The Pittsburgh Pirates Pitching Staff: Cause for Concern?

The Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation

With the Pirates off day, we had no idea what to do with ourselves late last night. So we started doing some digging into the specifics behind the success of the Bucs rotation. We saw some interesting facts by looking at pitch velocity and pitch selection compared to last season. We put some of it together for you below.

May 17, 2012; Washington, D.C., USA; Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher James McDonald (53) pitches in the third inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE

James McDonald has taken 1.0 mph off his fastball compared to last season.  He is throwing his fastball much less than he ever has in his career at just 41%. McDonald’s career average shows him throwing a fastball 54% of the time.  JMac has added a slider which Rod Barajas talked about the other day.  The addition of the slider, which McDonald is throwing 19% of the time, has been very effective and it has allowed him to reduce his use of a changeup to just 4%, down from 10% last season.

McDonald has been having a breakout season.  His xFIP sits at 3.29 and he is a 2.1 WAR currently for the Bucs.

May 9, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Erik Bedard (45) pitches against the Washington Nationals during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

Erik Bedard has lost 1.0 mph off his fastball from last season according to FanGraphs.  According to Brooks Baseball, he has lost a tick less than a mph.  Bedard is also relying less on his fastball and is turning to his changeup more than he ever has.  Brooks shows that Bedard’s changeup has less horizontal movement and is being thrown at about 3mph less than in 2011.  The previous career high for changeups thrown by Bedard was around 8%.

Bedard threw his fastball at an average speed of 89.4 mph so far this season.  In 2007 as a Baltimore Orioles starter, he sat at 92.1 for the year.

It’s odd, because Bedard has an xFIP of 3.64 and is a 1.0 WAR pitcher, but the left hander hasn’t been able to work very effeciently. But give him this, he still finds a way to keep his team in the ballgame.  He has gone seven innings on just two occassions–opening day and against the Cardinals on April 22 when he struckout seven.

Despite little run support, Bedard has pitched well, but he hasn’t been very efficient and hasn’t made it past the sixth inning in his last six starts.  Bedard allowed no earned runs in his most recent six inning outing against the Cubs.  But in two prior starts against the Mets and Nats, he has allowed four runs. He will make a crucial start in Milwaukee this weekend.

Bedard has made ten starts this year, one was cut short because of back spasms which many felt would lead to further complications.  The lefty made 15 starts in 2008 and 2009.  He missed 2010 and started 24 games last season between Seattle and Boston.

Various outlets have reported Bedard is a 100 pitch guy.  We don’t see much of a problem with that if he can be more effective in June.  Obviously the big factor is Bedard’s health.  If his effectiveness improves and he can keep taking the ball every fifth day, the lefty could garner interest at the trading deadline.

May 25, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett (34) pitches against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

A.J. Burnett’s velocity is sitting right around where he was last season with the Yankees.  His average fastball is 92.5 mph about two tenths off where was last season with the Yankees.  Burnett has been a lightning rod for the Pirates staff and sits at 1.0 WAR for the season after 50 games.

The key for Burnett has been the ability for the right hander to get the bad guys to beat the ball into the ground resulting in groundballs.  In 2011, he induced a groundball percentage of 5.8 on his fastball–he has grown that to 9.12 percent this year.  In 2011, he induced a groundball percentage of 15.9% on his sinker that has grown to 19.05% in 2012.  Burnett has also increased groundballs off his changeup by over 9%–from 10.5% in 2011 to 19.7% in 2012.  Burnett’s curveball is getting over 2% more whiffs in 2012 than it did in the American League in 2011.

Burnett was a great pickup for the Bucs.  It will be interesting to see if his success continues as the Pirates approach interleague play where the opposition could have some familiarity with him.

August 19, 2011; Pittsburgh,PA, USA: Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Kevin Correia (29) in the dugout against the Cincinnati Reds during the fifth inning at PNC Park. The Reds won 11-8. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USPRESSWIRE

Kevin Correia has lost 1.2 mph on his fastball from last season.  The right hander has averaged 89.4 mph, down from 90.6 last season.  Correia has relied on a changeup nearly 5% more than last season.

An All-Star in 2011, Correia seems to be destined for dismissal unless he can continue his fortunate ways.    Despite a phenomenal .227 BABIP, the California kid has a negative WAR for the Bucs.

Charlie Morton continues to baffle us.  We have dug into the numbers and there isn’t much that can be concluded.

We found that Morton’s velocity is off just over one mph and perhaps that has made his sinker more hittable?  Bob Walk discussed that he thought this might be a cause for less movement on the pitch, but the numbers don’t back that up.

The right hander has cut his walk rate in half, his strikeouts are down over 1.3 per nine innings pitched, his homeruns allowed are killing him, and he is stranding less runners.  Morton, as always, is a puzzler, but maybe it goes back to his hip surgery in the offseason?

Ray Searage was on 93.7 The Fan yesterday and gave a great interview.   When Jim Colony asked Searage if he felt that Charlie was healthy, there was a rather long pause followed by “ummmmmmmm…. as far as I know.”

Despite the success of the Bucs staff, there should be concern about Correia’s BABIP–it’s nearly impossible to think he can maintain a .227 which is the lowest of his career.  Can McDonald and Burnett continue to be so dominant?  Seriously, what’s up with Charlie?  And is Bedard’s dip in velocity a concern, or merely a sign that the veteran is pacing himself for a long season?

We would like to think that Correia can battle through his reduction in velocity, but if he can’t, the Pirates have Jeff Karstens waiting in the shadows.  Charlie Morton scares us.  Maybe he is hurt?  If he’s not, he should certainly see some luck start going his way if he continues to pound his sinker.  But if not Rudy Owens, or several other successful AAA pitchers could get an opportunity to show what they have at the big league level.

A.J. Burnett seems locked in for the long haul.

JMac is going to get tested more than he ever has in his career.  Can he hold up?

Erik Bedard, who also has showed a reduction in velocity, remains the wild card for the Bucs rotation as they move into the second third of the season.

One positive to note looking forward for the Pirates is the fact that the month of June isn’t filled with aces coming out of the bad guys dugouts starting with dodging the two best on the Brewers staff tonight, so perhaps the Bucs can find some offense to help out a pitching staff that has been nothing short of remarkable after 50 games.

Thanks to Brooks and Fangraphs for the data

Topics: A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton, Erik Bedard, James McDonald, Kevin Correia, Pittsburgh Pirates

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