While I don’t always like to speak for everyone, we at TPOP have heard Pirates’ fans disappointment with the front office’s offseason pitching moves. I agree with some complaints and would have liked to see them spend a little more to acquire a better three, thus bumping Jon Niese to the four. I didn’t agree with those pushing to expend resources to acquire another starter to bump an adequate number five like Jeff Locke out of the rotation. With the poor pitching to this point in the season, the pro-J.A. Happ lobby, who had the loudest cries against Locke and Niese prior to the season, seem to think their position has been validated. However, the pitching issues go beyond the back of the rotation that he would have improved.
At this point it’s looking like Pirates’ pitching could derail the contributions of an abnormally solid lineup. The hurlers haven’t lived up to their usual high standards, but it goes beyond the middle and back end scapegoats. Happ and his 2.05 ERA would be a welcome addition, but he’d only be a 0.6 fWAR bump over Locke and Happ’s peripherals likely will hinder his ability to pitch at that level over a full season. While Niese’s struggles have been real, a quarter of his fly balls likely won’t continue to leave the yard. While he’s getting hit hard just under 32% of the time, there are plenty of pitchers getting crushed more often. Locke had pitched to career norms just about everywhere before his three run 6th inning against the Cubs on Saturday outside of his BB/9.
The problems go well beyond #3-5 in the rotation and it starts at the top. The Pirates have a below average rotation right now and they’re getting about what you would expect in an average rotation from a four in Juan Nicasio and at the five from Locke. That means the problem comes with the production from 1-3. Again, Niese has been bad, but he’s not the only one underperforming. Gerrit Cole’s ERA currently sits a half run off his 2015 full season numbers (even after Sunday’s brilliant start). In his first six starts prior to Sunday’s start against the Cubs, he didn’t record a single out in the seventh inning, something Niese and Locke have done a combined three times. He’s looked solid at times, but he only dominated twice in his start in San Diego and on Sunday against the Cubs. The Pirates need more from their ace, in terms of both effectiveness and efficiency.
I’m sad to report that Liriano isn’t going to hit the 200 inning mark he was hoping for in 2016. He may not even get the 186 he pitched last season. Liriano is the elephant in the room during every conversation about Pirates pitching. His walk rate has ballooned to his pre-Ray Searage totals and while, like Niese, a quarter of his fly balls won’t leave the park, his inability to control the free pass likely limits his ceiling even if his luck evens out in the dingers allowed department. The Pirates will be doomed to inconsistency and the overall production of a good four and a weak three in the number two spot of rotation, unless Liriano doesn’t get it together soon. Giving that he’s in his age-32 season, his age isn’t in his favor any longer, either.
Since we’ve arrived at the number three spot in the rotation, I do want to clarify my position here on Niese. While he’s not the only issue, he’s been the biggest issue. I thought the Pirates could get good value out of him if he rebounded to career numbers and in truth, I think he’s a left handed version of Mike Leake when he performs at his best. When I consider the contract Leake got this off-season, I thought Niese had potential to provide a passable performance given his price tag. He hasn’t and he’s turned out to be a rare black mark on the organization’s record of facilitating bounce backs.
If you thought the Pirates’ rotation was underperforming, let me introduce you to the bullpen. Again, the problem starts with the players in the biggest roles. Mark Melancon is a touch off his past previous years and to the eyeball test he seems to bend without breaking more often in 2016. He should be able to out pitch his peripherals, but that 4.26 xFIP is a little scary. He’s also getting hit harder than years past. Ryan Vogelsong has been decent in the middle relief role, but the okay in the pen pretty much ends with him.
Tony Watson has been the bullpen’s version of Liriano, a lefty second fiddle who the team needs a lot more from. While the ERA hasn’t looked too bad, it’s less than you’d expect from one of the best setup men in the league. The FIP and xFIP are a ticking time bomb. Like much of the rest of the staff, his walk rates have spiked and he’s getting hit harder than he has since his rookie season. He’s already allowed as many homeruns in 2016 as he did in all of 2015 and though he’s gotten unlucky with the homerun to flyball, other have been less fortunate. Jared Hughes’ walk rate is absurd, but at 6 innings pitched it’s hard for me to glean anything relevant from his season to this point. Of the Pirates high leverage relievers, Neftali Feliz has maybe been the one who you have to feel best about right now moving forward. While he too has been victimized by the long ball, his K/9 and K:BB is impressive. He looks shaky at times, but if he keeps striking out guys while limiting mistakes at that rate, his luck should even out and he could become one of the more reliable members of the staff.
I won’t complain too much about the second middle reliever. There aren’t many bullpens where the last guy isn’t a complete wildcard.
Fifteen pitchers have taken the hill for the Pirates this season. Not one has posted a FIP or xFIP under 3, even in a small sample. Only two regulars, Feliz and Melancon, had posted a BB/9 under 3 prior to this past weekend. As a staff overall, their BB/9 has gone from 2.46 in 2015 to 4.14. Someone should have told them in spring training that the more walks philosophy only pertained to the hitters. The ERA has gone from 3.23 to 4.43. Most damning is that the team’s xFIP is only a few points higher, meaning that the team either needs to control the walks and homeruns for the pitching to improve or they’ll need to look externally for improvements.
The Pirates have some internal help on the way, in the form of potential top of the rotation types in Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon. Moving them in could push Nicasio to the bullpen role many thought he was being signed to play, taking some pressure off Hughes and Watson. Locke could become a more experienced wild card. The Pirates also have a couple of guys in Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault who could start their major league careers in relief.
However, the situation is so rough right now that inexperienced internal solutions alone may not fix the problem and the Pirates may need to go big to solve them. The issue with Pirates’ pitching is a collective one and not solved by simply DFAing Locke or Niese as Twitter seems to suggest every time they concede a run.
There is no singular solution to the Pirates pitching problems. Happ wouldnt fix the problem alone nor will Taillon or Glasnow. First and foremost, key pitchers need to start pitching their best. Cole has been a more solid three than staff ace. Liriano has been as productive as Locke. Two of the steadier relievers in Watson and Hughes are getting closer and closer to being question marks, while Feliz needs to pitch closer to his xFIP and Melancon needs to quite playing with fire. None of the above are in jeopardy of being replaced, but if they don’t come around the August 1 shopping list gets longer and more expensive. The rest of the staff, however, could lose their job come Super Two deadline time. The problems with Pirates pitching goes well beyond the usual scapegoats. Not a single guy wearing Black and Gold standing on a big pile of dirt has gotten it done at the level they need to.