Has the Pittsburgh Pirates’ rotation improved from last year?


The general consensus around this year’s Pittsburgh Pirates talk is that this team is better than last year’s team. Personally, I’m not sure it’s very easy to be better than a team that won 88 games. Only seven teams in the major leagues (and just three in the National League) won over 88 games last year.

The biggest reason for the team’s success last year was the offense. The Pirates scored the fourth most runs in the league last year, and were third in home runs, batting average, and slugging percentage. As we’ve talked a lot about the last couple weeks here on RumBunter, there’s no reason to believe that the offense will regress much, if at all. We’re all counting on improved seasons from Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, and Pedro Alvarez. Then you have an MVP candidate in Andrew McCutchen while getting above average positional production from the middle infield, all of which adds up to a very good offense. We aren’t worried about that.

Most of the few question marks the team does have surround the pitching staff. The Pirates pitching staff was very productive last year as well, finishing fifth in the NL in ERA. They had below average strikeout numbers and walk numbers, but they got the job done in terms of run prevention. That helped the team capitalize on the strong offensive numbers and boosted them into the playoffs. The pitching staff looks very familiar this year, but will they repeat their successes from a season ago?

Nobody has figured out the correct algorithm to correctly predict the future yet, but there are a few out there that do a pretty good job. One of our favorites is called ZiPS. That might be because we had the creator of the statistic on our podcast last week. We already know that ZiPS thinks pretty highly of the Pirates offense this year, but how do the projections feel about the starting rotation?

First of all, let’s tell you exactly how ZiPS works. Here is the explanation directly from the FanGraphs page that details the most popular projection systems:

"The work of Dan Szymborski over at Baseball Think Factory, the ZiPS projections uses weighted averages of four years of data (three if a player is very old or very young), regresses pitchers based on DIPS theory and BABIP rates, and adjusts for aging by looking at similar players and their aging trends. It’s an effective projection system, and is displayed at FanGraphs for off-season and in-season projections."

If you want to see the full 2015 Pirates ZiPS projections, you can check them out here – but here’s what they look like for the Pirates six starting pitchers:


For comparison, here are last year’s season totals for those same pitchers:


There are a few things that stick out there:

  • The projections think Francisco Liriano will be the statistic staff ace this year. They have Liriano with a strikeout more per nine innings than Gerrit Cole and a slightly better ERA (despite an identical FIP, thanks to the higher strikeout total). I personally think they have Liriano pegged a bit too high, but I’m also a believer in regression after players get big contracts. That said, they do believe that Cole notches 170 innings, which is pretty close to an injury free season, not that there’s anyway to predict that, but it’s nice to see I guess.

The biggest reason for the team’s success last year was the offense. The Pirates scored the fourth most runs in the league last year, and were third in home runs, batting average, and slugging percentage

  • A.J. Burnett is expected to pitch a full season and improve greatly over last year’s performance. Apparently a lot of blame was put on the Phillies losing environment and defense for Burnett’s poor 2014 season. I’m not sure if I buy into that, but Burnett looked great as a Pirate just two seasons ago, so nobody is going to be surprised to see him improve from last year. That said, it’s more than likely his last season in the big leagues so the only motivation there is the motivation to a World Series. Either way, there’s value in an innings eater and clubhouse leader even if he posts a four-something ERA in the process.
  • The projections expect Vance Worley and Jeff Locke to regress, and so should you. Both pitchers had significantly higher FIP (field independent pitching) marks than their ERA marks. Locke had a .278 BABIP, Worley was normal at .299, and neither pitcher will ever strike out a bunch of batters. The counter that with good walk rates, but there’s no doubt that they were both very fortunate last year. The projections like Worley to be a better pitcher than Locke despite Locke throwing more innings, and both guys look like a back-end starter at best by the numbers – which is all the Pirates should need out of them.
  • The numbers say just what you’d expect about Charlie Morton. He’s a very consistent pitcher when he’s healthy. You know what you’ll get, the only question is how many starts will he make. I’m not one to make injury predictions, so don’t ask.

All of the above has those six starters collectively posting a 3.74 ERA in 2015. They posted a 3.77 ERA in 2014, so the numbers see a slightly better staff this year even despite the good luck the staff had in 2014. If the ZiPS are right, the Pirates hurlers will have the team in great position for another playoff berth, and hopefully a division crown this time.

Next: Know the enemy: The Cincinnati Reds