The Pirates need to fix what isn’t broken.
I guess it really depends on your definition of ‘broken’ whether or not this post makes sense to you. But, let me explain. As of April 13th, the Pittsburgh Pirates have the 18th best FIP in baseball. If you prefer xFIP, the Pirates have the 25th best xFIP in baseball. That matches up well with their 25th best ERA of 4.70.
Those numbers are nothing to be proud of. But is that ‘bad’? Is that ‘broken’? I don’t think the Pirates have been bad enough to call them ‘broken’. However, when you look at the starting pitchers numbers, they have done a really fine job to start the year. When you look at the bullpen, ya, things need some work. But most of the damage has come off of Josh Smoker, Dovydas Neverauskas, and George Kontos. I’m not all that sure that in a month Josh Smoker and Dovydas Neverauskas will still be on the Pirates roster, so I’m less concerned about their early season performances.
Let’s just say the Pirates have an average pitching staff. Ya, the numbers aren’t superb. But I think the bullpen works itself out in about a month when Joe Musgrove returns, pushing Brault back into middle relief, and this Pirates rotation certainly has potential.
First, let’s take a look at Charlie Morton. Last year, Morton had his best year as a pitcher. Already having pitched 9 years in the bigs, and going from the weaker NL to the stronger AL, Morton was certainly an unlikely candidate for a breakout season. So what went right for Morton, and wrong for the Pirates?
Well, first things first. Morton didn’t leave the Pirates and go to the Astros. There was a gap year. A very important gap year. Morton pitched all of 4 games for the Philadelphia Phillies before tearing his left hamstring which caused him to miss the rest of the season. In those 4 games, Morton had a 4.15 ERA, but a strikeout rate that dwarfed every previous strikeout rate in his career. Now striking out 26.8% of the batters he faced, Charlie Morton healed up his hamstring and became a free agent. That offseason he signed a 2 year, $14,000,000 deal with the future World Series champions, the Houston Astros.
Morton would go on to have an incredible season for the Astros. This got people talking. Where was this Charlie Morton for the Pittsburgh Pirates?
Now, what about Gerrit Cole? Sure, Cole has all of 2 starts with the Houston Astros. In his first start with the Astros, Cole had gotten 21 swings and misses, the most in his career. Now it was just one start, in a fresh new league where batters haven’t seen him, against the pretty terrible Texas Rangers. Things happen. But then in his next start, Gerrit Cole got 20 swings and misses, which was better than he had ever done in 127 starts as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. One game is easy to dismiss. Two games is still just two games. But after seeing how Charlie Morton transformed, it’s pretty easy to imagine that the Astros are tapping into Gerrit Cole’s full potential.
The Pittsburgh Pirates certainly have their own approach to pitching. Fastball heavy, preferably sinkerball heavy, throw the fastball low in the zone and on occasion in on the batter. Pitch to contact, induce groundballs, and let the defense take care of things. This strategy works, but is it optimal for the 2018 Pirates?
Let’s take a closer look at Morton and Cole. First, Morton’s transformation didn’t begin with the Astros. It began with the Pirates in a game at Colorado. Morton, when asked about his velocity increase in 2016 said, “For some reason, I just went out there and tried to throw the ball hard one game. I wound up throwing it harder.”
Well, that was easy. To me, Morton’s biggest transformation is his increase in velocity. I have a hard time faulting the Pirates for Morton’s success when all Morton did was ‘try to throw harder’. But what has undoubtedly helped Morton was his change in pitch usage. Morton started throwing his sinker less and a four-seamer more. He increased his curveball usage. He even began throwing a cutter. What resulted was his strikeout rate increased from 16.0% with the Pirates to 26.4% with the Astros. His GB% took a small hit, but with a sharp increase in his K%, I’m sure ‘Ground Chuck’ was fine with now being called just ‘Chuck’.
What about Gerrit Cole? What the heck got into him? He didn’t gain 3-4 mph on his fastball, but he did start throwing it less. Cole has started throwing his sinker less. Much less. Last year with the Pirates Cole threw his sinker 18.1% of the time, this year he has only thrown it 4.9% of the time. But what he has done is he has started throwing his slider and curveball more.
As you can see, Cole has ditched his hard stuff in favor of his breaking stuff. And, as you can see in the second picture, that has resulted in him getting more swinging strikes.
This isn’t some startling new revelation. Eno Sarris wrote about Gerrit Cole increasing the usage of his offspeed pitches. Travis Sawchik wrote about Gerrit Cole throwing his offspeed pitches more, and even quoted Jim Benedict who agreed with the premise. This isn’t some out of nowhere transformation. The signs were clear, the fix was obvious, and yet, Gerrit Cole became a Houston Astro.
Last year I wrote that it would do Chad Kuhl some good by throwing his slider much more often. He then added a curveball to his repertoire. However, he still threw his fastball at the same rate. Adding a curveball is awesome, but not exactly what I had in mind. He should follow the footsteps of Morton and Cole and use his breaking stuff more often to get more swinging strikes. If the Pirates are fine with carrying Glasnow as a reliever, they should be ok with one of their starters occasionally going 4-5 very effective innings instead of them going 5-6 efficient innings.
Maybe less fastballs won’t work for Jameson Taillon. Maybe it won’t work for Trevor Williams. But it’s worth trying. As the league changes, so should the Pittsburgh Pirates strategies. I’m confident that, at the very least, it will help Chad Kuhl.
It’s easy to say Morton was a fluke. It’s easy to say Cole has only pitched in two games. But combine the two, and it’s even easier to say that maybe, just maybe, the Pittsburgh Pirates need to take a step back and reevaluate their pitching strategy. The Pirates have a young group with potential. Don’t let them escape to flourish somewhere else. Change some things up, and this pitching staff will flourish.