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.”