COMMENTARY | Coming into May 27th, the Pittsburgh Pirates were 31-19, tied for the second best record in the National League. And while many forces have conspired to give the Pirates an above-.600 winning percentage, be they luck, magic, or Andrew McCutchen, it's the unexpected efforts from their starting pitching staff that has played a large part of the team's success.
Even with Jonathan Sanchez, who lasted only 13.2 innings over four starts and whose arm should probably be used for medical science testing instead of baseball at this point, the Pirates rotation ranks second in the majors in runs allowed per game (3.42). However, the rotation has also averaged 5.4 innings per start, fourth-worst in the majors, and putting undue strain on the bullpen. While the Pirates will need more innings or at least a constant trolley system to Indianapolis to bring in fresh bullpen arms, what are the chances that the Pirates rotation continues to produce? Let's look at the individual cast:
AJ Burnett: 3-5, 2.57 ERA, 70 IP, 10.9 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 2.42 FIP
AJ Burnett, the defacto ace after last year's career-resurrecting 16-10, 3.51 ERA, has dropped his ERA by nearly a full run to 2.57 this year while upping his strikeouts to a league-leading 10.9 per nine innings and cutting his HR/9 in half. And while his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, looking just at home runs, strikeouts, and walks) says his ERA could be even lower, you shouldn't bet on a 36-year-old starter setting career highs in most major pitching categories. Especially when the Pirates already have Jason Grilli doing that.
Pittsburgh should be able to rely on Burnett for another 120 innings of solid work in line with last year's numbers, but to expect him to pitch this well would be foolish.
Wandy Rodriguez: 6-2, 3.58 ERA, 55.1 IP, 6.7 K/9, 1.46 BB/9, 4.05 FIP
Wandy Rodriguez, like some sort of automaton, is quietly doing the same thing he's done every year: showcase great control while essentially throwing only fastballs and curves with an occasional changeup tossed in there. Just look at the ERAs he's put up since 2008:
That kind of consistency has its own value and should let everyone in the Pirates front office sleep well knowing that they can count on another year of sustained success.
Jeff Locke: 5-1, 2.45 ERA, 58.2 IP, 6.4 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 4.26 FIP
Locke, already part of one of Neal Huntington's most successful trades, being acquired by the Pirates along with Charlie Morton and Gorkys Hernandez when Nate Mclouth was sent to Atlanta, has been even better than his numbers suggest since struggling out of the gate. Over his last seven starts, Locke is 4-0 with a 1.47 ERA.
Sadly, nothing suggests that this kind of success is sustainable, whether it's Locke's fringy 90 mph fastball, low strikeout rate, or the fact that there's no way he'll continue stranding 84% of baserunners (10th lowest among pitchers with at least 50 innings) or have batters hit .224 on balls in play (6th lowest). Locke's proven that he has the talent to compete in a Major League rotation after struggling in two previous auditions, but to expect ace-level results would be foolish.
Jeanmar Gomez: 2-0, 2.75 ERA, 36 IP, 5.3 K/9 3.5 BB/9, 4.94 FIP
Another pitcher playing over his head, Gomez represents some depth that Pirates have lacked in recent years: a pitcher that can start, but doesn't necessarily have to. With injuries hitting the rotation, Gomez has moved from the bullpen and can at least fake being a starting pitcher for a few innings at a time. He's not a long-term solution, having not made it past five innings in any outing, and with his subpar stuff, Gomez should only be used fill holes as they show up as his ERA inevitably creeps higher.
James McDonald: 2-2, 5.76 ERA, 29.2 IP, 7.6 K/9, 6.1 BB/9, 4.13 FIP
On the DL with a shoulder strain since April 30th, the return of a healthy McDonald would be a big boost to the rotation. Coming off of two consecutive 171 IP, 4.21 ERA seasons, McDonald actually had a sub-3 ERA as late as July 18th last year before fading down the stretch. Though durability is a concern, he has the ability to be a better pitcher than he's shown in the past.
Set to start his rehab assignment with Double-A Altoona on May 27th, PECOTA still projects him to finish the year with an ERA below 4, assuming that he's healthy. One area of concern is McDonald's dwindling fastball velocity, dropping from nearly 93 mph in 2011 to under 91 this season. There aren't a whole lot of right-handers that can get away with drooping fastballs.
Francisco Liriano: 3-0, 1.00 ERA, 18 IP, 12.5 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 1.28 FIP
Through three starts, Liriano is performing like the pitcher that we all dreamed of before Tommy John surgery interrupted his 2006 season (12-3, 2.16 ERA). His fastball velocity is ticking up, averaging just under 94 mph, he's drastically cut down on his walks (after averaging 5 per 9 IP in '11 and '12), and batters are swinging at pitches out of the zone at a higher rate than ever before.
Sure, it's only been 18 innings and smart money would be on Liriano being more like the pitcher we've seen since 2008 (4.75 ERA in 695 IP) than the Cy Young-worthy prospect, but teams keep signing Liriano in the hope that the latent talent is still there. Only 29, it's possible, if you strain your eyes a little and gaze through rose-colored glasses, that Liriano is that ace again.
In the end, the Pirates rotation has been playing so far over their historical norms, they are due for some correction. But there is hope. The Pirates defense, with the athletic McCutchen and Marte in the outfield and Clint Barmes at short, is stronger than it has been in some time, currently leading the league in defensive efficiency. Russell Martin, in addition to throwing out base stealers at a 41% clip compared to Rod Barajas' woeful 6% last year, is also considered one of the best catchers at pitch framing, ensuring that the starters are getting as many strike calls from the umpire as possible. And, for once, the Pirates have plenty of options. Beyond the current stopgap Jeanmar Gomez, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton are currently rehabbing and top prospect Gerrit Cole may even get a chance to join the rotation later this summer. The Pirates lack the rotation strength of some of the top-tier staffs, but after years of giving starts to the Brian Burreses of the world, the team has a variety of options that should help them stay afloat in the NL Central .
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