Is starting pitching a need for the Pittsburgh Pirates?


The eight-game win streak put together by the Pittsburgh Pirates was quickly put to an end by the Washington Nationals over the weekend. While the offense continued to sputter, the historically good starting pitching the Pirates had been receiving during the past week turned on its head as the Nationals totaled 19 runs on 34 hits over the course of the series. The Nationals have scored the most runs in the National League and have one of the most potent offenses in the NL, but the Pirates also had one of the best pitching staffs in all of baseball heading into the weekend. When these two forces collided, the Nationals came away on top, and by a good margin.

The Pirates’ team ERA dipped to 2.88 after the series, which is still good enough for second-best in all of baseball. It’s important not to become a victim of recency bias in these situations, but it’s also not unreasonable to say that this was a measuring stick series for the Pirates. The eight-game win streak put together by the team, largely thanks to the starting pitching, was against three of the four worst offenses in the entire sport in terms of runs scored. Their second-longest win streak of the season, against better competition, was due to an average of 6.6 runs scored per game, not because of the starting pitching. Is it possible that the recent pitching greatness Pirates’ fans have seen was a bit fluky?

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In game one, A.J. Burnett was able to miraculously limit the Nats to four runs (three earned), even though he gave up a career-high 14 hits over 6.2 innings. His ERA for the season still sits at a very low 2.05, and his FIP is 2.65 for the year, meaning that he isn’t pitching too far above his head. This is in part due to a career-low 0.3 home runs given up per nine innings. He’s keeping the ball low and has the 10th-best ground ball to fly ball ratio in the National League at 1.18.

But Burnett is still 38 years old, and he can’t be expected to pitch at the incredible level he has so far this season. On Friday night, when he faced a good offense, every member of the Nationals lineup had a hit, including the pitcher. In his most recent starts against the Nationals, the Giants, and the Padres, all offenses that score runs in the top half of the National League, he’s given up three runs, four runs, and four runs, respectively. In his recent starts against the Phillies, the Brewers, and the Mets, all offenses that score runs in the bottom half of the National League, he’s given up zero runs, one run, and one run, respectively. Essentially, good offenses hit Burnett well, while Burnett dominates poor offenses. Needless to say, he’ll most likely be pitching against some of the better offenses in the league if the Pirates make the playoffs.

In game two, Francisco Liriano‘s performance was probably forgotten against the no-hitter thrown by Max Scherzer. Liriano only lasted 5.2 innings, giving up five runs on seven hits and a walk. His ERA now stands at 3.25, which is in line with how he’s performed since he’s come to Pittsburgh, and is at a respectable level. What’s kept Liriano’s head above water is his low WHIP of 0.98, good for sixth in the NL. And his FIP of 2.92 suggests that hes actually been a little unlucky this year.

But Liriano’s inconsistency is his biggest problem. In six of his 14 starts this year, he’s given up at least three runs. His strikeouts will keep him in games, and when he’s on, he might be the best pitcher on the staff. Come playoff time, the Pirates need reliable pitchers. Liriano’s been more reliable than not this year, but his inconsistency may be a problem against a good team come playoff time.

It’s important not to become a victim of recency bias in these situations, but it’s also not unreasonable to say that this was a measuring stick series for the Pirates.

Game three put forth the worst pitching performance by a Pirates’ pitcher in a very long time. If it weren’t for Charlie Morton‘s fantastic starts to begin his season, his ERA would be much higher than the 3.97 it currently sits at. He’s managed to limit his walks for the most part so far this year, but he was completely off against the Nationals. Every pitcher is entitled to one horrible start per season, and Morton got his out of the way early. His FIP of 4.11 suggests that his ERA is right around where it should be this year.

Morton can’t and shouldn’t be expected to pitch like he had in his first five starts. San Diego was the only decent offense he faced, as the other four ranked among the bottom seven offenses in all of baseball. Morton should be expected to perform like a number four starter, not like a top tier pitcher.

So, where does that leave the Pittsburgh Pirates? They do have Gerrit Cole, who has broken out this year as an NL Cy Young candidate and has become a legitimate ace. But is the rest of the staff pitching above its head? Burnett, for all of the magic he’s provided so far this season, is 38 and isn’t getting any younger. Liriano can be frustratingly inconsistent, and Morton is a solid back-end of the rotation starter. When these four guys are all on their game, like they were during the team’s eight-game win streak, they are a bunch to be feared. But when they face legitimate offenses, a different story may be uncovered. Regression should be expected from them as a whole, and strengthening the rotation wouldn’t be a bad move for Neal Huntington. It would cover for this regression and any potential injury moving forward.

This staff can be dominant. It’s shown that. But it can’t be relied upon to do that night in and night out. If the offense doesn’t come around soon, a move should be made to strengthen the rotation. After all, you can never have enough pitching.

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