It’s hard to ignore what’s going on in Houston right now with former Pirates pitchers Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton.
Morton joined the Astros last year, and so far has combined to put up a 3.33 ERA and a 3.45 xFIP in 164.2 innings. He’s getting there with a 10.28 K/9 and a 3.06 BB/9.
Morton’s best stretch with the Pirates came in 2013-14. His ERA in 2013 was 3.26, and that jumped to 3.72 in 2014. The latter number was closer to his xFIP, which was 3.69 and 3.78 in those two years. And his strikeouts? They reached 7.21 K/9 in 2014, which was the highest of his career until the last few years.
The Pirates overhauled Morton’s delivery and mechanics in 2011, and saw him become a legit MLB starter. From 2011-15, he combined for a 3.96 ERA, a 3.89 xFIP, a 6.37 K/9, and saw his previous control problems drop to a 3.2 BB/9. He was also flashing some good velocity, getting his fastball up to the 95-97 MPH range.
But Morton’s upside seemed limited. He was injured too often, and when he was healthy he looked like a back of the rotation starter at best. So when they traded Morton to the Phillies after the 2015 season, for the sole reason of being rid of his $8 M salary, there was hardly any protest. Morton was coming off a down year, was injury prone, and Pirates fans had grown frustrated with him, to the point where if you even suggested he was a starter, you would get backlash (I still expected backlash when I used the term in the previous paragraph). Plus, no one could anticipate what was to come with the Astros.
Morton’s success over the last two years is one thing. The Astros figured out how to take a guy with great stuff, see him improve that stuff (he’s now averaging around 95-96 with his sinker and hitting 98-99), and put up dominant numbers. When they traded for Gerrit Cole, many predicted that Cole would have the same results. So far, he’s been better than anyone could have expected.
Cole’s time in Pittsburgh was similar to Morton’s, only at a higher level, and with his injuries being minor. While fans questioned if Morton was a starter at all, the questions about Cole were whether he was an ace. From 2013-15, he looked like it. He had a 3.07 ERA and a 3.18 xFIP, with an 8.55 K/9 and a 2.18 BB/9. He ranked 19th in WAR among qualified starters during that stretch, tied for 16th in ERA, and 19th in xFIP. If every team was selecting one starter to lead their rotation, Cole would have been taken in the first 20 picks.
But a lot of the #NotanAce debate was surrounded by the fact that Cole wasn’t one of the absolute best pitchers in the game. He was top 20, but not one of the guys like Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, or someone else striking out way over a batter an inning while maintaining low control, and constantly putting up an ERA below 3.00 and sometimes below 2.00.
Cole also struggled in 2016 due to injuries, and dealt with a lot of home run issues in 2017. When the Pirates moved on from him, it was a big deal. He was seen as one of their few guys who had a chance at being a top of the rotation guy. However, that top of the rotation upside wasn’t seen as a guarantee, in large part due to the previous two seasons.
It has only been three starts for Cole in Houston, but he’s putting up results that look like an ace. Not just one of the top 20 pitchers in the game. One of the top overall pitchers in the game.
Cole has a 1.29 ERA and a 1.60 xFIP. Even more amazing is that he has a 15.43 K/9 and a 1.71 BB/9. He’s not really seeing an increase in his stuff like Morton did, still sitting around 96 MPH, but he and Morton have one big similarity with their move to the Astros.
The Key to the Astros Success?
Morton was throwing his fastball about 67-71% of the time with the Pirates. He was throwing his curveball a lot, usually around 23-25% of the time. With the Astros, he’s throwing the curve around 28% of the time, which isn’t a huge increase. However, he’s throwing the fastball around 54-57% of the time, with the decrease leading to his cutter being thrown more often. Morton barely threw a cutter with the Pirates, and threw a slider up until the 2013 season. The summary here is that he’s throwing his fastball much less often, and using breaking pitches more often.
It’s the same story with Cole. He was throwing his fastball around 67% of the time with the Pirates, although that dropped to 60% in 2017. He’s down to 53% so far with the Astros. His slider usage is at 21% with the Astros, which is where it was with the Pirates in 2015, before dropping down to 17% the last two years. The big increase for Cole comes with his curveball, which he’s throwing 17.8% of the time. His previous three years saw him in the 8-12% range.
Adding the breaking pitches up, Cole usually was around 28-29% breaking stuff with the Pirates. In three starts with the Astros, he’s at 39% breaking stuff.
Morton was around 22-25% breaking stuff in his final few years with the Pirates — basically however much he threw the curveball. He was 39.6% last year with the Astros, and is at 36.6% so far this year.
As you can expect, that was a big trend with the Astros last year. They had 27 pitchers throwing for them in 2017. Of that group, only ten threw a fastball more than the league average of 55.6% of the time. By comparison, the Pirates had 24 pitchers last year, and 18 of them threw a fastball more than the league average of 55.6% of the time.
The league average combined for breaking pitches was 32.4% when combining the slider, cutter, and curveball. Out of the 27 Astros pitchers, 18 of them threw a breaking pitch more often than the league average. This probably won’t surprise you, but out of the 24 pitchers with the Pirates, only six of them threw a breaking pitch more than the league average. Two of those guys were Wade LeBlanc and George Kontos, who basically use their cutters as fastballs.
Are the Pirates Changing?
My first reaction to all of this was to wonder if the Pirates have made some changes following the success of the Astros last year. I quickly learned that they haven’t changed their approach.
The league is throwing a fastball 56.1% of the time this year. Out of the 14 pitchers who have thrown for the Pirates this year, 13 are above that total. The one exception is Kontos, again because he throws his cutter as a fastball. If you treated the cutter as a fastball, he’d be at 67.6% usage.
The league average for breaking pitches is a combined 32.2% between the slider, cutter, and curve. Not a big difference from last year. If we don’t count Kontos, due to the cutter/fastball impact, then the Pirates only have one pitcher throwing breaking pitches more than the league average. They only have two others over 25%, showing that most of the staff is far off.
When I looked at the rotation, most of the Pirates’ starters had actually increased their fastball usage this year, going the opposite direction of the trend that has led to success for Cole and Morton.
Are the Pirates Wrong?
You may be starting to wonder if the Pirates are wrong with their approach, and wrong for not following the Astros trend. The answer is complicated, and not a simple yes or no.
The Pirates haven’t had a bad rotation the last two years. Their rotation last year ranked 12th in WAR, 13th in ERA, and 10th in xFIP. They were in the top half of baseball. It’s the same this year. The rotation ranks 13th in WAR, 11th in ERA, and 16th in xFIP.
On the flip side of this, the Astros rank second in all of those categories this year, and ranked 6th in ERA and WAR and 4th in xFIP last year. So while the Pirates are getting above-average results, it’s hard to ignore a team getting some of the best overall results in the game.
I think the Pirates should make a change. But I don’t think that change should be a sweeping change throughout the entire pitching staff.
Let’s go back to that one player who is throwing an above-average amount of breaking pitches this year. That player is Dovydas Neverauskas. I probably don’t need to say any more to bring home the point that throwing more breaking pitches and fewer fastballs won’t automatically lead to success. In this case, Neverauskas doesn’t really have good breaking stuff, so throwing it 40% of the time or more isn’t going to be doing him any favors.
But there are definitely players who I think could improve in a big way by switching their approach.
Tyler Glasnow is currently using two pitches out of the bullpen, throwing his fastball 75% of the time, and his curveball 25% of the time. He’s got a good curveball, and his big issue is control. Throwing the curveball more often probably wouldn’t hurt him.
Chad Kuhl is a big candidate for me to throw more breaking stuff. He almost looks similar to Morton in every way. Say that he’s a legit starter, and you’re going to get into an argument with a lot of Pirates fans. His numbers aren’t bad at all, but show that he’s limited to the back of the rotation. But his stuff suggests that he could be better, with good results from his breaking stuff, and a mid-90s fastball that touches higher.
Kuhl has increased his breaking stuff a bit this year, using his curveball more often. But he’s still only at 28% combined between the slider and curve. He’s also been unlucky this year, leading to a 5.74 ERA and a 3.74 xFIP. Still, with his stuff, he should be better than even that xFIP.
Trevor Williams is an interesting case. He’s throwing his fastball 73% of the time, and only using a breaking pitch 10% of the time. However, he’s seen a big increase in his changeup usage, going up to 16.7% of the time this year. He’s got a 1.56 ERA right now, but a 4.72 xFIP. He’d be another guy who might be able to benefit from fewer fastballs and more breaking stuff, although maybe using the changeup more often in lieu of breaking stuff would help.
Then there’s Jameson Taillon, who is a very interesting case. Taillon has an 0.89 ERA through three starts, although his 3.17 xFIP and 7.97 K/9 show that he hasn’t been completely dominant, instead falling into that area where Cole used to reside as a top starter, but not one of the absolute best starters in the game.
The thing is, I think Taillon could also be one of the best in the game. While his numbers are good, and would remain good even with a regression to his xFIP, I think he’s capable of more. And he and Cole might represent the flaw in the Pirates’ approach, and an area where they are wrong.
How the Pirates Should Change
I don’t believe that the Pirates should be taking a blanket approach to their pitchers by completely adopting the Astros’ approach across the board. I also don’t think they should be continuing their own blanket approach that is currently limiting them to slightly above-average results.
For years in the system, the Pirates have preached a three pitch or less approach for their prospects. Don’t try for strikeouts. Try to get batters out in three pitches or less. If you can do this, you can be more efficient, and go seven innings instead of five.
That’s a good approach for some pitchers. Take Steven Brault, for example. He doesn’t have great breaking stuff, and if he tries to pitch for strikeouts, it’s going to lead to longer at-bats and more pitches as he attempts to put guys away repeatedly with his curveball, rather than just trying to get them to put the ball in play. He’s better when he’s focusing on control of his stuff, moving around the zone, and pitching to contact.
But then there’s Taillon. He has a really good curveball. So far in the majors, the pitch has a .525 OPS against, an .085 ISO, and a 45.3% strikeout rate. He’s thrown the pitch 72 times this year, and not a single person has gotten a hit off of it, with a 44.4% strikeout rate. Why would you not throw that pitch more often?
The Pirates’ approach of pitching off extreme fastball usage and pitching to contact isn’t a bad approach. It can limit poor results, but probably won’t lead to a lot of great results, especially in an era where hitters are opposing this trend with added lift and leverage to their swing. That approach can keep them where they are, with a rotation that is slightly above-average, but with some guys playing well below their talent level.
That approach shouldn’t be for everyone, and guys like Taillon and Cole show this. If a guy doesn’t have a great breaking pitch, you don’t want him pitching for strikeouts. But Taillon has a great breaking pitch. Cole has a great breaking pitch. They shouldn’t be pitching to contact. They should be pitching for strikeouts. I get that you don’t want non-strikeout pitchers trying for strikeouts. But why would you not want guys with great strikeout stuff to be pitching for that result?
I don’t think it’s a choice of going for strikeouts or going for innings when you’ve got a guy like Taillon or Cole. We’re seeing that this year from Cole. He’s going seven innings each time, topping out at 102 pitches, and striking out double-digit batters each time out. When you have top of the rotation stuff, it’s not going to take a lot of pitches to get strikeouts, and you’re still going to be able to pitch deeper into games.
The benefit here is obvious. If you’re pitching to contact, you might have shorter at-bats. You’re also going to be putting the ball in play more often, which means you’re more likely to give up a hit, which means you’ll face another batter, which means more pitches. Even in a case like Taillon, where a pitcher is getting a lot of ground outs, there’s still a chance for a hit. Taillon is getting a 58.8% ground ball rate. But the league average BABIP for ground balls is usually around .240. That means for every 20 ground balls, Taillon is giving up five hits.
You know the BABIP on strikeouts? It’s zero.
And that’s overly simplistic. But the point here is that with Taillon’s stuff, pitching to strikeouts should be just as easy as pitching to contact, with much less risk involved with the strikeouts.
It’s not as easy as just throwing more curveballs. It would require a specific approach and game plan to make that strategy work. But again, when you have a curveball that is as dominant as Taillon’s curve, why would you not want to mix it in much more often?
That approach is working for Cole right now. And if Taillon doesn’t make a change, then I think we’re going to see a similar story play out. He’ll be good, and one of the top pitchers in baseball, but will fall short of the best. And eventually he will go to a team that embraces strikeouts, and will reach that ceiling as one of the best in the game.
Meanwhile, I think the Pirates will still have good results from their pitchers, and will limit horrible results with their current approach. But they’re not going to get those elite-level results, and guys aren’t going to come close to the ceilings that their stuff suggests as long as they focus on pitching to contact and shy away from pitching for strikeouts.
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