PITTSBURGH — Everyone loves a good break-up song.
A decent guitar riff combined with an I’ll-show-you-how-much-better-I-can-be attitude is a dynamite combination for a hit song.
A personal favorite of mine is “Better Off Without You” by The Clarks, and it’s not just because I’m a Pittsburgh kid that went to IUP in the early 2000s.
It’s because it perfectly captures the spirit of being free of a bad relationship, at least for me.
“I’m having fun and looking out for No. 1 and doing all the things I like to do. I’m having fun because I knew it all along: I’d be better off without you.”
Happily married, I haven’t had the need for a breakup song for quite some time, but I found it a fitting metaphor for a phenomenon regarding the Pirates pitchers as of late.
Or more accurately, it seems that most pitchers have been better off without the Pirates.
You may have heard that former Pirates ace Gerrit Cole is having himself a career year with the Houston Astros. But that’s really just scratching the tip of the iceberg.
For a few years, the predominant narrative was that between pitching coordinator Jim Benedict and pitching coach Ray Searage, the Pirates had a staff that was capable of fixing pitchers.
It wasn’t foolproof, but from A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano to Edinson Volquez and J.A. Happ, the Pirates certainly had some notable success stories when it came to getting the most out of pitchers acquired largely as others’ cast-offs.
Now, that trend has reversed, as most of the pitchers that have played for both the Pirates and another MLB team have had more success elsewhere over the last two and a half seasons.
At least, it sure seems that way. Tony Watson is having a career year in San Francisco. Wade LeBlanc is in Seattle’s starting rotation. Jared Hughes has been extremely reliable for Cincinnati. Even Daniel Hudson has been more than serviceable with the Dodgers.
But do the numbers play out that way? For some, certainly. Cole has a 2.98 FIP with Houston, .83 better than his 3.81 over his final two seasons in Pittsburgh.
He’s not even the player that showed the biggest improvement, with Watson (1.86) and Hughes (1.16) also seeing big decreases in their FIP.
Here’s a graphic of every player with at least 25 innings pitched for the Pirates and another team over the last two and a half seasons, and how much better or worse they’ve been.
There have been more on the negative side of the ledger, meaning more pitchers have had more success away from Pittsburgh than in it. But the totals are fairly similar. The pitchers had a 4.06 FIP in Pittsburgh and a 4.01 FIP away from it.
So why does it feel like the difference has been more dramatic? By using FIP, I’ve stripped the defense out of the pitchers’ numbers to get a truer feel for the way they’re pitching.
But when it comes to what actually happens in the game, defense matters, and the Pirates haven’t been particularly good at it. Since the beginning of 2016, the Pirates have -63 DRS, 23rd in the majors. UZR/150 is even less kind at -1.6, 25th in MLB.
So while the difference in FIP looks minimal, the difference in ERA can be dramatic.
One of the reasons the Pirates started down the road of a two-seam heavy approach was to take advantage of an above-average defense, particularly an above-average infield defense.
That’s almost completely gone. Of Pirates infielders with more than 50 innings played at one position, only Adam Frazier and Sean Rodriguez at second base rate as above average, according to DRS. Josh Bell at first (-5), Colin Moran at third (-8) and Jordy Mercer at short (-10) are essentially defensive liabilities.
Mercer is the fourth-worst shortstop in baseball, Moran is the fourth-worst third baseman and Bell is the fourth-worst first baseman.
Much has been made about the Pirates’ pitching strategy and seeming lack of ability to continue to successfully identify reclamation projects, and also how their fastball-heavy approach is behind the times of Major League Baseball.
But it’s been largely overlooked that the Pirates are missing a key component to what made them able to help many pitchers in the first place.
As The Clarks said, “Now it’s time to feel all the side effects. Missing the life you had.”