With a Solid Pitching Staff, the 1979 Pirates Just Needed Some Limited Upgrades

in 1978, the Pirates were very strong in the first three rotation spots and also had a deep bullpen.  They needed a few upgrades for 1979, but the necessary pieces were mostly on hand.

Those first three rotation spots were occupied in ’78 by future Hall-of-Famer Bert Blyleven, lefty John Candelaria and rookie Don Robinson.  Blyleven came to the Pirates after the 1977 season in a wild, four-way trade involving Texas, Atlanta and the Mets.  (For the full details, check Blyleven’s bb-ref page.)  The Pirates’ end of it involved Al Oliver and Nelson Norman going to the Rangers, with Blyleven coming from Texas and John Milner from the Mets.  (Jon Matlack and Willie Montanez, among others, were also invoved in the trade.)

Blyleven turned just 28 on opening day, but by then he’d won 122 of his career total of 287 games, mostly while playing for .500-ish Twins teams.  He was a workhorse, throwing over 270 innings annually from 1970-76.  Sometimes starting with three days rest (for his career, Blyleven was better on three days rest than four), he’d thrown 130 complete games when he joined the Pirates.  Blyleven’s relationship with quick-hook manager Chuck Tanner, though, would prove to be a bit tense.  In ’78, Blyleven had gone 14-10, 3.03, but with just 11 complete games, tied for his full-season career low at that point.

Candelaria and Robinson were both coming off strong seasons.   Following a ’77 season in which he’d won 20 games and led the majors in ERA, the Candy Man went 12-11, 3.24.  Robinson went 14-6, 3.47 as a rookie, throwing 228.1 IP.

The team’s other two main starters, lefties Jerry Reuss and Jim Rooker, were coming off down seasons.  Plagued by injuries, Reuss had posted a 4.90 ERA in a league with an average of 3.57.  Rooker, who was 36 when the 1979 season opened, was fading, going 9-11 with a 4.24 ERA in ’78.

One strength for the team was its two swing men, Jim Bibby and Bruce Kison.  Between them, they started 25 games and relieved in 37 in ’78, both with better than league average ERAs.

The short (by 1979 standards) relievers were veterans Kent Tekulve and Grant Jackson, and Ed Whitson, who was 23 when the 1979 season started.  With Goose Gossage gone to free agency, Teke had taken over in ’78 as the team’s relief ace and had arguably his best season.  He led baseball in appearances with 91, the first of three 90-game seasons in his career, and threw 135.1 IP.  The submariner was death on right-handed hitters, but not so much against left-handers; his platoon split was generally around 200 OPS points during his career.  Tanner compensated with the intentional walk.  Teke was third in the NL in IBBs in ’78, with 16 of his 18 being issued to lefties.

Jackson and Whitson both had good seasons as well.  The left-handed Jackson, 36 by the start of ’79, had a lot of good pitching left.  Whitson had put up a 3.28 ERA as a rookie in ’78.

Next up, opening day.

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