The Rotation Has Led the Way For the Pirates So Far in 2017

PITTSBURGH — Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong for the Pirates in the first month of the season has. They lost their best two hitters to off-the-field issues, they’ve had four more players go down with injuries, they haven’t hit well, their defensive has been embarrassing at times, fifth starter and top high-level pitching prospect Tyler Glasnow’s ERA is just a stitch under 7.00, and after 26 games, the Pirates are two games behind the Chicago Cubs.

Wait what was that last part again? Sure enough, through all of the doom and gloom that surrounded the Pirates’ April, the team remains in solid striking position to wrest control from the leaders and reigning World Champs. But how?

Well part of it is due to some underperformance on the part of the Cubs. Projected by PECOTA to win 93 games before the season, they’re just 14-12 and on pace for 87 wins.

But the bulk of the rest of the reason for the fact that the Pirates’ slow start out of the gate hasn’t turned into an out-and-out disaster has been the team’s starting pitching. The team’s starting pitchers have a 3.64 ERA, which is third in the National League, and that figure has been significantly inflated by Glasnow’s 6.97 mark, which is fourth-highest in the NL amongst starters that have thrown 20 innings. Chad Kuhl’s isn’t that much better, with a 6.26.

So the team has really been led by the top three starting pitchers: Gerrit Cole, Ivan Nova and Jameson Taillon. Nova has been one of the best pitchers in the National League with a 1.50 ERA, a 3.35 xFIP, an 0.75 WHIP and just one walk. Taillon has also been excellent, with a 2.05 ERA and a 3.77 xFIP. All three have done a good job of not just pitching well, put pitching deep and keeping the Pirates out of the back-end of the bullpen. Nova is averaging 7.2 innings per start, while Cole and Taillon are right at six. That’s helped keep the Pirates’ relievers to 86 innings pitched — fifth-fewest in the NL — despite Glasnow’s continued struggles to go deep into games.

On the whole it’s been a positive start from the rotation and an especially impressive start for the Top 3. It also comes as a pretty unexpected development. As recently as the beginning of Spring Training, there seemed to still be a pretty significant chance that general manager Neal Huntington would make a trade to acquire another starting pitcher before the season.

In fact, it wasn’t really until the team met in Bradenton that the Pirates’ young starters — all but Nova are 26 or younger — knew they would have to be the ones to get the job done.

“I think once we got to Spring Training and nothing had happened, that’s when we were like, ‘It’s us.’” Kuhl said. “It’s kind of on us, how we’re going to do this year.”

While the Pirates pitching staff as a whole has overperformed compared to external expectations, Huntington said that what’s happened was right in line with what he thought they could do, and that’s one of the reasons he decided not to pull the trigger on a trade for a bigger name.

“We’ve loved this group. We’ve loved the potential of this group and that’s why we went with this group,” Huntington said. “We may have a couple tough turns through the rotation and that doesn’t mean we’re not going to like this group. It’s the reality of young pitching. Jameson is mature and advanced beyond his years. With Chad Kuhl, we love the stuff and the competitiveness. Tyler Glasnow is going through some growing pains at the major-league level.

“There are times, and we’ve been ultra-conservative with most of our prospects’ development, there are times where it’s the best time for a player or pitcher to go through development at the major-league level. They always have that next phase. In Tyler’s case, we’re going through that. It might be a little bit bumpy. Gerrit looks like Gerrit again, which is fantastic. Nova continues to just attack the strike zone with quality pitches and get a lot of early-count soft contact.”

While the Pirates have gone through a month needing only five starters, Huntington feels good about his depth, as well.

“We’ve got a lot of depth behind that, whether it’s Trevor Williams or [Steven] Brault or [Drew] Hutchison or even Josh Lindblom, who continues to throw the ball well in Triple-A,” he said. “Our scouts do a great job. Our development staff does a fantastic job. Pitching is a game of attrition. I wish we’d hit on everybody, but we’ve turned a large number of pitching prospects into guys that are either pitching successfully at the major-league level, again with some anticipated bumps along the way, or are on the verge of helping us win at the major-league level.”

It’s not out of the question that the Pirates could look to trade for a pitcher at some point this season — something they’ve done in each of the last two seasons — but for now, it seems as if they’re in good hands with their young arms.

“Absolutely,” Kuhl said. “We have a really good group, especially with Nova and Gerrit being the veterans of the staff. It’s a group that wants to get better and wants to be great.”

  • Methinks Kuhl gets replaced by Kingham midseason. Glasnow is slowly coming along but I think by seasons end he’s very reliable. Also, it’d be nice if El Coffee would start hitting. J-Hay and Bell have been the Bucs 2 best hitters.

    • JHay showing what happens when you hit the ball in the air. I love it!

      • I’m impressed that Bell has a few long homers from the right side. I think he’s gonna be a beast of a hitter.

        • I can’t remember seeing more improvement over a shorter amount of time than Josh Bell’s swing from the right side.

          18 months ago I would’ve given him maybe a 10% chance of succeeding from that side against big league pitchers; the swing was a mess and would’ve been easily exploited by guys who knew what they were doing. Then all the sudden last year he shows up simplified with a quiet load short to the ball with great loft. Night and day difference. Hell, on mechanics alone I’d easily take his current right-handed stroke over his current left-handed stroke.

  • Wasn’t Kuhl a supposed control artist in the minors? Why can’t he throw the ball over the plate now? I haven’t read one thing (that I can think of) about that issue.

    • IIRC he went through a period where he struggled in AAA last season. I imagine there’s an article buried on this site somewhere about that.

    • “Control artist” overstates his minor league ability; I haven’t seen anyone put more than a 50 (average) on his command.

      And it’s only been 5 starts this year, anchored by a 4-walk and 6-walk performance in two of them.

  • Nova has a 3.35 FIP and JT a 3.77 FIP? So some regression is in store?

    Plus, I think that the Cubs have more potential to reel off a long winning streak than we do?

    Other than that, I am optimistic. 🙂

    • The Cubs have holes. They have more talent than we do, but they lost their leadoff hitter, a good starter, and their closer. The Pirates have to be better in the division. This week against the Reds and Brewers will show if they are up to the challenge.

      • I also think some of their pitching regression might relate to the number of innings throw last year. That’s a lot of wear and tear, especially for a guy like Lester who has pitched a ton in his career.

    • xFIP usually doesn’t produce video game type numbers. Only eight starters right now have an xFIP below 3.00. Nova’s 3.35 xFIP ranks 20th out of 102 qualified pitchers. Cole ranks 24th at 3.53 and Taillon ranks 34th. So all three are in the top third of baseball by that metric.

      As the season goes on, the higher numbers will become rare. Last year there were 137 starters with 100+ innings. Only three of them had an xFIP below 3.00. A 3.35 was 10th. 3.77 was 37th.

      • Very much related to Lee’s question – With a WHIP of only .75, Nova has an xFIP about two runs higher than his ERA. Why is that? I realize ERA’s are often misleading but why specifically is Nova’s xFIP that high for someone who isn’t allowing a whole lot of base runners?

        • His BABIP is .224, which explains the low WHIP, and also explains the higher xFIP. That would be normalized to around .300 for FIP purposes, which means he’s expected to be giving up more hits than he has so far.

          He’s also giving up a low amount of home runs per fly balls, and stranding a higher than normal number of runners, which also contribute to the xFIP.

          • Thanks

          • Is a .300 BABIP considered league average then for a pitcher? Am I understanding that right? Is there a league average for HR per fly balls?

          • Sounds like the xFIP system dams you if you do well, expecting everyone to regress to league norms rather than just being exceptional.

        • FIP essentially takes ERA and regresses BABIP and strand rate (as a proxy for sequencing) to league average.

          xFIP takes FIP and regresses HR/FB rate to league average.

          Neither are league or park adjusted.

    • Darkstone42
      May 3, 2017 2:08 pm

      On the one hand, yes, expect regression. On the other, I wouldn’t expect them to regress all the way to those numbers, necessarily. They’re both good contact managers. That helps a lot.

      Taillon also has walked more than usual. I know the strike zone is being called smaller this year, so that’s likely part of it, but he also might have better command to tap into as the season goes on to improve that FIP number moving forward.

    • Michael Fiffik, Esquire
      May 3, 2017 2:42 pm

      I agree that cubs have more upside potential. We’ll see some separation.

  • Great piece Alan. With Glasnow showing signs of progress there’s a lot to be excited about with this rotation. Just have to hope they stay healthy.