First Pitch: The Pirates Might Be Getting a Big Boost Over the Final Six Weeks

A few weeks ago, things weren’t looking good with Gerrit Cole’s rehab work. The right-handed pitcher was coming off a poor second rehab start with Indianapolis, and talked about how he felt “brutal” after the first outing. The Pirates gave him some extra time after that first appearance, allowing him to work on some things with an extra bullpen session.

Since that point, Cole has made two rehab starts, including one tonight. The stats have been much better. He combined for 13 shutout innings on six hits and one walk, with six strikeouts. Tonight he threw seven shutout innings, giving up five hits, one walk, and striking out three. Cole reached 92 pitches, accomplishing what the Pirates wanted him to accomplish of going deep in the game from an innings and pitch count perspective.

The stats are good, but what about how Cole looked? Will Carroll had an encouraging tweet.

The Pirates could use the old Cole. Their rotation has been good in the second half (minus a few bad outings this week), but no one in the rotation would hold back Cole when he’s on top of his game, with the possible exception of the current version of Francisco Liriano that we’re seeing. Last year, Cole looked like an ace in the final two months of the season. Liriano is currently looking like an ace over the last few weeks. If those two can return as top of the rotation guys for the remainder of the season, that would be huge for the Pirates in their playoff race.

If Cole can return and return to his old self, then that would also help another area of the team — the bullpen. The Pirates could move one of their starters to the bullpen, helping to strengthen that part of the team. My choice would be Edinson Volquez. He has the lowest xFIP of the starters, indicating that he’s least likely to continue putting up his current good numbers. In the bullpen, Volquez could go all out with his fastball, which has reached 98 MPH at times this year. He could pair that with his excellent curveball or his plus changeup, and could possibly be a dominant reliever.

The Pirates just added John Axford, who looked good in his debut tonight against the Washington Nationals. They need Justin Wilson to do a 180 with his walk rate, and if that happens, they could be seeing another improvement to the bullpen. But Axford and Wilson aren’t really guys you want to rely on as 7th inning guys. Volquez could be that dominant arm to pair with Tony Watson and Mark Melancon, making it so that the game is pretty much over if you get a lead past the sixth inning.

Moving Volquez to the bullpen would be possible if Gerrit Cole is really back. That would upgrade two spots on the team — the rotation spot by going from Volquez to Cole, and a bullpen spot by adding a potentially dominant reliever. Cole’s rehab hasn’t been the most traditional rehab work, but he seems to be trending in the right direction, and tonight was a good sign. If this is an indication that he’s ready to come back as his old self, then the Pirates could be looking at a big boost for the final six weeks of the season.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is on sale in the Pirates Prospects store. The paperback version has dropped to $14.99 plus shipping. We currently only have one case of books remaining, and the offer is only valid while the books are in stock. There is also an eBook version available for $9.99. The 2013 Prospect Guide is on clearance for $1.

**Prospect Watch: Willy Garcia Putting Up the Best Power Numbers of His Career

**Looking Back at Adrian Sampson and Elias Diaz Before the 2014 Season

**Elias Diaz Promoted to Indianapolis

**Stolmy Pimentel Placed on the 15-Day DL

**Neil Walker Returns to the Pirates Lineup, But Jordy Mercer is Out

**Even With McCutchen and Walker Injured, Pirates Still Projected For the Playoffs

**Morning Report: 2014 Draft Pick With Eye-Popping Numbers

  • Unless the FO does something about the bullpen — fast — it won’t matter if Ćole or any other starter can give us 6 or 7 strong innings. Tonight’s loss was all too reminiscent of what it felt like to root for this team from 1993 to 2012. I was happy that we had the 3-1 lead late, but my gut said it wasn’t enough, and now I just have another bad case of bullpen heartburn.

    • Yep

    • The only thing that kept tonight’s game from ruining the evening was the thought – or hope – that this really was a one-off deal. Watson has been pretty solid all year; he deserved to be an all star; hopefully, it will be another 50 appearances before he has an outing which will be as bad as this one. This team reminds me a little bit of being a kid and driving a cheap old car – every time one problem was fixed it seemed like something else broke.

  • It would be very interesting to know what velocity Gerrit Cole was hitting last night and how that compares to how hard he was throwing this time last year. I understand he may have learned to get AAA hitters out at possibly less than max velocity (which in may ways is a good thing) – but if that is the case, the question arises whether he can get major leaguers out at less than max effort. Otherwise, assuming he doesn’t feel “brutal” today, he seems to be back which would be welcome news (speaking of back, apparently, unfortunately, Neal Walker’s back problem is back as he is not in tonight’s starting line up – even if his benching was precautionary it strongly suggests that his back is not 100%). Even if Gerrit Cole rejoins the Pirates soon, I don’t see how the Bucs can afford to take Eddie Volquez out of the starting line up. Over their last five starts, which goes back almost a month, Jeff Locke has a 6.00 era and Charlie Morton has a 6.58 era – Volquez’ era over his last five starts is 3.77. Jeff, as we know, has a recent history from last year of fading badly in the second half of the season. Unless Locke and Morton turn their performance around quickly and significantly, I don’t think the Pirates can afford in a pennant race to be getting 6 plus ERAs from 40% of their starting rotation especially with Cutch out, and Walker and Alvarez questionable for assorted reasons.

  • I am not sure he fits so well there . You ( meaning all ) can look at all the sabermetrics you want to but he simply walks to many batters to put him in the bull pen .

  • As we get deeper and deeper into the season, it seems quite clear to me that we have to improve the entire pitching staff, including the rotation. Yes, Volquez and Worley have been mostly good comeback stories this year, but they have also been spotty at times. The same applies to Locke, Morton, and Liriano. They all have their moments, but all of their ERAs are around 4 for a reason. They just are not got good enough for a championship caliber team, unless that team is a very strong offensive team with power – which the Pirates are not.

    Although Morton is electric at times, he never seems to be able to sustain it beyond about 5 innings and seems to be mentally fragile. I just do not seem him being a winning starting pitcher.

    Hopefully, next year we will see Cole and 1-2 of the other young guys take full time sports in the rotation – Kingham, Cumpton, Sadler, Taillon, or Sampson. Glasnow may still be a year away yet. But, I would like to see him get some innings in MLB spring training in 2015 and see how he does. Taillon may or may not be ready in the Spring.

    But, we have to improve the rotation. Its just not good enough – when you compare it to the Dodgers, Nationals, Cardinals (when they are healthy), etc.

  • Tetrapharmakos
    August 16, 2014 1:07 pm

    “He has the lowest xFIP of the starters, indicating that he’s least likely to continue putting up his current good numbers.”

    Unless I’m missing something, a low xFIP would indicate that he is MOST likely to continue putting up his current good numbers.

  • IMO, the umpire has so much to do with Morton, he was getting squeezed early by the plate ump and he needs to get the inside pitch against left handers to be successful, I believe Searage was chewing him out for letting the ump get to him, then searage chewed the ump out for squeezing the plate on Morton, you did not see any of that squeezing on those Detroit pitchers. But Morton appears to me to be a pitcher that lets bad calls rattle him, the other problem that he does appear to have is he is not pitching well in the stretch.

  • I’ve never understood the love for Morton – he always has been and always will be a head case. He puts up 1 very good start about every 5 times on the mound, with the other 4 starts usually being average at best, with a couple starts being “bad” usually tossed in. Morton has 12 “quality” starts this year and 9 starts where he’s allowed 4+ earned runs, including 5 of those in his last 7 starts. Furthermore, Charlie has only allowed had a WHIP of 1.00 or less in 7 starts this season, with only 1 game (yes, just 1) where he hasn’t walked a single batter. I think people just get blinded by the one very good start because it always gives a glimpse of his potential – potential which, at the age of 30, I don’t see him coming close to reaching.

    • Yeah but if you look at the whole body of work instead of analyzing the variance in his performances (which you could do for any pitcher), he is a perfectly adequate #3-4 starter with peripherals to match. His style is very high risk high reward. Sometimes the grounders find holes. Sometimes they dont. The average performance is somewhere in the middle. Which is a fine #3 or 4.

  • I am personally a fan of volquez to the pen for the reasons in the article. He has shutdown reliever stuff.

    But there’s also the fact that they have absolutely no commitment to him beyond this year. They’re gonna stick to their morton and locke guns and keep them in the rotation.

    Morton does have the big inning a lot, but that means that his other innings are absolute shutdowns. Does it really matter if a guy scatters 3 runs over 7 innings or gives them all up in one inning? I don’t think so. Using the big innings as the only evidence to say Morton sucks isn’t fair and doesn’t look at the whole body of work.

    • Morton’s FIP and xFIP numbers don’t indicate what a pitcher will do when he really has some pressure put on him. If you want to keep supporting him,that is your prerogative,but it ain’t going to sell much longer, not with most fans or the staff. Take that to the bank.

      • but pressure situations are built into it. it looks at the whole body of work. whether the bases are empty or full.

        if there is something going on in his head where he can’t get outs in high leverage situations, then Hurdle needs to have Hughes ready to come out whether that’s in the 3rd inning or the 7th.

        not trusting Morton is definitely a legitimate opinion/concern. his recent results are definitely not good. I just think it’s more “rough patch” than “he is broken.” i think that’s the only difference in what we’re thinking. and that’s fine!

      • Giving up three runs in an inning is a momentum changer and is a factor because of the mental aspect of the game, giving up the big inning is a letdown to the entire team and changes the complection of a game instantly. While scattering three over several innings is more managable and a lot less stressful to a team. So yes it does matter when and how runs are given up.

        • I would agree with that also pilbo.

        • But if it’s the team that can’t mentally handle a pitcher giving up a 3 run inning as opposed to 3 scattered runs, is that the pitcher’s fault or is the team just extremely weak-willed?

          • Combination of both is what I would say. Remember murphy’s law, anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

  • Scott Kliesen
    August 16, 2014 8:49 am

    I think Volquez is the best arm for the bullpen, but I also think he’s a much better SP option than Locke/Morton, too. I believe they send Locke down since he has an option left until he’s called up again on 9/1.

    • Ian Rothermund
      August 16, 2014 9:20 am

      First, I think it’s set up perfectly to give Charlie a day off when Cole is ready again. He hasn’t missed a start this year and has been struggling the last month or so. Maybe it would be a good time for him to see the DL for two weeks, thus affording the organization some additional time to see how Axford looks. The big takeaway in regards to who moves to the bullpen is that Volquez stands to possess the biggest upside in that situation. Whereas Locke or Morton don’t really present themselves as being a late inning guy.

      • Scott Kliesen
        August 16, 2014 11:16 am

        Morton was quoted last night saying he is healthy. Can’t put healthy players on DL. Seems last night he suffered some bad luck on some of the run scoring hits. However, how many 3+ run innings do Pirates have to suffer through before his “luck” changes?

        • Ian Rothermund
          August 17, 2014 10:53 am

          Right. No healthy players on the DL, lol. I don’t even see that as a Pimentel situation, just a fatigue issue. He could be “healthy,” and still be tired.

        • Ian Rothermund
          August 17, 2014 5:03 pm

          Haha! I knew it. Morton to DL. I mean, not that I’m happy about it, but I legitimately believe Morton’s issue is related to fatigue. People for some reason believe he should be traded or released, or something insane. However, with about 6 weeks left in the season, a 2 week break could be huge in relation to making a push in the last month or so.

  • Personal preference here, but I would much rather have Volquez starting over either Morton or Locke.

    • BG: If we are still using stats to evaluate, you are absolutely correct – last 10 games

      Volquez 6 – 2, 3.39 ERA
      Locke 4 – 2, 3.97 ERA
      Morton 1 – 4, 4.42 ERA

      If it is my call I go with the 2 guys who are a combined 10 – 4 over their last 10 starts apiece. Morton needs to get a clue. The Pirates gave him a great opportunity by signing him to a 3 year $21 mil contract, and more has to be expected from him than from Volquez, who we picked up late for $5 mil, and Locke, who I think is still at the MLB minimum of around $500,000. The curve is hanging and the 2 seamer would probably be an excellent pitch if he managed to keep it down in the zone. If the past is any indicator, just when we were ready to toss him onto the trash heap in past years – he has come back to show us #1 or #2 SP stuff. I watched the postgame interview and he is lost. We have seen glimpses of his breakout the second half of 2013, but this team needs him to step up with some consistency, and be the leader we thought we had signed.

      • I understand the Morton frustration, he is an average two pitch pitcher which means the range of his performance is extremely wide. If one of his pitches isn’t working his options are limited, if both, you get last night. And his struggles have been too frequent of late.

        However, I think you are extrapolating a bit much, win loss record? Looking at your 10 games sample I see similar walk and strikeout numbers, with Morton arguably having better marks than Locke and Volquez. What Morton hasn’t down is strand runners, Volquez has excelled at it. Treating the ability to strand runners as a skill is going to lead to some odd conclusions.

        • Andrew…I mostly agree, but some pitchers have historically done better (and worse) with RISP.

          I read it on Fangraphs somewhere….too lazy (and sick) this morning to look it up.

          • You are correct, though I think it is more some pitchers are better with base empty versus men on base, so from the wind-up versus the stretch.

            Morton is potentially one of those pitchers, but Volquez has terrible splits with men on base, and they aren’t great this year but he really hasn’t been punished.

        • Andrew: Take that 5 – 12 record into negotiations and see what happens – they pay on results, not on how your stats look. He has an excellent arsenal of pitches – enough to go 6 or 7 innings a game if his concentration and command are right. He is 1 – 4 in the last 10 games and I cannot go beyond that to see positives; we need wins down the stretch, and the positives are for us to identify during the off-season getting ourselves psyched up for 2015. If you look back about 5 months ago, I was the one saying I thought he could be just as effective as AJ Burnett – we need it now!

          • Negotiations? Morton is signed through 2016 with an option for 2017. And no team outside maybe Philadelphia evaluates pitchers wins, just doesn’t happen.

            I agree with your points, but pointing to his win lose is not the best way to do it. In his last ten games Morton pitched 7.0 innings and struck 11 against the Rays giving up 2 earned runs, no decision. 7.0 scoreless against St. Louis, no decision, 7.0 innings and 2 runs against the Rockies, no decision, 7.0 innings 1 run against the Marlins, no decision.

    • Personally Brian, I don’t see how any objective person could continue to run Charlie Morton out there every 5th day. He is a disaster waiting to happen, and has had at least one 3 run inning in 14 of his starts. Locke is a whole other issue, but Morton over Volquez ? Please !

      • if a 3.8 ERA pitcher with matching peripherals is a disaster waiting to happen, then i’m confused.

        • i guess you could make the argument that morton COULD be getting tired because of the recent downslide. which would be reason for bullpen.

          But the whole body of work is pretty good IMO. as long as he’s actually healthy.

        • If you want to go by ERA at this time,suit yourself jay. But a pitcher who has had one decent start since June and has had 25 starts and has given up 3 or more runs in a single inning in 14 of those starts is your idea of a reliable starter, knock your self out. I just watched a guy in has last 2 starts who was bouncing 3 – 0 fastballs in the dirt. That tells me a lot by itself.

          • Yeah if he is pitching injured or overly tired or something that has caused the recent sub-par results, then yeah i am concerned too.

            But i still see an amazing curveball and the good sinker that makes me hopeful that this is just some bad luck to even out some of his early season good luck.

            let’s just say that i really hope that i’m right haha. if morton is suddenly broken and no longer a decent middle of rotation pitcher, then the buccos are in trouble.

            • I would hope you are right myself. But he has done nothing since sometime in June, with the exception of his July 5 start, to convince me that I am wrong. And as for his ” bad luck ” jay, frankly,that is worn out. Every game has base hits that squeak through or are or long drives just short of a fence. That is baseball. But pitchers have to control the results….and he seldom does. Morton just lets it snowball. As much as I believe in sabremetrics,there are areas that they just can be misleading, and Strand Rate, and the reasons for those rates, are not quantifiable mathematically, in my opinion of course.

        • I’m with leo on this one. Furthermore morton has the mental toughness of a gnat, anytime things don’t go his way the wheels fall of and he falls apart. Does he have the stuff to be better than he has performed sure he does, the problem is he allows the situation to control him rather than him controlling the situation.

          • I’m sure some of morton’s recent struggles were based in more than luck. But last night’s start doesn’t have me convinced that he’s broken. look at the rbi hits the Nats had.

            Harper’s bloop single was one foot too high for Walker to reach. Laroche’s 1st inning RBI was about 3 feet from walker’s glove. laroche’s other rbi hit was indeed solidly struck.

            does that indicate a lack of mental toughness? i dunno. i guess it could

            I can be convinced that Morton is broken. Just not based on yesterday’s outing.

            if they were smacking doubles to the gap, then i’d be worried.

            • I’m just stating what it looks like to me, and it looks to me that anytime morton does not get calls from the ump going his way or a blooper falls in or an error from the defence ect. Anyway you get the point, anytime something goes wrong you can se the frustration in his face and body language, when that happens his control goes out the window, next thing ya know the bucs are down by a three spot. I would imagine searage was telling him something along the lines of getting his head out of his…. and back in the game last night. Anyway that’s my take.thanks for reading it.

    • I dunno. I think last night was a lot of bad luck for Morton. So many grounder that were juuuust out of the fielders’ reach.

      • Even though Span got thrown out third in the first inning, his first inning infield single would have been an out(depending on Pedro’s throw) if they wouldn’t had him playing 20 feet from the bag. Pedro actually saved extra bases fielding the ball. I was a little miffed at the defensive alignment but I figured they have Span as a pull hitter. But his next time up they had Pedro playing where you have to play a guy with his speed. On the grass covering the bunt and regular position off the bag. Then on Harpers two rbi bloop single over Walkers head he has NFW playing almost on the infield grass down 1-0 instead of at double play depth with one out. Even Walk said on the broadcast, if Walker is playing normal he catches the soft liner for out two. I understand shifts, just not the Pirates.

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