Pittsburgh Pirates Pitching Needs To Be Trade Deadline Priority


Jul 21, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Edinson Volquez (36) reacts after hitting Los Angeles Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis (not pictured) in the head with a pitch during the second inning at PNC Park. Ellis remained in the game. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff needs some help… now.  Right now if I were to borrow Clint Hurdle’s motto for the season.  At least that’s what that negative voice in my head told me— pitching now, pitching now…it’s all I thought of this morning.    But I wanted to just try and check out some numbers to see if there was anything that would support that really bad thought.  Then I wanted to see what pitcher from the swirling Pirates trade rumors makes most sense for the Buccos.

The first place I went was to look at pitching numbers from FanGraphs.  I pulled up the team pitching statistics, sorted by wins above replacement.  I started to scroll down…and scrolled some more.  Holy sh**.  Last?

The Pirates pitching staff, as a whole, is last in WAR.    The Pirates pitching staff is a little over three wins above replacement level.  [Graph courtesy of Fangraphs and is embiggable by clicking]

Pirates pitching stats through July 22. Fangraphs

One reason is that Bryan Morris and Wandy Rodriguez counted for negative 1.6 during their time on the mound in Bucco unis this season.  Since Morris was traded to the Marlins, he has rediscovered his pitching abilities throwing 25.1 innings and allowing just one earned run while whiffing 22 batters.  Since we are talking about relievers ….we could also dig up the Vic Black numbers if we really wanted to turn back the clock.  Since Rodriguez was let go, we haven’t even seen a picture of what he has been doing and that’s probably a good thing.

But this isn’t about looking backward, so the numbers are what they are.

Apr 21, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano (47) sits in the dugout after being removed from the game against the Cincinnati Reds during the eighth inning at PNC Park. The Pirates won 6-5. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Jason Grilli and Jeanmar Gomez also add up to one win below replacement level.   The other below replacement level arms have been Ernesto Frieri, Jared Hughes and Vin Mazzaro.  Frieri has some decent peripheral numbers with stikeouts, so perhaps he is turning it around.  Hughes has been lights out in July allowing no earned runs and on the season just eight over 40 innings.

One of the big differences we thought was strikeouts–less this year when compared to last year.  But Gerrit Cole has actually struck out more batters per nine than last year, but obviously has pitched less.  The biggest difference with Cole has been the walks giving up just over three per nine innings.  Francisco Liriano also has more strikeouts per nine innings, but also has pitched less and the walks…oh, the walks.  Frankie has given up nearly five walks per nine innings.

Jun 28, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) looks on in the dugout against the New York Mets during the fourth inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

WAR isn’t the end all be all stat for pitching, so let’s dig a bit deeper.  Let’s look at strikeouts per nine innings.

The Pirates rank 26th in the big leagues in strikeouts per nine.  Ugh.

So what about walks per nine innings?  The Pirates are 11th in walks per nine innings at just over three walks allowed per nine innings.  

So what about ground ball percentage?  Ah ha!

The Pirates lead the big leagues in ground ball percentage.  

So it really boils down to this for me.  The Pirates Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano are not pitching as well as they did last season.  The other pitchers are getting groundballs, but the defense has not been as good as it’s been last season.

We learned that Cole won’t return until August 2nd if all goes well with the simulated game today and the rehab start on the 28th in Indianapolis.  So that leaves a big question at the trade deadline.  What do the Pirates do?  Who do they move out of the rotation, off the roster, into the bullpen, send back to the minors, etc….

Clint Hurdle has had a challenging 2014 season.

The answer is nearly every pitcher on the roster is expendable right now.  Cole and Liriano are desperately needed by the Pirates, but the team has been scraping together wins without getting their best from their two studs. The team can’t seriously count on pitchers not named Cole and Liriano getting it done if they really want to win in the postseason.  And we get it, the Bucs allow soft contact-– a lot of it,  but soft contact still counts.  Volquez allowed some soft singles last night–they are still singles–until the Bucs can become dominant on the mound–allowing soft contact means allowing opportunities for bleeders and tweeners that suck life out of a club.

No Pirates pitcher, outside of Tony Watson and maybe Jeff Locke has been dominant on a consistent basis to be deemed untouchanble.  There are no glaring weakness as Neal Huntington said, but there are no glaring stars either!

It will be the more fringe pitcher who get shuffled.  A few pitchers to consider moving to bullpen/creating injuries/including in deals to make room for more effective pitchers would be Stolmy Pimentel, Jared Hughes, Jeanmar Gomez, Vance Worley, and Ernesto Frieri.

Cases can be made by Pirates fans to keep all of those pitchers in their current role.  I understand those feelings, but right now this team is in position to do great things and it’s time to add more talented pitching options.

Clint Hurdle has a new message for the 2014 season

We could bitch about Jeanmar Gomez, and then people would say in his last ten outings he has allowed just two earned runs in 13.2 innings–no homers in his last 18 appearances.  We could complain about Stolmy Pimentel who has given up eleven earned runs in his past 17.1 innings, but has 22 strikeouts.  It always goes back to this for me, those pitchers have done things to get the team to where they are (or aren’t) but do you want any of those pitchers we mentioned on the bump in a tightly contested pennant race in September, or (*gulp) the postseason?

So here it goes, we think the Bucs need a starter that can get strikeouts.  If only the Pirates defense was a little bit better they might be able to ride out with what the current starters they have, but with major question marks around Liriano and Cole, that’s not a good strategy.  The Pirates should prepare for the worst case scenario.

At this very moment, getting Ian Kennedy makes the most sense.  The right hander strikes batters out and has strong peripheral numbers as we wrote yesterday.  The contract that Kennedy has makes the dollars and cents add up for Bob Nutting.  The Pirates have plenty of cash to make the move including paying Kennedy in arbitration this offseason.  It’s a trade for now–and for later.

The Buccos have the prospects the San Diego Padres will want in return.    The Pirates will have a veteran pitcher in 2015 that isn’t a project and has had sustained success in the bigs.

Jul 20, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester (31) throws a pitch against the Kansas City Royals in the first inning at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Some of the latest options have the Bucs looking at Jon Lester and A.J. Burnett.  That won’t don’t do it for me.  Lester is incredibly talented and has 4.5 WAR which is more than the entire Pirates staff–starters and relievers combined with a win as change.   However, the Sox are in the middle of a winning streak and are trying to make a remarkable run to get back in the race.  Trading one of the best starters in the A.L. seems unrealistic.   Besides, the Bucs aren’t going to unload what the Red Sox will want and Lester is a short term rental.

Burnett is pitching with an injury that could end his season at any time.  Bringing A.J. back to town would look great on the surface, but wouldn’t provide the impact this club needs.  The Bucs need an impact arm to carry the load.

Another rumor had the Pirates looking at the prospects in the Mariners AAA organization which makes very little sense to me to have an impact on the team as it eyes the postseason.

The Pirates have what it takes to win in the post season if they add pitching to their roster.

The motto before the season was NOW.

Let’s see if the Pirates remember it at the deadline.