many teams have four starters with zero question marks.

Who would be in your playoff rotation?

Links and Notes

**The latest episode of the Pirates Prospects podcast is out, featuring special guest Rocco DeMaro: P3 Episode 19: Catching Up With Rocco DeMaro

**Pirates Open 11-Game Homestand with 3-1 Victory

**Injury Update: Wandy takes another step forward

**Pirates Notebook: Previewing the Cubs

**Tyler Glasnow Named to Baseball America’s Minor League All-Star Team

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Lots will change between now and the play-offs. If the division title goes down to the wire then that may determine our rotation as those final regular season games will be just as important to us. It will be a question of ‘Who is rested?’ instead of ‘What would our ideal rotation be?’

But to play the game, I go with: Liriano, Burnett, Cole, Morton. Though if he pitches another couple of games like he did last night and the opponent does worse against lefties, then I would have no concerns pushing Locke into the rotation for Morton. It isn’t like the chance of an arm injury for Cole significantly increases with 205 vs. 195 IP, saying “over 200” is a fine guideline but it is ridiculous to make decisions based on a simple guideline when you have so much more individualized data to bring into the picture. Since we have so many good options, I don’t trust Wandy to be 100%. And Morton doesn’t start if we face the Cards in any round.


I really like the fact that Cole has 1 start against LA and none against St. Louis, Cincy and Atlanta.


Point is, playoff rotation is yet to be determined. However, I don’t think you dismiss the possibility of Cole being one of your starters. It is just a one or two-game sample, but this kid looks like he is approaching being a dominant pitcher. Let’s see what happens the next 2 1/2 weeks. But as others have said, it is very nice to be talking about 6 starters as legitimate options. How long will it take them to not only stretch out Wandy, but for him to pitch effectively? Will the location be there? (very important for a soft tosser). If I’m the Pirates, I try to monitor Cole pitches going forward – no more than say 90-95 per outing. If he is still dominating the Cubs on Sept. 24, why not consider him?
An interesting add-on – the current order of the rotation – 1. Liriano 2. Burnett 3. Locke 4. Morton 5. Cole. Right now Liriano is scheduled for his last start Sept. 25. That would give him 5 days off before the first playoff game, so I think the current order is something the Pirates management looked at a couple of weeks ago, and skipped Cole twice and Locke once to get it in the current order.


All very excellent comments – just a few thoughts

1. We have not locked in the playoffs yet, so discussing what we are going to do is inappropriate.
2. The Pirates do not have the luxury that the Nats had last year, nor the same situation – they were protecting a guy who had already had TJ surgery and were trying to avoid abuse in the first year.
3. Cole may never develop arm fatigue or an arm injury, but I think it does get riskier the more he pitches beyond the number of innings pitched the previous year.
4. The Pirates can take care of this themselves. Before his gem against Texas with Yu Darvish on the mound, the Pirates were looking very shaky. After that win this team has rallied and has won 3 more in a row. Liriano looked very good, AJ in the 97 degree heat of Texas perservered for another win, and Jeff Locke looked excellent last night. If Morton can return to his recent form, and with Wandy very close, this may be the best possible opportunity to shut Gerrit Cole down for the year and try not to risk any further wear on his arm.
5. The Pirates were up against it just 4 games ago and this kid provided just what this team needed at that time. The Pirates were thinking of shutting him down before that start, but because of the beatings in St Louis, they decided the 2013 season was worth a calculated risk, and he came through. Now it is the time to go back to the basics of long term development of arm strength, and not take any further risk with him.


I see 3 seasons in one, I see the regular season ending at the end of August, the 2nd season being Sept. when all the stops need to be pulled to win every game and the 3rd being the run for the roses, the playoffs.
There are three ways to pick pitchers for playoff games IMO.
1. How each pitcher matched up against the team they are going to play in the playoffs.
2. Pick them only on their veteran status.
3. Pick the pitchers that are doing the best at the end of the regular season.
If it were up to me, it would depend on who the Pirates play.
If it is the Cards, I go with Lirano, Locke and Cole and if I need a 4th pitcher, it would be Burnett.
If it is the Reds I go with Lirano, Cole, Locke. If I need a 4th pitcher it would be Burnett. Wandy and Genmar in pen.
The reason I don’t like Burnett in the Playoffs is because I believe he has too much influence over Hurdles decisions.
Hurdle will let Burnett give up too many runs before yanking him, in the playoffs every run is critical, I like Cole because he is the best talent they have and pitching better than any of their pitchers at this point. In College he pitched a lot more than he is pitching now.
For the Wild card game, if they play St.Louis it is Liriano, if they play the Reds it is Cole. I don’t think experience throws the baseball, I think talent throws the baseball and a lot has been made about Burnetts Disposition on the mound, but
nobody on the Pirate pitching staff has a more focused demeanor than Cole, he also has more fight in him than any other pitcher they have. I believe that Searage and Martin have the ability to prepare Cole for a big game.
Since I know Hurdle pretty well, I think it will go something like this.
Liriano, Burnett, Morton, Locke, no matter who they play.

Mike C.

OK, I totally understand and agree protecting Cole’s arm should be priority #1 .
We’ve all seen rookies perform great in POs, and experienced vets do poorly in POs (barry bonds?)

All I’m asking is, what does “experience” REALLY bring to the game?

Does AJ or Wandy call a better game? Martin can probably handle that for Cole.
Handling the pressure? Cole’s handled POs in amateur and minors. some might say it’s not the same as the MLB POs but then I come to…
Most of us here adhere to analytical analysis (i hope), then we can agree “clutch” is a un-measurable myth in baseball (unlike other team sports). Same as hitting with RISP. same as Santa Claus.
Clutch imo is performing at a different rate at different times/situations.
as Keith Law has stated, that’s just saying he’s performing more POORLY in non-clutch situations. also, he’s stated “non-clutch” players, or players who wither under pressure situations are eventually all weeded out before A ball.

I’ve asked this simple question b4 when Buck was starting ahead of T.Sanchez…
what IS the quantative value/advantage Experience brings to the table in baseball?

Cato the Elder

I have very little sympathy for the ‘experience factor,’ but if I were to defend an analytic value with regards to experience I would say something like: Experience is roughly equivalent sample size; more experience equal a greater sample size. Therefore in terms of analysis, an experienced player is more likely to play to his career averages and is thereby more predictable. Assuming predictability is a good thing. Ceteris paribus, the experienced player is better than the inexperienced.


Certainly seems like the Pirates front office is working off of different data regarding pitchers wearing out than what is the common belief. Huntington has said that cole can start through the playoffs. He has also been the Pirates most consistent pitcher this year. You know with Cole that you will have a chance to win.
Number of times Cole has allowed a given # of runs:
4 runs – 1 start
3 runs – 7 starts
2 runs – 6 starts
1 run – 1 start
0 runs – 1 start
You can’t say that with any other pitcher. He’s going to allow 2-3 runs. Unless he shows signs of tiring, I say he is a must in the playoff rotation.


Cole has definitely pitched well and also consistently. To be fair, though, the run counts have to be matched up against his innings counts, which are shorter than some other pitchers.

5 IP’s – 2 starts
5+ IP’s – 3 starts
6 IP’s – 4 starts
6+ IP’s – 2 starts
7 IP’s – 4 starts
7+ IP’s – 1 start

Average: 6 IP’s (plus a small fraction)
ERA = 3.48

As long as the Bucs’ bullpen is holding up, this sort of pitching is fine. Then it’s just a question of his innings load.


I concur with the above posts regarding Cole. He’s improving with each passing game and seems to get stronger. His strikeout rates are improving and his walk rates staying low. He has the ability to dominate a game and has the attitude and confidence to do it in a big game. I’d actually consider going AJ, Liriano, Cole, Wandy so that we have a righty/lefty thing going on although I think Ground Chuck deserves a playoff start over Wandy at this point. If we resign AJ, our rotation next year will be interesting come June unless there are injuries. I’d also be very surprised if Wandy didn’t return. In any event, the next few weeks are gonna be pretty exciting.


Liriano, Burnett, Cole and Morton. These 4 have the best stuff and despite Cole’s inning bump he has looked stronger as the season has progressed and seems to have an arm similar to Verlander where he doesn’t seem to tire like a normal mortal. I just don’t think Wandy Rod has pitched enough this year to merit jumping right into a big game in the playoffs. I’m going with the pure ability to shut a team down, because for Pittsburgh to advance in the playoffs the pitchers are going to have to be dominate because they don’t have the hitting ability of any of the teams in the NL that are still in contention.


The Pirates lineup with Byrd and Morneau hitting the way they have makes our offense as good as any except maybe Cards.


I agree it has drastically improved with the additions, however we aren’t close to the Cards, Reds, and especially the Dodgers. Our 3B is in a horrendous slump, we are missing our starting LF and sparkplug so in reality Byrd and Morneau have helped cover the losses of Marte to injury and Alvarez to another long slump. If Alvarez starts hitting again this whole team changes. That’s a big if the other teams top sluggers don’t have attached.



I like the idea of a game 3 (if we get past the play in ) of a Wandy-Cole shared game. Let Wandy start (or Locke if Wandy isn’t ready), let him go 3-4 innings and bring in Cole whenever the situation presents itself. You would have both guys available for a game 5 if need be. I like mixing the up the Righty-Lefty to neutralize the other teams bench in the middle innings. I feel lie Locke, Wandy, and Cole can all be very effective in these half game scenarios…..

Andrew Smalley

Lots of inconsistency in this post, in my eyes. Tim (rightly) ridicules managers for sticking to the traditional use of closers and only pitching them in 9th inning, save situations. But, today, he concludes that rookies shouldn’t be used in playoff-rotations …..because they haven’t been used in similar capacities before? Why is one traditional decision followed and the other is not? Saying one shouldn’t do something because it hasn’t been done w/ much frequency in the past is akin to the closer-dynamic. It’s lazy thinking and gives too much deference to tradition and ‘they way it’s been done.’

Also, Cole has 17 starts I believe. He’s pitched his best in the last several starts. It’s not like he’s not ready for big games. To say he shouldn’t start because of lacking experience and because he’s likely to not have his best stuff at this stage of the season isn’t supported by the facts and his results.

He’s our third best option right now, based on stats – especially recently. Experience, tradition, and whatever other intangible-rigmarole that cliched analysts want to say…..doesn’t matter. Thankfully, I’m pretty sure that NH and company don’t subscribe to the theory best summed up as ‘well, that’s the way it’s been done.’

Cato the Elder

Reading comprehension 101:

“The issue with Cole is innings.”

Class dismissed.


Surprised to see you discount Cole as a rotation option for the playoffs, especially considering that you think he’s really rounded into form lately. He’s never been a guy that gets shelled and completely takes you out of the game (never allowed more than 4 runs, though that’s admittedly probably a little protection on the part of Hurdle and the front office), and at his best, he’s as good an arm as the Pirates have. Also doesn’t shy away from the big stage, with his latest showdown with Yu serving as Exhibit A.

Blue Bomber

Nobody is discounting Cole. He’s approaching a redline for increase in innings pitched for a young player. Statistics bear out that if he passes that point there is a large increase in the chance that he will be injured. Do you want to see him pitch in the playoffs and then miss 1.5 years being out with TJ surgery? I don’t think that’s a very tough call. It’s the exact same choice the Nationals had with Strasburgh last year. His time will come, but not this year.


What the Nats did with Strasburg should never be replicated (you find a way to pitch your ace). I think the reason Neal has said Cole will be available to pitch is that he’s not so much looking at innings, but pitches per inning and pitches per start. The thought is beginning to be that throwing “tired pitches” could be worse than anything else.


I agree that you find a way to protect your ace, however it is a lot more subjective than innings or pitch counts. (I believe it is more important to develop depth than one or two pitchers.) No one knows how to keep pitchers healthy. No one knows where the cut point for workload is, I have read post-mortems that state Dusty Baker’s usage of Prior, Wood was not all that egregious, though he is still a moron. The Cole Strasberg comparisons are of little value, Strasberg was coming off reconstructive surgery.

I never understood all the debate over playoff rotations, is your probability of winning really altered that much between starting Cole vs a healthy Wandy. Playoff games can easily turn into battle of bullpens due to multiple off days. Given that starters become worse with each turn through the lineup, optimal bullpen usage is likely to be more effective than a marginal upgrade at starter.


Re Wood and Prior:

Wood 177 IP at the age of 21. Also very high pitch counts due to 244 strikeouts plus a very high walk rate and deep pitch counts. That’s at least borderline arm abuse – likely a lot more. Missed the next full season.

Prior 234 IP at the age of 22. Also very high pitch counts, since he struck out 263 batters and went deep in counts. Was never the same again. Goes way past the standard for pitcher abuse.

Cato the Elder

I don’t disagree. It is not a simple matter of innings pitched and there are no guarantees with regard to pitcher health. I may be in the minority, but I for one am quite happy with the teams success and development this year. Moreover, I would love to have a long playoff run, but I won’t be heartbroken if we don’t win the world series. On the other hand, I would be devastated if Cole injured his arm and missed 12-18 months with TJ surgery. Furthermore, I don’t think the difference between Cole and Wandy or Morton or Locke, is so great as to warrant the risk. I understand why others would disagree, but in my mind this year has already been a raging success. Everything else is gravy and the only thing that would change the warm-fuzzy feeling of the 2013 Pirates would be a significant, long-term injury to Cole or McCutchen. That is why I hesitate to throw caution to the wind.


We are in agreement, the nature of a playoffs being random and unpredictable (hence enthralling, for most.) I think the strategy of “all in” or shun every risk to win is reckless.

The one positive of the Bud Selig Memorial one game playoff is it has placed importance on winning the division. For me in sports I value long-term sustained success more than a moment in the sun. Optimize for current season but do not mortgage the future.


I don’t advocate riding Cole into the ground like a mule. Heck I probably don’t even start him in the playoffs as of now. But if Cole were our best pitcher, then doing what the Nationals did is by no means a good blueprint.

Cato the Elder

What the Cubs did with Wood and Pryor should never be replicated (you find a way to take care of your ace).


There is no real evidence to support this theory. No one knows what the “redline” is or even if there is one. I can give just as many examples of young pitchers that saw much larger increases in innings than what Cole will with no ill effects.


Call me a knucklehead, but it would be foolish to bypass Cole as a Starter if given the opportunity. Other than Liriano, he’s the Pirates best arm right now. I don’t buy into the theory he won’t be pitching his best come playoff time because of his innings count. He’s already past where he’s ever been and he’s pitching better than ever. He’s a big strong young man who until proven otherwise is raising his game as the season progresses.

I would go Liriano, Burnett, Cole, Morton/Locke piggyback


Liriano, Burnett, Wandy and Morton…. i would use Gomez before Locke and Cole i’m not sure about until PO time comes and we see where his arm is at….

Cato the Elder

Even if you don’t subscribe to the theory that Cole will pitch worse as the year goes on, it is hard to ignore the fact that a drastic increase in innings increases the likelihood of injury. And frankly, the one thing that could ruin this season (for me at least) is not an early exit from the playoffs, but a significant arm injury to Gerrit Cole. Just imagine how you would feel if he blew out his arm and missed the entire ’14 season with TJ surgery. Ask a Mets fan. Even if he is the best option, he is not so clearly better than Morton or a healthy Wandy as to risk next season, or his entire career for that matter. Too much of the Pirates future rides on that right arm to be cavalier about it.


I’m more of a Nolan Ryan, Leo Mazzone advocate than Nationals GM guy. I don’t live in fear of elbow injury. I think Pitchers should pitch during the season and rest in the winter.

Jeremy J Stein

The 70’s era of pitching 280 to 330 innings is long gone. The game has changed. There is a higher level of competition today then back then because more athletes persue baseball careers today rather than opt to persue a different path like business, law or meidcal (doctor).
Today you can become a multi millionaire playing baseball. Back then it was just a game and wasn’t taken as a serious career.

Jeremy J Stein

than back then, sorry.


Well starting pitchers get injured at around a 40% rate, and a 1/3 of pitchers in the majors have had Reconstructive UCL surgery, so I think organizations should fear pitcher injury and find ways to reduce it.


Tim: Well stated, and any article that can list 6 experienced SP’s for the Rotation, tells the story of the 2013 Pirates. And, I am not sure you can describe any of these 6 SP’s as #4 or #5 guys – we have enjoyed having possibly 2 who could be described as 1-2’s, and the other 4 are 2-3’s or solid #3 ’s, with 5 of the 6 signed through 2014, or well beyond in the cases of Cole and Locke. We needed that start from Locke last night, and we need to see more of the same from Morton tonight. During the broadcast they showed Wandy in his 5 inning bullpen, and he looked pretty sharp. Like Burnett earlier in the year, veterans like he and Wandy do not need a trip to the minors to rehab. I would not see any problem with him getting out there on a limited pitch basis with somebody like Jennmar Gomez or Brandon Cumpton scheduled to come in beginning in the 4th or 5th inning.

Mike C.

first, love your site and all the analytical analysis you bring.
what I don’t get is during the regular season you poopoo “experience, leadership, savvy” etc. over talent.
but come playoff time, that “experience” seems to carry a lot of value.
ex) valuing wandy over cole
does someone with exp. play better in the POs? do players with no or little exp. play worse? why is it different than the regular season?
has there been an actual study done where u based this “value” from?

lastly, just wanna give an my own example
Verlander in POs
also Bumgarner and David Price as rookies POs.

Cato the Elder

To be fair, Tim’s analysis re Cole is roughly 1 part ‘rookie/experience’ to 4 parts ‘innings.’ In fact, he explicitly says: “The issue with Cole is innings.”

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