Saturday, March 30, 2013

2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview - Pitching

The Pirates rotation is somewhat of a mess. OK, it is more than somewhat of a mess, it is a mess, but it is also just like the rest of the team in that you could really go from one extreme to the other with what you are going to get. I am going to take a look at the starting rotation and the bullpen and try to piece what we can expect to see from these guys.

First, the starting rotation to enter the season:

A.J. Burnett

When talking about the Pirates rotation most people are going to start and stop with Burnett who came to the Pirates last off season and was an immediate fan favorite and came out and pitched a pretty good season for the team. He was nearly a 3.5 win player last season by cutting his walks and striking out a ton of batters. For a staff that is really unable to strike anyone out it was really a nice change of pace to have someone who could strike a hitter out when you needed him to.

A huge help for Burnett wasn't just the strikeouts but it was his ability to get more ground ball outs. Pitching at PNC Park with a pretty good defensive middle if you can get a lot of ground balls then you are going to be able to be successful. Over his career his GB/FB rate was 1.57 but last season he blew that away with a 2.35 ratio which was his highest since the 2005 season when he was still with the Marlins. That ratio helped him jump his ground ball rate to 57% after he was just over 49% the year before in New York. It also helped his HR/FB rate which was 17% in 2011 which is ridiculously high and got it back down to 12.7% which was much closer to his career average of 11.4%. I am not sure we are going to see Burnett be as dominate he was for vast stretches last season but there hasn't been much of a dip in his velocity so I expect him to give good outings and give the team a chance to win.

Wandy Rodriguez

One of the Pirates bigger pickups last year was getting Rodriguez from the Astros and while he struggled in his first couple starts he was the most consistent starter in the rotation from the halfway point. He is a little older like Burnett but he is about as consistent as it gets. If there is one guy on the staff where you know what you are going to get from a night in-night out basis then Rodriguez is at the top of the list. His strikeout rate has fallen each year since 2008 and is now down to only 6.08 per nine innings but his was rate went down from 2011 and was at 2.45 all of last season with both the Astros and Pirates and is predicted to be right around that by all preseason prognostications.

Nothing is going to surprise you from Rodriguez but he is going to give you a chance to win. Last year after he got to the Pirates he made 12 starts and threw 75 innings and in nine of those starts he gave up three or less earned runs and in two of those starts he didn't give up a single earned run in wins.

The top of the rotation isn't going to flash you with what these guys had early in their careers but both Burnett and Rodriguez are going to give the team a chance of winning and with nobody that is of true ace potential it could be (and has been) a lot worse at the top of the rotation for the Pirates.

James McDonald

McDonald. Man. Does anyone really have any idea what happened to this guy last season? For the first half of the year he was a legitimate Cy Young candidate and in the second half of the season he might not have deserved to make a few of the starts near the end of the season. The first half of the season he made 17 starts and posted a 2.37 ERA with a 0.97 WHIP while walking only 31 batters in 110 innings pitched. Hitters just couldn't figure this guy out either and only hit .196 off of him. After the All-Star break it was like a completely different pitcher. He made 13 starts (61 innings) and had a 7.52 ERA with a 1.79 WHIP and walked 38 batters while hitters were hitting him at a .292 clip. Literally night and day.

What was it then? I am not really sure if it was the innings pitched as he threw the exact same number of innings in 2012 than he did in 2011 (171) and other numbers such as ground ball rate and HR/FB were nearly identical. His walks were down and his fastball stayed at about the same velocity so what was it? Truth be told I don't think anyone has a lick of an idea. He did incorporate a slider that was lights out in the first half and he threw nearly 18% of the time. Were hitter just figuring him out after not being able to do so in the first half of the season? Was it something mental? Hopefully this all gets worked out because if he can give some consistency and give the Pirates more than a hot or cold effort then it could go a long way in what the Pirates do this year. While the Pirates don't have an ace to speak of it would be much better if they had three solid guys (McDonald, Burnett, Rodriguez) rather than just two and would really help soften the blow of the general letdown of the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation, at least at the start of the season.

Jonathan Sanchez

Outside of those three options the Pirates rotation is pretty brutal, at least to start the season. On Tuesday morning they named Sanchez as the teams fourth starter and guaranteed him that spot for the start of the season. This is the same Sanchez that earned an 8.07 ERA in 64.2 innings last season between the Rockies and the Royals. It was just brutally bad for Sanchez. The thing with him is that you are always going to get a guy who can strike a ton of batters out. Last season in limited innings he only struck out 6.26 batters per nine but in 2011 with the Giants he averaged over a strikeout per inning and in his career he averages over a strikeout an inning.

The big downside for Sanchez is that he just gives up endless amounts of base runners. Last season he walked over seven batters per nine innings and for his career he walks five batters per nine innings. For those of you that don't know, that is a ton of walks. Even in his 2010 season with the Giants where he was really good he walked 4.47 guys per nine innings. Something you are going to have to deal with and if he can strikeout over a batter per inning that can help, but can he do that? His WHIP is always going to be high (career 1.45) so it is imperative that he fills the strike zone as much as possible and tries to get hitters to chase his slider. His ability to get swings out of the strike zone dropped a ton last season (21.7%, 27.5% in 2011) and he is about even in his ability to get ground balls and fly balls. All in all this is not a good thing for the Pirates. It wouldn't be good if he was their fifth and it is really not good that he is their fifth.

Jeff Locke

The final spot at the season opens will be awarded to Locke almost by default. They have a ton of different guys that are up for the fifth spot but Locke has shown enough (or everyone else just sucked that bad) that he will be on the bump when a fifth starter is needed.

Locke has been up and down for the Pirates the better part of the last couple of years making ten total starts and 12 appearances for 51 innings. His career MLB ERA is 5.82 and he can strikeout a few guys but it isn't something that he is going to do a ton of as his fastball sits around 91 with a curve and a change. In 29 starts in AAA for the Indians Locke has a 2.44 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP with a 156:52 K:BB ratio in 170 innings.

That is really what we are looking at for the start of the season for the Pirates.

Kyle McPherson

They could also have McPherson to throw some inning but he really bombed in spring training. To be honest I am not really sure what to think about McPherson. He has only 18.1 AAA innings and he threw 26.1 big league innings last year and was pretty good for the most part. I would assume he would get the first shot if something were to happen to Locke or Sanchez. That being said having to choose two out of those three means that your rotation is isn't going to be one of your strengths.

Francisco Liriano

As the season moves on the Pirates are going to get a few pitchers back that might make things a little bit better. As you know they signed Liriano and he was supposed to be in the rotation as the number three or four but broke his non pitching hand in the off season. That is another story for another day though.

Liriano should be back around the middle of May or maybe a little later but this is a guy I think can add some solid stability to the rotation. Sure, his consistency has been a little erratic and he hasn't been able to stay healthy but he still have the stuff to be a pretty decent middle to back end guy if he can stay healthy.

Liriano hasn't pitched more than 160 innings since 2010 when he threw 191.2 for the Twins but before that he never threw more than 140 at the major league level. When you look at Liriano you really see the same thing I talked about with Sanchez over the past couple of seasons. Even though have have been riddled with injuries Liriano has walked just over five batters per inning but last season he struck out 9.59 batters per nine innings (!) and for his career he strikes out better than a hitter per inning. What is more comforting to look at is that his career average of walks per nine innings is 3.81 which isn't great but coming off back-to-back seasons of walking five per nine that could be a lot worse. Back in 2010 he only walked 2.71 batters per inning so if he can get somewhere around that with the strikeout numbers that would be huge.

Liriano sat around 93 on his fastball last season which was up from 91.8 in 2011 so that is a pretty good thing to see, especially when you consider that in his good 2010 year he was averaging 93.7 on his fastball. His slider is going to sit around 86 which has been consistent over his career and his change up is a little heavy at 85-86 but who knows. His ground ball rate is only about 44% and last season his HR/FB went up pretty significantly (12.9% compared to 6.3% in 2010 and 9.9% in 2011) but I am not sure how much that has to do with pitching some in Colorado. I am sure being left handed at PNC Park will help him get a little closer to his 2011 numbers, if not better.

Like I said, I was a supporter of the deal to bring him in. I have always been a fan of him and despite some struggles he is a safer bet than Sanchez is, by a pretty significant margin in my eyes. His ERA was 5.34 last year but his xFIP was only 4.14 which might consider him getting a little unlucky with his HR/FB and despite not pitching a ton of innings and having a higher walk rate he was still nearly a two win pitcher. This seems like a lot of what ifs (it is) but if he can be your number four and get a little bit of his control back and stay healthy then it could turn out pretty well.

Jeff Karstens

I guess you have to talk about Karstens but who knows if he will even pitch this season. I know that is me just being overly dramatic but when Liriano was signed a lot of people pointed to his health problems as to why it probably wasn't a great signing. All that being said those same people really wanted Karstens back who has actually pitched about 50 innings less than Liriano over the past three seasons.

Karstens has been a good guy to have on the team because he can be a pretty solid starter and he has value as a swing man. That being said the dude just can't stay healthy. Only 90.2 innings pitched last season and once he was resigned by the Pirates this season (after nobody else wanted him) he had shoulder problems (again) which hasn't let him throw at all this spring. I would love for Karstens to come in and be the fourth or fifth starter because he was really successful in 2011 when he threw 160+ innings with a 1.20 WHIP and a 3.38 ERA. He doesn't walk a lot of guys (2.32 per nine for career) and although he doesn't miss a lot of bats (5.01 strikeouts per nine innings) he just gets outs by throwing a ton of ground balls.

Karstens just can't stay healthy and most of the prognosticators have him throwing anywhere form 100-140 innings but I really can't see him throwing that much this year. When you have shoulder problems for multiple years that is a huge red flag and if the Pirates could just somehow get him taped together for 65-70 innings out of the pen I have a feeling that would be a success. I am not holding out hope. This is exactly why the Pirates didn't tender him and exactly why no other team even gave him a look. I want Karstens to be healthy and pitch in the rotation but I just don't see it happening.

Charlie Morton

The other starter that no a lot of people are talking about and frankly probably forgot was on the team is Morton. If you remember Morton went out last season after only pitching 50.1 innings with Tommy John surgery and he will start the season on the DL and probably won't be back until after June. I have no idea what Morton might come back like. After a pretty horrid 2010 season the Pirates went in and revamped his pitching style and retooled him which made a world of difference in 2011. He morphed into a ground ball pitcher where he got ground balls at 58.5% clip and lowered his ERA from 7.57 in 2010 to only 3.83 in 2011. It was really something to watch.

Last season Morton started off a little slow but was still getting a ton of ground balls but just got hit with the elbow problem. He should be ready sometime around June 1st but I don't think anyone knows where he sits in terms of a spot on the team. He will obviously be on the big club at some point but I would expect the Pirates take it slow in getting him back into the rotation. Obviously his play is going to determine if he gets back into the rotation but while the Pirates have a little bit more power than they have had in some time with Burnett, Sanchez, and Liriano they also play in PNC Park with a good middle infield that would eat up a ton of ground balls. I think only time will really tell on this but it was really a shame to see Morton go down with the elbow last season as we really only got to see one year of him with the new mechanics and motion.

Morton did struggle against lefties in 2011 giving up a .357/.460/.500 line as opposed to right handed hitters who were only .214/.289/.278 which was both really good and really bad since teams that had lefty options (like the Phillies) would load the lineup, but naturally not every team could do that. He also had a problem walking hitters with over four per nine innings in 2011 but I think when he comes back healthy he could push for a spot in the rotation if someone is struggling.

Now that we got the starters out of the way here is what the Pirates bullpen looks like:

The bullpen is a little more what we thought it would look like but it is still still confusing in a few spots. All-in-all I think the pen has some potential to have some upside but they lost a lot from last season and are, in a way, going a little younger with who they have back there.

Jason Grilli

The biggest news is that Grilli is back in the pen as the closer after Joel Hanrahan was traded away over the off season. Grilli has pitched the past two seasons for the Pirates after the Bucs basically got him for free from the Phillies and while he had a pretty decent first year with the club in 2011 he really pitched well in 2012. The Pirates signed Grilli over the off season to a two year, $6.75M deal that probably is a year too long but the Pirates thought they needed to have some stability in the closers roll and with the way Grilli has pitched for the Pirates they thought it was a good move. He is 36 years old so this becomes more than the danger zone of a baseball career, especially for relievers.

The one thing Grilli does is strike dudes out. He averaged 13.81 strikeouts per nine innings last night and posted a 2.91 ERA but he did leave almost 83% of runners on base. He doesn't keep the ball on the ground (31%) so that is a little concerning as a right handed pitcher but he got outs and was one of the most reliable guys out of the pen. The age scares me, as does the second year of that deal, but it is nice to have him back and will be a welcome sight to close out games.

Mark Melancon

Melancon was the main piece that the Pirates got back in the Hanrahan deal and while he didn't pitch very well at all last season he is going to be a guy that can come in and eventually be a top late inning guy at a fraction of both the cost and age of Hanrahan. Last season with the Red Sox he had a 6.20 ERA in 45 innings but that was aided by a really high HR/FB rate of 22.2% which was double that of his rate in 2011 with the Astros. According his xFIP was a much more manageable 3.45 so maybe he was a little unlucky with the fly balls. He does strike out about eight hitters per nine innings and in his 2011 season with the Astros where he served as closer he had a 2.78 ERA and got ground balls at a 57% clip. He is going to get his fastball up around 93 or 94 with a cut fastball and a curve that he works in so he has a nice group of pitches and should be good in the set up role which I assume he will be in.

Jared Hughes

Working backwards into the seventh inning guys you would have to assume that is going to go to Jared Hughes against right handed hitters and Tony Watson against lefties. Hughes is a pretty interesting dude as he is super focused on the mound and went through some really good stretches last season. He threw 75.2 innings last season and while he was a replacement level pitcher he got ground balls at a 60% rate. He isn't anything special but it really is what it is.

Tony Watson

Watson is going to be the late inning left handed specialist on the team. Last season he held left handed hitters to a .183/.252/.301 line in 93 at bats while allowing right handed hitters to hit .213/.318/.372. He isn't overly terrible against right handed hitters but his walk rate is much higher against them as it shows in the over 100 point difference in batting average to on base percentage. His fastball improved pretty dramatically since 2011 as that season his average fastball velocity was just over 91 mph while last season he was throwing nearly 94 mph. It was a noticeable difference and he usually paired that with a slider to go with a one-two combo. Watson doesn't ever make me feel overly confident whenever he is in the game and I am not a huge fan of his but he does usually get he job done when called on.

Chris Leroux

The interesting guy, for me at least, in the pen is Leroux. He has had a really up and down career so far where he has thrown only 65.2 big league innings. Last season wasn't very good at the major league level for Leroux as he posted a 5.56 ERA in 11.1 innings but his laughably low 39.7% LOB% certainly has a lot to do with that as did his 12.5% HR/FB rate which was over nine percent higher than his career average. All that played into him having only a 2.81 xFIP and while he will be in the long roll for the Pirates he can be stretched out if he had to be in an emergency situation. His velocity dropped over two miles per hour last season but was still able to strike out about a hitter an inning and in a pinch he could get the job done, and should be able to do a pretty nice job in the long roll.

Justin Wilson

Usually the Pirates don't carry a second lefty (at least they didn't for much of last season) but this year Wilson will be in the fold as more of a middle/long option for the Pirates in the pen. Wilson's big problem is that his control really isn't on point as evidence by his 4.5+ walk rate in nearly all levels of the minors but he posses a pretty heavy fastball that reaches 94-95 and throws a 88-89 mph slider. He is a guy that can get strikeouts (around eight per nine innings) so if he can get his control in order this could be a nice option to have in the pen from the left side.

Jeanmar Gomez

The utterly bizarre keep in the pen comes in the form of Gomez. The Pirates got him from the Indians and to be honest I have no idea why he is on the roster over someone like Bryan Morris. Last season for the Indians Gomez posted a 5.96 ERA with a 48% ground ball rate and a 14.9% HR/FB rate which is right around his career average. I wouldn't say that he got unlucky as both his FIP (5.47) and xFIP (4.95) were right around where his performance was so I literally have no idea what he is doing on the roster other than to frustrate Pirates fans. He doesn't do anything well as he only strikes out 4.67 batters per nine innings and barely breaks 90 on the gun. Really just embarrassing that he is on the roster. If the Pirates rely on him for anything it will be a long summer (it might be anyways).

Not really sure what the deal is with Morris. He didn't really have a good spring but I can almost guarantee he would be better than what Gomez can give you. Morris was a former starter that was turned into a late inning guy last season and threw 81 innings in AAA where he struck out about a batter per inning and walked less than two per nine innings. He can get his fastball up to 94-96 and a cutter at 90-91. I know some have said he didn't really look good in the spring but neither did Gomez and we know Gomez isn't good. Just no idea.

Now that we are done with the position player and the pitchers what is the outlook for this team? Can they get to .500? Can they make a push for the playoffs? Tomorrow I am going to take a look at a few questions that surround the Pirates and give you my prediction for the NL Central so make sure you keep your eyes open for that.

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