How Every Pirates Starter Gets a Ground Ball

aj burnett francisco liriano

By now, everyone knows the Pirates have placed an emphasis on getting ground balls from their pitchers. They’ve led the league in ground ball rate two consecutive seasons, featuring a staff full of above-average worm killers.

But how exactly do they induce these ground balls? Which pitches and in which locations give them an edge? Here’s a look at what the (projected) starting five did in 2014 — whether it be a groundout, ground into double play, or ground ball single; split by batter handedness (LHH on the left; RHH on the right)…

Francisco Liriano

francisco liriano ground ball pitcher

Two Seam 37%
Change 30%
Slider 25%
Four Seam 8%

When Liriano’s not making batters whiff, he’s making them put the ball on the turf. He loves his changeup (red dots) and slider (purple) for whiffs and grounders alike, while his two seam fastball/sinker (blue) is also particularly effective. There’s a ton of action low and away to right-handed batters; all of his stuff works down there, like this sinker that runs away from Peter Bourjos:

francisco liriano two seam

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Painting the Black: On Pirates’ Pitchers, Framing Catchers & An Expanding Strike Zone

russell martin pitch framing

When writing today’s Opening Day countdown preview for Vance Worley, I was reminded of his effectiveness in 2014: sharp control, low walk rate, and a propensity for backwards K’s.

Painting the black and collecting called strikes seemed to be a big part of Worley’s game. Upon further review, the entire Pirates’ rotation was above-average in that area:

pirates called strikes 2014

My next thought was that this success could be attributed to 1) the expanding strike zone in Major League Baseball, and/or 2) the acclaimed pitch-framing skills of then-Pirate Russell Martin and Chris Stewart.

“But my goal is not to steal strikes, it’s to keep strikes strikes. I don’t want to lose strikes. The key is trying to fight against what the ball is naturally wanting you to do.” – Russell Martin

Continue reading “Painting the Black: On Pirates’ Pitchers, Framing Catchers & An Expanding Strike Zone”

Welcome to Bradenton: 2015 Spring Training Storylines

pitchers & catchers

“It’s the fans that need spring training. You gotta get ’em interested. Wake ’em up and let ’em know that their season is coming… the good times are gonna roll.” — Harry Caray

Today is the official report date for Pirates’ pitchers & catchers, and the rest of the squad will roll into Bradenton by Monday. Spring Training 2015 is here; baseball is slowly but surely on its way back.

Neal Huntington and his staff had a tidy offseason — nothing flashy, but checking off every item on the team’s list of needs. As it stands, this team doesn’t have many question marks heading into the season, barring any injuries in the coming weeks. If you’re looking for positional battles, Pirates’ camp isn’t the place to be.

That being said, there are still some things to keep an eye on in Bradenton. Here, in no particular order, are our spring storylines for the Bucs…

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In 50 Days…

50 Morton

Our Opening Day player countdown returns for a fourth year. Each post can be found under the Features tag.

Charlie Morton (50) days until Opening Day…

Career Stats:

2008 ATL 6.15 74.2 68 5.14 1.621 4.9 5.8
2009 PIT 4.55 97.0 92 4.15 1.464 3.7 5.8
2010 PIT 7.57 79.2 53 5.29 1.732 2.9 6.7
2011 PIT 3.83 171.2 97 3.77 1.532 4.0 5.8
2012 PIT 4.65 50.1 81 4.17 1.450 2.0 4.5
2013 PIT 3.26 116.0 109 3.60 1.284 2.8 6.6
2014 PIT 3.72 157.1 96 3.72 1.271 3.3 7.2
7 Yrs 4.50 746.2 85 4.11 1.454 3.5 6.2

Continue reading “In 50 Days…”

2014 Pirates in Review: Starting Pitchers

Reviewing the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates. Today, we’ll take a look at the starting pitchers. 

Final stats:

G. Cole 11 5 138.0 9.0 2.6 49% 3.65 3.23 2.1
F. Liriano 7 10 162.1 9.7 4.5 54% 3.38 3.59 1.6
V. Worley 8 4 108.2 6.5 1.8 50% 2.73 3.34 1.5
C. Morton 6 12 157.1 7.2 3.3 56% 3.72 3.72 1.3
B. Cumpton 3 3 56.0 5.5 2.4 44% 4.98 3.22 0.8
E. Volquez 13 7 190.2 6.5 3.4 50% 3.04 4.18 0.6
J. Locke 7 6 131.1 6.1 2.7 51% 3.91 4.37 0.1
W. Rodriguez 0 2 26.2 6.8 2.7 42% 6.75 7.41 -0.8

via FanGraphs

Looking to build off an impressive rookie campaign (3.22 ERA, 2.91 FIP, and two solid postseason starts), Gerrit Cole was good, but not exactly great, in 2014. We’d probably be looking at it differently had he stayed healthy, but shoulder problems caused him to miss 24 days in June and another 46 in July/August. His low inning count aside, Cole once again showed promise — an excellent 9.0 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 49% ground ball rate, 3.23 FIP, 3.25 xFIP — and I like his chances of really coming into his own in 2015. The best part? He just turned 24 two months ago and he’s under team control through 2019.

In his second year of a two-year contract, Francisco Liriano was deservedly given the Opening Day nod. The only thing standing between him and another fantastic season: injuries, as usual. Liriano hurt his groin during a spring training game I was at on March 20th; he looked great that night under the McKechnie lights until he was forced to exit early. Frankie made the Opening Day start anyway, but was shaky to start the season. With his ERA hovering in the mid-4.00’s, Liriano made it to June before landing on the disabled list with an oblique strain.

Although he missed a month of action, he came back better than ever. After the All-Star break, Liriano boasted a 2.20 ERA and opponents couldn’t touch him (.193 batting average, .551 OPS). If that isn’t impressive enough, consider he only surrendered more than two runs in two of 14 second half outings — once on August 19th, a 7 ER blowup vs. Atlanta and again in his final start (4 ER at Cincinnati). Take out the 7-run performance and it’s a 1.54 earned run average after the break.

All in all: a 3.38 ERA in 29 starts, backed up by a 3.59 FIP and 3.40 xFIP; more dominant strikeout stuff (9.7 per 9) and worm killers (54% ground ball rate). Similar to Russell Martin, Liriano re-established himself by coming to the Burgh on a two-year deal. He may be considered part of the free agent class’ second-tier, but he could be a bargain if he keeps throwing like he did in ’13 and ’14 and stays moderately healthy.

Vance Worley was, without a doubt, one of the unsung heroes of this year’s team. He really wasn’t given much thought back in March, when the Pirates purchased him from the Twins near the end of spring training. But he went to work with team pitching guru Jim Benedict in Bradenton and eventually turned in some quality starts at Indianapolis (4.30 ERA looks deceiving; was good for a 2.57 FIP, 8.4 K/9 and 0.8(!) BB/9). By the middle of June, the Vanimal found himself back on a big league roster.

With Cole and Liriano on the mend, Worley stuck around and turned in some solid outings. He wasn’t overpowering (90 mph fastball and average of 6 K per 9), but consistently got the job done thanks to his impeccable command and some help from his defense. A few of the more memorable pitching performances were on Worley’s right arm: his complete game shutout vs. Madison Bumgarner and the Giants on July 28th, and his eight-inning shutout performance vs. Milwaukee on September 21st, the final regular season home game. He was a classic example of the kind of pitching depth good teams need to have. No team will keep their rotation healthy and intact all season long; you need these type of guys to come in, and not only stop the bleeding, but also perform. Vance Worley did just that.

Edinson Volquez… unreal. Proof that sometimes we just need to shut up and believe in what the front office is doing.


His success has been talked about at length, and while it may have been smoke and mirrors, there’s no denying what he did in 2014. Kudos to Searage, Benedict & Co. for fixing him up. Volquez was visibly a different pitcher than he had been in the past, showing a more consistent delivery and release point, while refining his repertoire and game plan. He threw some important innings for the Bucs, and his last 12 regular season starts were quite dominant (1.78 ERA). We all know what happened in the Wild Card game, but … yeah.

gerrit cole on edinson volquez

Fresh off a three-year contract extension signed last December, Charlie Morton was counted on to be an anchor in the Bucco rotation. For someone with an injury history as lengthy as Charlie’s, that isn’t too wise of a strategy. He lasted until August, when we learned he had been pitching through a sports hernia and needed to be shutdown. He re-appeared for one start in mid-September, but couldn’t last. Morton underwent hip surgery on Sept. 26th, which will leave him out of game action for 6-8 months.

Overall, it’s hard to hate what he does & did this year when he can stay on the field — his respectable 3.72 ERA was matched by a 3.72 FIP; he posted the best strikeout rate of his career (7.2 per 9) along with his always stellar ground ball rate (56%). The reality is that he just can’t keep healthy. If he could log even 180-200 innings, he’d be a great asset at the back of a rotation.

Another weird season for 2013 “All-Star” Jeff Locke. He started 2014 in Indianapolis and didn’t stick with the big league club until June. But he filled in when necessary and spent the final four months of the season in the rotation. Once again, glimpses of dominance followed by ultimate disappointment:

First Half (56 innings) — 2.89 ERA, 2.95 FIP, 0.96 BB/9, .232/.259/.343 opponent slash line

Second Half (75.1 innings) — 4.66 ERA, 5.42 FIP, 4.06 BB/9, .266/.353/.451 opponent slash line

Locke’s proved to be effective when he knows where the ball’s going. When he loses his command and starts walking people, it’s game over.

Brandon Cumpton again filled in as a spot starter when necessary. With the exception of a 10-run abomination vs. Los Angeles, Cumpton did a pretty nice job — he bounced back from that terrible start with five good outings in June, posting a 2.97 ERA in over 30 innings.

The problem with Cumpton as a starter is his limited repertoire (fastball-slider), which doesn’t fool many hitters the second/third time he faces them…

1st PA – .247/.333/.286

2nd PA – .357/.378/.440

3rd PA –  .290/.353/.435

Wandy Rodriguez deserves no recognition for his six outings, which looked more like batting practice. He was rightfully cut by mid-May, but got the last laugh as he took $13 million from the Pirates and Astros.


Looking ahead…

Name 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
C. Morton $8M $8M Option FA
A.J. Burnett $8.5M FA
V. Worley Arb-1 Arb-2 Arb-3 Arb-4 FA
J. Locke Pre-Arb Arb-1 Arb-2 Arb-3 FA
G. Cole Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb-1 Arb-2 Arb-3
B. Cumpton Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb-1 Arb-2
F. Liriano FA
E. Volquez FA

via Baseball-Reference

Welcome back, A.J. Yes, he had a bad year in Philly, but his 2012-2013 performance and inning-eating was sorely missed in the Pirate rotation. He’ll join Cole, Worley, and Locke as the healthy Pirate starters. Charlie Morton’s status is uncertain for now. Hopefully this is the summer Jameson Taillon can jump to the majors, although he may need more time as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Also keep an eye on Nick Kingham at Indianapolis. It’s looking like the Pirates should sign or trade for another starter, whether that’s Liriano or someone else. They could use a top/mid-rotation guy to fit between Cole and Burnett, and the depth is always necessary.

Next up: we’ll review the bullpen.

Go Bucs