BRADENTON, Fla. – It’s probably not a big revelation that pitching wins championships.
Last year, the top eight teams in starter ERA made the post-season. Coincidentally enough, or maybe not coincidence, those teams also were the eight teams to make it beyond the Wild Card game. That group included teams with a good offense, and teams with a bad offense.
I broke down each of those teams by their most valuable starters, ordering the rotation spots by WAR. The goal here was to see what kind of production the teams got from their top starters, regardless of whether those starters were intended to be their top guys at the start of the year.
The number one starter on those teams averaged a 3.01 ERA and a 3.14 xFIP.
The number two starter on those teams averaged a 3.29 ERA and a 3.52 xFIP.
The number three starter averaged a 3.66 ERA and a 3.91 xFIP.
The number four starter averaged a 3.79 ERA and a 3.95 xFIP.
For perspective, the league average last year was a 4.49 ERA and a 4.41 xFIP.
The Pirates didn’t have a horrible rotation last year. They ranked 13th in ERA and 10th in xFIP. They were slightly above average, without having anyone who would classify as better than the average number four starter in the rotations above. This was because they didn’t have anyone who was really below-average. That’s a good thing.
The bad thing is that they need a few guys to step up at the top of the rotation. They had that a few years ago in 2015 when they last made the playoffs. The starters by the numbers that year:
#1 – 2.60 ERA/3.16 xFIP
#2 – 3.38/3.16
#3 – 3.18/3.55
#4 – 4.49/3.94 *Technically J.A. Happ was the 4th most valuable pitcher, but I included Jeff Locke’s numbers here, since he had almost three times as many innings.
Look familiar? It was a different league at the time, with the league average being a 4.10 ERA and a 4.00 xFIP. But the Pirates had three starters who were much better than those totals, one starter who was around league average in xFIP, and traded for another guy who ended up being much better than the league-average totals.
I look at the 2018 rotation, and I see some hope. However, I also see a need for improvements.
The hope is that the base is good. The Pirates are returning four of their starters from last year. I could see Jameson Taillon being one of the top of the rotation starters the team needs. In his pro debut in 2016, he had numbers to match the average number two starter from above. The other returning starters — Ivan Nova, Chad Kuhl, and Trevor Williams — project to be average or above average, with the hope that one of them over-performs like Nova did after being acquired in 2016, and puts up another performance that is well above-average.
But even if Taillon realizes his top of the rotation potential, and even if one of Nova, Kuhl, or Williams steps up to over-perform, the Pirates still need more.
They still need more because those numbers above show that you can’t just rely on Taillon and one of the other starters to step up and carry the rotation. You need at least one other guy who can be well above-average.
They still need more because one of the keys to last year was health. The rotation stayed mostly healthy, which is why a group of slightly above-average starters led to a group that was above-average. The health won’t hold up, which means that the Pirates will eventually turn to their starters in the bullpen or Triple-A. I see a few guys who could be league-average or better (Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault, Nick Kingham, Clay Holmes to name a few), but I don’t think you can rely on those guys to post league-average production.
There is some hope. Joe Musgrove has shown some potential, although his actual results have come from the bullpen, rather than the rotation. If he’s able to carry his bullpen success over to the rotation, then I could see him as another guy in the Nova/Kuhl/Williams group who can step up and be a well above-average starter.
There’s also the hope that Tyler Glasnow could figure it all out, at least to the point where he can be an above-average starter. His upside puts him ahead of the guys in the previous group, but his risk has him in the bullpen at the start of the year, while those guys are in the rotation.
Then there’s Mitch Keller, who I could see arriving this year. He’s going to need some upper level polishing, as he has very little experience against hitters above A-ball. But he’s got the chance to be a top of the rotation starter, and could be a guy who makes a seamless transition to the majors when the time comes, putting up strong numbers, rather than seeing an adjustment period.
The Pirates could see Taillon step up as a top of the rotation starter. By the end of the season they could have Keller putting up numbers similar to what Taillon put up in his debut. They could also see one of the Glasnow/Musgrove/Nova/Kuhl/Williams group step up and replicate some of the numbers from above. But there are a lot of “ifs” involved here, and a lot needs to go right in order for the Pirates to have a rotation like one of those top teams from last year.
Furthermore, their other potential top of the rotation guys are probably too far off to pair up with Taillon and Keller in the future. Luis Escobar has top of the rotation stuff, but his control makes him risky in the same way that Glasnow is risky. Shane Baz looks like a safer bet, but wouldn’t arrive until 2021 at the earliest, at which point Taillon would be close to free agency if he isn’t extended by then. There’s a big group of prep starters from the last few drafts, led by Braeden Ogle, but they would be on the same timeline as Baz, or further away. The best you hope for here is one or two guys who can join Keller at the top of the rotation in the future.
For now, the Pirates could use another starter. They could have the rotation to be one of the Wild Card teams. The two Wild Card losers averaged a 3.48 ERA and a 4.11 xFIP from their number one, and their number two and three starters were worse than the average number four starters from the above group. But making it to the Wild Card game and losing isn’t something to strive for.
They could also be like Boston, who had a 3.32 ERA/4.15 xFIP from their number two, then saw their number three with a 4.22 ERA and a 4.30 xFIP, and worse numbers from the number four starter. But they seemed to be the exception, more than the rule.
Even if the Pirates added another starter right now, they’ve got a lot of “ifs” to deal with. So while I think adding a guy like Alex Cobb makes sense, that kind of addition doesn’t make them a top contender. You still need Taillon to step up (which I do think will happen), and you need at least one of the other guys to step up, with Keller joining the group late in the year and making an easy transition to the majors.
I think by the end of the year the Pirates will be in a better position. I could see Taillon and Keller leading the rotation by that point. Maybe if another starter steps up and joins them, and the team is close to contending, then it would make sense to add a starter at the deadline. If Taillon and Keller are leading the rotation by the end of the season, then the Pirates definitely need to add to that duo at some point, whether it’s the deadline or next offseason. If they’re going to contend, they need to have a contending level rotation. That appears to be more than just two top of the rotation guys and a group of league-average starters.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.