Friday, March 28, 2014

2014 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview: Pitching

Over the past four days I have taken a look at all the other NL Central teams and saved the best for last. Yea, I am talking about the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates broke through last year en route to finishing second in the NL Central with 94 wins, defeated Cincinnati in the NL Wild Card, and then barely lost to St. Louis in the NL Division Series. Really fun times last year. That all sets things up for 2014. This was the first year I thought the Pirates had a chance to break “the streak” and make a run at the playoffs but after last season the expectations have changed and bigger things are expected from the team.

The second part of the three part Pirates preview series is going to look at the pitchers. This includes all the starters for this year and then goes in to looking at the bullpen. Just like the hitters there are going to be some guys who are going to have big parts for the team but this just focused on the pitchers I thought would start the year on the club.

Into the player-by-player preview:


Francisco Liriano

Liriano was signed by the Pirates last year as a bounce back candidate. He had struggled off and on during his career and was coming off a few bad seasons of 5+ ERAs and really wasn’t projected to be a huge difference maker, even if the Pirates were able to turn him around. Well, he was a difference maker and it came in a big way.

Last season Ray Searage and the coaching staff was able to turn Liriano around and take a guy who was walking more than 4.5 batters per nine innings into a guy who walked less than three an inning while still striking out better than a batter per inning.

He started the year off on the DL thanks to breaking his non-throwing hand in a weird Christmas thing but when he came back he came back in a big way. All told he threw 161.0 innings for the Pirates and had his best year since 2006 when he was with the Twins. He go back to getting more ground balls (50.5% in 2013 after being at 43.8% in 2012) and cut his HR/FB rate down from 12.9% in 2012 to 8.3% in 2013. He was a 3.1 fWAR player and both his FIP (2.92) and xFIP (3.12) was nearly dead-on for his ERA (3.02) which shows that it wasn’t luck, he really was that good.

Liriano still has the gas to throw his fastball averaging 93 mph last season but also relied on a deadly slider that he threw better than 36% of his pitches. That rate was much higher than 2012 (32.8%) and was the highest since the 2006 season when he threw it almost 38% of the time. He also got back to throwing the changeup more than 20% of the time (22%) which was only the second year of his career that he went above the 20% mark.

I don’t think it is much of a stretch to see what happens here. If Liriano can keep guys off bases in terms of free passes he is going to be alright. He has a knockout slider that he can use against both lefties and righties and still can dig down and get a fastball by you. He is going to continue to try and get groundballs and work deeper into games. Where he has problems is when he puts guys on base.

Last season there were games that got away from Liriano, but they were few and far between. In 26 starts he gave up four or more runs only six times and went less than six innings only six times. For a guy that had struggled with consistency and control I think that is pretty good and if they can get some of 2013 Liriano it will help them get to where they need to be in 2014.

Gerrit Cole

There are a large contingent of people who are moaning at the idea that A.J. Burnett isn’t going to be on the team and how bad that is going to be for the Pirates in 2014. Granted, Burnett did a lot of great things last year and his production will be missed but a guy named Gerritt Cole is going to be on the big club for the entire year and that should make you giddy with excitement. In turn that full year is going to help offset the loss of Burnett.

Last season Cole threw 117.1 innings in 19 starts and while not all the starts were lights out performances, and some being downright boring, he slowly progressed during the season and ended the year pitching some big time September games and that is where you want your best pitcher to be in playoff baseball.

Cole started the season slow in terms of the strikeout numbers but what he didn’t show in strikeouts he did in keeping the Pirates in baseball games and throwing to locations he needed to throw at. Cole only gave up more than three runs in one game and from August through the end of the regular season he gave up two or fewer runs in seven of his 10 starts. In his two playoff starts he gave up a combined three runs in 11 innings of work. That is what you want your top prospect to do when he comes up for the first time.

The allure of Cole was that he throws a high 90’s fastball and mixed in a curve, slider, and changeup. His four seam fastball averaged 97 mph while his two seam averaged just under 97 mph which were both tops in the league. His curve averaged almost 84 mph and got hitters to whiff on 43% of the swings they got on it while they were only able to foul it off 28% of the time. Cole also used his slider 15.75% of the time and while he didn’t use it a ton he got hitters to whiff 31% of the time.

This kid got stronger every start he was in the big leagues last season and if he improves in 2014 from where he was in 2013 then you are looking at one of the best pitchers in baseball. That is so much fun to think about.

Charlie Morton

I have always been a big fan of Charlie Morton. His career has been up and down since the Pirates got him from the Atlanta Braves as a part of the Nate McLouth deal but he fits into what the Pirates want from their starting pitchers and when he stays healthy he can deliver that.

Morton threw only 116 innings last season which was thanks in part to having surgery on his elbow at the beginning of the 2012 season after throwing only 50.1 innings. Morton is the definition of a groundball pitcher as his groundball rate of 72.8% led all pitcher who threw at least 100 innings last season. Since joining the Pirates in 2009 he posted a groundball rate of 55.5% which is fifth among pitchers that have thrown 500 innings in that time.

Morton isn’t going to strike out a lot of batters but he did show a large uptick in his velocity with his fastball averaging 92.8 mph which was the fastest its been since 2010.

Seeing a ton of groundball is pretty much what you can rely on but the problem Morton has had throughout his career has been how he attacks left handed hitters. Over his career left handed hitters have hit .327/.410/.497 against him while right handed hitters have hit .251/.316/.345.

Last season Morton actually did an outstanding job against right handed hitters (.223/.264/.287) while still struggling against lefties (.312/.425/.419). Morton did make some changes in how he attacked lefties and while it wasn’t very good in 2013 it was a vast improvement from 2011 when lefties hit a gaudy .364/.460/.500 against him in 338 plate appearances.

This season Morton is working on adding a split-change to his grouping of pitches and the Trib’s Travis Sawchik talked about it earlier this month. Morton is hoping this could be a pitch that he could curb the success that left handed hitters have against him and make him an even more valuable pitcher than he was in 2013 where he was worth 1.3 fWAR in only a half season of work.

Wandy Rodriguez

Wandy Rodriguez is one of a what seems like every pitcher that was only able to throw a part of a season last year for the Pirates. He started the year but was able to only throw 62.2 innings thanks to an elbow injury that turned out to be only tendinitis. All things point to him being able to start the season and if they can get a healthy Rodriguez that will be a huge boost to the rotation.

2013 was only the first time in his career throwing less than 100 innings and only the first time since 2009 when he threw less than 190 innings. Before last season he was a guy you could rely to make 30+ starts and someone who was going to go out and give you a solid start each and every time. The start of last year was the same as any other, he posted a 3.59 ERA and while those relied on a little more luck (4.42 FIP, 4.00 xFIP) he was still effective.

Over his career Rodriguez never was able to strike out a lot of hitters with a 7.41 strikeout rate but never really gave away a lot of free bases (3.05 career walk rate). In 2013 he had the best walk rate of his career (1.72) but also had a much higher career HR/FB rate (13.2%) and a much lower groundball rate (42.3%) than he had in 2012 (48%).

I am a big more of a believe in Rodriguez than some others might be. He is 35 years old and after an injury that sat him down for almost the entire year you have to be worried that this is going to be something that comes back to bite him against this season. That being said before last year Rodriguez was the definition of consistency. He isn’t going to wow you with any one particular thing but he doesn’t put free guys on base and is someone that is going to give you strong outing every time out on the bump.

If the Pirates can get someone that they got in 2012 then they are going to be in good shape in the middle of the rotation where Rodriguez will be penciled in behind Morton.

Edison Volquez

When the Pirates lost out on Josh Johnson and knew they weren’t going to bring A.J. Burnett back then they needed someone that could come in an be the fifth starter. They then turned to Edison Volquez on a one year, $5M deal.

I assume the Pirates are brining in Volquez on a reclamation project much like they did with Liriano and Mark Melancon. The problem with this is that I don’t really think Volquez is all that good. The Pirates do a pretty nice job working with pitchers that have had troubles and that gives me a little hope that Volquez can turn things around but how much can he turn them around?

Last season between San Diego and Los Angeles (NL) he posted a 5.71 ERA and was all but a replacement level pitcher (0.4 fWAR). While he has strong strikeout numbers over his career (8.42 K/9) he was down nearly a full batter per nine last season (7.50). Volquez has always had a problem keeping guys off base as he has walked nearly five batters per nine innings over his career.

The difference between a guy like Volquez and some of the other pitching prospects is that Volquez only really had one good year in his career. That happened in 2008 with the Reds when he threw 196 innings, had a 3.21 ERA, and was a 3.9 fWAR pitcher. Since 2008 he has been a combined 1.8 fWAR pitcher. This has all the making of a one-year wonder that he has turned into getting multiple chances.

Although I am down on Volquez there are some things that you can look towards for some positive vibes. He does possess the ability to strike out hitters and still holds a fastball that sat right around 93 last season and has a plus changeup that sits at 83 and he throws 25% of the time. During his 2008 season Volquez threw the changeup 32% of the time so it will be interesting to see if the Pirates try and utilize that pitch more.

While he was fairly bad last year it seems as if he was a little unlucky and pitch well over his peripherals. Volquez had only a 4.24 FIP and a 4.07 xFIP so maybe he wasn’t as bad as things indicated but at the same time you can make your own luck, to an extent.

He was actually alright for the Padres in 2012 when he threw 182.2 innings and struck out 8.57 batters per nine innings. He also posted a 4.14 ERA which was in line with both his FIP (4.06) and xFIP (4.20). If the Pirates can get something like that from him then I think things will have gone pretty well for him. It is going to come down to his control much like it did for Liriano last season. Last year was the first year since 2008 that his walk rate was under 5.00 and when you are putting that many guys on base you are not set up for success. If he can cut the walks back to where he was last year and get the strikeout rate to where he was in 2012 then we will see where it takes them. Right now he is the fifth starter and maybe he can fall in line with the production needed for that spot. If someone goes down or Rodriguez isn’t ready and Volquez has to move up then things are not going to end well, I don’t think. Here is hoping it doesn’t come to that.

Jeff Locke

Locke was a huge story in the first half of the season for how good he was but he was also a big story in the second half of the season for how awful he was. His first half was good enough that he was named an All-Star and seemed almost unhittable at times despite putting unlimited guys on base.

During the first half of the year Locke had a 2.15 ERA in 109 innings and held hitters to a .202/.292/.303 line. I have no idea how he did it as he walked 47 batters and was somehow able to survive with a huge left on base average. Well, things caught up to him. The second half of the season saw him post a 6.15 ERA and he walked 37 hitters in only 57.1 innings and gave up 70 hits after giving up 76 hits in the first half. All told the wheels finally fell off.

Even though Locke largely fell fast back to the mean his FIP (4.03) and xFIP (4.19) were significantly higher than his actual ERA (3.52). To put in perspective how things went I was at a game that Locke pitched last season when he walked seven hitters in 5.2 innings against the Cubs and was able to get out of the game giving up only one run. How? No idea.

The only way Locke is going to be able to help this team is if he can cut down the free passes. He walked 4.55 hitters per nine innings and doesn’t make up for it by striking guys out (6.76 K/9). It is wildly frustrating to watch him pitch because there isn’t much that tells you that he can even come close to replicating what he did in the first half of 2013. If he is thrust into the rotation I will not have a great feeling.


Jason Grilli

You could probably call Grilli the heart and soul of the Pirates. With Burnett gone that is even more true. Last season Grilli was one of the best closers in the game and until his came down with an injury was damn near invincible. The Pirates got him from Philadelphia for literally nothing and since then he’s thrown 141.1 innings and posting a 2.74 ERA with 36 of his 38 career saves. Last season he saved 33 games and had a 2.70 ERA and pair with Melancon it was one of the best 1-2 combos in the league at the backend of the pen.

While Grilli was 37 last year you never really would have known it.. His fastball averaged 93 mph and had a 36.6% strikeout rate. Those are some big time numbers for a guy that is 37 years old. Not only was he getting guys out but he was keeping them off base. His 2.34 BB/9 was the best walk rate of his career and left almost 81% of base runners that reached to note score.

The age is a concern as not a lot of guys can consistently do what he does so close to 40. The forearm strain he suffered near the end of the year. As J.P. Breen talked about on FanGraphs earlier this month Grilli’s velocity never came back after the injury which led him to peg Grilli as the first closer that will lose his job.

Grilli is a fan favorite and despite some bad outings after coming back after the injury I would somewhat be surprised if he completely fell apart. Obviously the age is a concern and injuries coupled with age are never a good thing but with how much the Pirates relied on the backend of the bullpen they are going to need Grilli to be good.

Mark Melancon

As good as Grilli was last year I think Mark Melancon might have been better. When the Joel Hanrahan deal went down a lot was made about the offensive pieces but the key piece in this deal to the front office was Mark Melancon. He had some trouble in Boston and the Pirates thought they could turn him around and oh my did they ever.

He threw 71 innings and struck out almost a batter per inning while walking only one hitter per nine. Actually, 1.01 hitters per nine innings. As in he walked only eight hitters all year. Eight. He had a 1.39 ERA and was a 2.5 fWAR player all while picking up 16 saves after Grilli went down.

Not only was Melancon good on the surface but he was able to get groundballs almost at all. His groundball rate of 60.3% was the best of all the relievers on the Pirates staff sans Chris Leroux who only threw four innings last season. Among all qualified relievers in MLB he ranked sixth in groundball rate. Them there Pirates love groundballs.

He gave up one homerun all season and that came to Joey Votto and he stranded 79.9% of runners. This guy was really that good.

While he was good I think he might have worn down a little last season. Overall he gave up 15 runs all season and eight of those runs came in September. I don’t know how you really qualify that but at the end of the year Melancon wasn’t getting the same bite on his cutter and the stuff just wasn’t there. I am not worried about Melancon at all and if Breen is right about Grilli then I think the Pirates will be in great hands with Melancon.

Tony Watson

One guy that I have be pretty down on in the past has been Tony Watson. In 2011 I wasn’t a fan of him at all and while I thought he had a place on the team I really didn’t think he could be what people wanted him to be. Last year he proved me wrong and started to become that guy that you call on in big situations no matter what side of the plate the bitter was hitting on.

It might be a little more smoke an mirrors as both his FIP (3.20) and xFIP (3.72) were much higher than ERA (2.39). Watson threw a career-high 71.2 innings last season that were split more towards right handed hitters (173 plate appearances) than left handed hitters (107 plate appearances) despite being the top lefty out of the pen. His splits were more favorable when he faced lefties (.206/.229/.255) but he wasn’t bad at all against righties (.192/.262/.321).

What was a little concerning is that Watson’s strikeout rate took a dip last season with only 6.78 strikeouts per nine innings after being around almost nine hitters per nine in 2012. His strikeout rate dropped from nearly 25% to just over 19% and while his walk rate improved dramatically (4.3% in 2013, 10.7% in 2012) he didn’t lose any velocity in his fastball (93.6 mph).

While strikeouts were nice with Watson it seems if he let his defense work a little more for him as he got groundballs at a better rate in 2013 (43.8%) than his career average (~40%) and cut his fly balls down to 37% which could work into explaining his 6.7% HR/FB rate that was down from 8.9% the year prior.

The lack of strikeouts were interesting since he saw a significant increase in swings at pitches outside of the zone. Watson had hitters swinging at non-strikes 37.8% of the time which was up from 30.6% the year before. When you get hitters swinging at pitches that aren’t strikes then you are going to do well for yourself. While he was getting a lot more swings on pitches outside the hitters were actually making more contact on those pitches. In 2012 his O-Contact% (Percentage of times a batter makes contact with the ball when swinging at pitches thrown outside the strike zone) was 60.6% but jumped way up to 71.5% last season. Not something I am overly concerned about since those swings won’t produce a lot of hard hit balls but still interesting nonetheless.

Anyways, I have talked about backup plans with the Pirates bullpen but Watson would probably be the first guy to go into that setup spot if Grilli or Melancon would go down or not perform well. I would not have felt good about that a few years ago but much more comfortable now.

Justin Wilson

Justin Wilson is the others edge of the pair of left handed relievers the Pirates have. Wilson is another guy that pitched very well for the Bucs last season and was another guy who used a high amount of groundballs to help the Pirates.

Wilson’s was one of the six Pirates relievers who had a groundball rate of 50% of more (53%) and used that to strand 85% of the runners that got on base. That LOB% was 20th among qualified relievers as Wilson pitched 73.2 innings in 2014.

Wilson, like Watson, throws gas from the left hand side. He relies on his fastball that he threw 73% of the time last season and it averaged 95.3 mph on the gun. With a fastball like that you would expect that he would have a better strikeout rate 7.21 per nine innings but I think he gave up some of the strikeouts to be more productive and get out of innings quicker.

One of the things that you would like to see Wilson improve is the inherited runners that he let score. Last season he inherited 31 runners and allowed 11 of them to score. That is a rate of 35% of the runner scoring that is worse than the league average of 27%. For as much as Wilson has to offer he has to limit those opportunities.

All told I would be a little surprised if the Pirates weren’t behind the scenes shopping Wilson around. While it is nice the Pirates have two guys that can throw hard from the left side it isn’t something that every team has and with his success last season a good first half could turn him into a trade chip. Relief pitchers are highly volatile and teams are will to overpay for them.

The other thing that might be better in the long run is to see if you could turn Wilson back into a starter. Through the minors Wilson was a starter and in 2012 before he was a September call-up he started 25 games in the minors and was a starter all before that. I know that can be a tricky move to make but I don’t think it should be something that should be thrown out at this time.

Jeanmar Gomez/Vin Mazzaro

There might not been a duo of guys in any bullpen that outpitched what they were expected to do more than Gomez and Mazzaro. They combined to throw in 91 innings and were really the rocks in the middle of the long relief portion of the pen.

Gomez was used as a spot started and made eight starts on the season. The Pirates turned him into a groundball machine getting a groundball rate of 55.4% and posting a 3.35 ERA in 80.2 innings.

Gomez doesn’t do anything spectacular when he is on the mound and he isn’t going to wow you with his 91 mph fastball but he gets groundballs and he is able to pitch effectively. His strikeout rate was a career-high 15.9% last season and allowed hitters to hit only .215 with a 1.15 WHIP. Not someone you want to rely on a bunch but every pen needs a guy who can come out and make a spot start and be turned to in a long relief role. Gomez is that guy.

Mazzaro is in the same role as Gomez but he will not come out and make starts as all of his 57 appearances came out of the pen last season. It was the first season in his five year career that he didn’t make a start but it was easily his most successful season as a pro.

Mazzaro upped his groundball rate by almost 7% last seasona dn his LOB% went from 66% in 2012 to 78.6% in 2013. Both his FIP (3.31) and xFIP (4.00) were higher than his 2.81 ERA but he miniscule HR/FB rate of 4.5% will account for the much larger xFIP. Going more towards groundballs will do that for your homerun rate.

He isn’t going to strike a ton of guys out (5.51 K/9 career) but he is another useful middle relief guy that the Pirates got after it was thought he was a useless reliever.

Stolmy Pimentel

Many of you might have heard to the 20-80 scouting scale for baseball. Basically where 20 is very poor, 50 is league average, and 80 is elite. People throw around 80’s too often but that is the best of the best and maybe only one or two players have an 80 in a particular skill set. An example of an 80 would be Carlos Gomez’s defense or Giancarlo Stanton’s power. Well, Stolmy Pimentel has an 80 name. No idea how you get a better name than that.

Pimentel was brought over in the Hanrahan deal and right now he has no options left so he will be in the bullpen to start the year. He is an interesting prospect because he was brought up as a starter and while Gomez can give you the spot start I get the feeling that Pimentel will be given an opportunity to start if the team needs a starter for an extended period.

Pimentel threw between AA Altoona and AAA Indianapolis last season and was overall pretty solid for both. Combined he threw 169.1 innings in the minors and had a 3.35 ERA in 27 starts. He struck out 123 hitters and posted a 1.21 WHIP with a 2.20 K/BB ratio.

He does have some problems with control but does possess a solid fastball (95 mph) and a good changeup (87 mph) so it will be interesting to see if he can continue to hone in on his control then the Pirates will have another solid option from the Hanrahan deal. Again, he is going to break camp with the team because they have no other options they will give him some options.

I have no idea what to make of Pimentel. I have to think the Pirates will give him some chances seeing as they have nowhere to put him if something were to come up. Seeing what they have in Pimentel will be one of the more important higlights of the early season.

Bryan Morris

Bryan Morris is one of that guys that really makes me uncomfortable. Last season Morris wasn’t all that good and was one of the least productive pitchers out of the bullpen with a -1.1fWAR.

Morris is another guy who sacrificed strikeouts for groundballs and while his groundball rate was a healthy 57. 5% that didn’t help he enormous HR/FB rate of 16%. That is a lot of home runs for a guy that is trying to throw groundballs.

He threw 65 innings last year with a 3.46 ERA but his periffials were pretty horrible with a 4.89 FIP and a 4.34 xFIP. Through the minor leagues Morris was stirking out about 8.5 hitters per nine innings but last year that was down to 5.12 and that went with a really high walk rate of almost four batters per nine innings. That just isn’t going to cut it.

There you have the pitching staff. While I don't think it is as strong as it finished last season the rotation and bullpen is stronger than it was at the beginning of 2013. Tune in tomorrow when we wrap things up and look at some key questions and I get my predictions in that are sure to be right (by that I mean be totally wrong).

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