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

Why can’t the Pirates keep the ball in the ballpark?

The Pirates have a problem that not even heralded savior Gregory Polanco can solve: pitching.

Tuesday night was the latest chapter of the team’s struggles, as the Orioles cruised to a 9-2 victory by way of four home runs. Between the Brewers, Yankees, and Orioles, that’s 12 home runs against the Bucs in the last five games. 91 mph sinkers aren’t meant to be grooved to the reigning home run champion:

chrisdavis third home run0001

The long ball is becoming a huge problem for Pirates’ pitching. They’ve surrendered 50 blasts through 44 games, on pace for a whopping 186. Last year, the Bucs allowed just 101 total.

Home run rates are way up across the board – HR per nine innings:

pirates hr per 9

And home run to fly ball ratio:

pirates hr fb ratio

The Pirates had the third lowest HR/FB rate in Major League Baseball last year at 8.9%. This year? The highest at 14.2%, tied with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Another interesting look: when these home runs are coming. A homer is a homer and instant offense is huge, but the situation is also important. For example: Ike Davis‘ seventh inning home run last night. In a 7-1 drubbing? Meh. Didn’t help much. But have a look at the Pirates’ pitching splits:

High Lvrge 362 90 14 .265 .352 .434 .786
Medium Lvrge 572 67 17 .264 .320 .411 .731
Low Lvrge 585 35 19 .251 .315 .397 .712
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/21/2014.

A bunch of opponent homers – and offense in general – has come in high leverage situations. That’s one homer every 26 at-bats in high leverage; one every 34 in medium; one every 31 in low. Staggering: 90 runs (!) in high leverage situations – this follows up with the bullpen meltdowns we looked at last week.

Which pitches have been the most “homerable” against Pirates this year? This is a concept Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs broke down a while back. Bucco results:

pirates homerable pitches

As you’ve probably been able to tell, Wandy Rodriguez has been nothing short of a disaster. Between inflated HR/9 and HR/FB rates and multiple pitches getting lit up for homers, it’s been batting practice against him for the most part. Jeanmar Gomez has been a mess out of the ‘pen (12 runs in 12 appearances; four meltdowns) and Vin Mazzaro hasn’t been trusted (only three appearances since being recalled almost three weeks ago). Edinson Volquez, who’s typically allowed a lot of homers despite being a ground ball guy, somehow managed to keep the homers at a minimum through his first few starts… His success lasted all of three weeks, and he’s surrendered eight dingers in his last four outings. Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole, who need to emerge as the staff leaders, have also fallen victim to the long ball…

What explains all this? Just bad pitching? I’m wondering if Ray Searage has an answer. They’ve been playing some solid teams, and playing in homer parks like Great American and Yankee Stadium probably hasn’t helped. But PNC is a pitcher’s park and it hasn’t helped either: 27 opponent HR in 24 home games this year; 37 in last year’s 81 home games.

It’s crazy to see a staff go from really good to really bad, but that’s essentially what the Pirates have done. As a whole, they’ve produced ZERO wins above replacement, worst in MLB. The offense hasn’t been much different: 3.91 runs per game last year; 3.84 rpg this year. It’s the pitching that’s gone far south, and if they keep giving up all these homers, the games will continue to be over in a hurry. And if the losses keep piling up, the season will be over in a hurry, too.


Go Bucs

Fading Fastballs: Where’s the velocity?

We’re into the first week of May, and the Pirates have been a total flop. At 12-19, they sit at the bottom of the NL Central standings and hold the third worst record in Major League Baseball.

Right now, the root of the team’s problems lies within the pitching staff – from top to bottom, they simply haven’t produced at the same level as last season. For a team with an erratic offense, the pitching needs to be a consistent force… But it’s not. This tweet from David Todd about the team’s starters summed it up pretty well:

One noticeable difference for almost every pitcher this year: a change in fastball velocity. For whatever reason, a number of these guys seem to have lost a tick or two on their heaters… Check out the Pitch f/x data:

Stolmy Pimentel
Vin Mazzaro
Wandy Rodriguez
Francisco Liriano
Jeanmar Gomez
Charlie Morton
Mark Melancon
Edinson Volquez
Gerrit Cole
Tony Watson
Jared Hughes
Justin Wilson
Jason Grilli
Brandon Cumpton
Bryan Morris

Note: If a pitcher throws multiple hard pitches (four seam, two seam, sinker, cutter, etc.), whichever one he uses most frequently was applied.

There is more to the pitching concerns than just velocity, but it’s certainly not enlightening to see so much decline. Some of the largest drop-offs are among the team’s biggest worries:

– Stolmy Pimentel was advertised as a young gun with good stuff and a potential wild card in the bullpen. However, he’s landed on the DL with right shoulder inflammation after just six appearances and weak velocity.

– Wandy Rodriguez, back after missing the majority of 2013, was throwing what appeared to be batting practice fastballs before limping back onto the disabled list. The 35-year-old southpaw touches 90 mph on a good day anymore… In his rehab outing last Thursday, he topped out at 87.

– Through seven outings, Francisco Liriano isn’t looking much like the ace he was a year ago. Velocity, strikeouts, ground ball rate are down; walks, home runs, and ERA are up.

– Mentioned Charlie Morton’s velo and other issues here last week. Another starter who hasn’t looked good at all.

While there are a few guys who haven’t shot their velocity (Cole, Watson, Wilson, etc.), you’ll notice just three with actual positive changes: Jason Grilli, Brandon Cumpton, and Bryan Morris. Grilli, also on the disabled list, is a bit of a surprise – his fastball was down upon returning from the DL last September. Cumpton is a pleasant surprise, and it’s good to see his stuff on the rise as the team counts on him from time to time. Morris’ added velocity was a talking point in spring training and earned him a spot in the bullpen.

Maybe it’s early and the arms will kick it up a notch, but the fastballs have been down across the board. The pitching as a whole has been disappointing, and if they don’t figure it out soon, they might just keep up this 63-win pace.

Go Bucs

Data courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

Saturday Stat Sheet 4/19/14

saturday stat sheet pedro

– In last week’s stat sheet, we wrote about Andrew McCutchen‘s slow start. Since then, he’s hit .357/.406/.607 while starting a seven game hitting streak.

– After collecting five quick homers out of the gate, Pedro Alvarez has entered one of his cold streaks. He’s had three hits, 12 strikeouts in his last 34 plate appearances.

– The talk of Pirate fans today is the acquisition of Ike Davis. The 27-year-old first baseman has three days to join the team; hopefully he’s here by tonight. In nine career games at PNC Park, he’s hit .207/.258/.241.

EDIT: Ike is in Pittsburgh and in the lineup tonight, batting 6th. As expected, Ishikawa was DFA’d to make room for Davis.

While no corresponding move has been made yet (as of Saturday afternoon), the addition of Davis signals the end of the Travis Ishikawa era. He’s hit .206 with a .646 OPS over 34 at-bats with the Bucs.

– Tonight’s starting pitcher, Wandy Rodriguez, has looked awful so far in 2014 (7.31 ERA, 7.26 FIP, league-leading 6 HR allowed). His fastball has looked flat and can’t top 90 mph, forcing him to rely a lot on his offspeed offerings (16% change, 33% curve). We’ll see how he fares tonight against the free-swinging Brew Crew. Ryan Braun has owned Wandy in the past, hitting .383/.463/.809 over 47 AB.

Batting through 17 games:

1 C Russell Martin 12 56 48 7 14 1 0 2 11 5 10 .292 .375 .438
2 1B Travis Ishikawa* 15 38 34 2 7 1 1 1 3 3 11 .206 .263 .382
3 2B Neil Walker# 17 72 67 10 15 2 0 5 9 3 10 .224 .268 .478
4 SS Jordy Mercer 16 52 46 5 10 1 0 0 2 3 9 .217 .288 .239
5 3B Pedro Alvarez* 17 75 64 11 11 1 0 6 13 11 18 .172 .293 .469
6 LF Starling Marte 17 78 68 13 18 3 1 1 3 8 26 .265 .359 .382
7 CF Andrew McCutchen 17 79 64 7 17 5 1 1 9 14 15 .266 .392 .422
8 RF Travis Snider* 16 59 54 6 12 0 0 3 6 5 12 .222 .288 .389
9 OF Jose Tabata 16 34 31 3 7 2 0 0 2 2 7 .226 .294 .290
10 1B Gaby Sanchez 12 33 31 4 7 2 0 3 5 2 10 .226 .273 .581
11 C Tony Sanchez 6 18 18 0 6 1 0 0 4 0 5 .333 .333 .389
12 IF Clint Barmes 5 12 12 2 3 0 0 0 0 0 2 .250 .250 .250
13 UT Josh Harrison 12 10 10 1 2 0 0 1 2 0 4 .200 .200 .500
Team Totals 17 651 576 71 131 19 3 23 69 57 150 .227 .304 .391
Rank in 15 NL teams 5 5 11 14 7 1 4 11 13 11 9
Non-Pitcher Totals 17 616 547 71 129 19 3 23 69 56 139 .236 .314 .408
Pitcher Totals 17 35 29 0 2 0 0 0 0 1 11 .069 .100 .069
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/19/2014.


1 SP Francisco Liriano* 0 3 3.96 4.11 4 0 25.0 21 11 10 28 1.240 3.6 10.1
2 SP Charlie Morton 0 2 4.32 4.59 4 0 25.0 26 12 7 17 1.320 2.5 6.1
3 SP Edinson Volquez 1 0 1.71 3.03 4 0 21.0 16 4 4 13 0.952 1.7 5.6
4 SP Gerrit Cole 2 1 4.74 4.71 3 0 19.0 20 10 7 16 1.421 3.3 7.6
5 SP Wandy Rodriguez* 0 2 7.31 7.26 3 0 16.0 20 13 5 13 1.563 2.8 7.3
6 CL Jason Grilli 0 0 1.50 3.41 6 4 6.0 4 1 4 5 1.333 6.0 7.5
7 RP Mark Melancon 0 1 2.25 2.57 8 0 8.0 6 2 1 5 0.875 1.1 5.6
8 RP Bryan Morris 2 0 1.29 2.93 6 0 7.0 5 1 0 7 0.714 0.0 9.0
9 RP Tony Watson* 2 0 1.29 0.93 7 0 7.0 3 1 1 9 0.571 1.3 11.6
10 RP Justin Wilson* 0 0 3.18 2.90 6 0 5.2 6 2 3 5 1.588 4.8 7.9
11 Jeanmar Gomez 0 0 6.48 5.71 4 0 8.1 12 6 4 8 1.920 4.3 8.6
12 Stolmy Pimentel 1 0 1.29 3.50 3 0 7.0 5 1 4 6 1.286 5.1 7.7
Team Totals 8 9 3.72 4.15 17 4 155.0 144 64 50 132 1.252 2.9 7.7
Rank in 15 NL teams 8 4 8 6 4 8 9 6 10
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/19/2014.

Go Bucs

In 51 Days…

how many days until opening day 51

Wandy Rodriguez (51) days until Opening Day…

After being dealt to Pittsburgh in July 2012, Rodriguez looked to produce a solid full season in 2013. However, the veteran southpaw dealt with a thigh strain in April and a forearm strain in June, with the latter injury forcing him to spend the rest of the season on the disabled list. Wandy made just 12 starts, posting a 3.59 ERA, 1.117 WHIP, and a 3.83 K/BB ratio.

If he’s healthy, you can expect to see Wandy and his $13 million salary ($5.5 M paid by Houston) in the rotation.


ZiPS – 3.63 ERA, 83 K, 32 BB, 119 IP
Steamer – 4.15 ERA, 75 K, 31 BB, 105 IP
Oliver – 3.74 ERA, 96 K, 39 BB, 142 IP

Questions for 2014…

1. Will he pitch? At all?

He’s 35. He hasn’t pitched an inning in the show since June 5th. Even if he’s feeling better (as indicated during Bucs mini camp last month), there’s reason to be skeptical that Wandy can be healthy all year – or at all.

Rodriguez’s status could make an impact on the A.J. Burnett situation… If they feel he’s still hurt, they need to get A.J. on the phone and not think twice about it. (But again, no one knows what’s going on with that right now.)

2. How will he perform?

If he’s healthy, Wandy could probably turn in a decent year; at least decent back-of-the-rotation stuff.

He doesn’t throw hard, but he also hasn’t really lost any velocity over the years, consistently averaging out around 89 mph.

Looking at his Pitch F/X, I noticed that his changeup has been absolutely crushed. Since 2007, opponents have hit .334 with a .920 OPS off Wandy’s change, by far the highest rates of any pitch in his repertoire. He’s consistently done a nice job with the fastball and curve though, his two most frequently thrown offerings.

Wandy  Rodriguez Curveball

We’ll see what happens. Still too early to tell, I think. Pitchers and catchers report to Bradenton next week (!) so I’m sure we’ll get some updates soon on the Rodriguez front.

Go Bucs