Pittsburgh Pirates’ optimal postseason rotation


The Pittsburgh Pirates are gunning for the NL Central division title, as they currently sit just 2.5 games back of the Cardinals, who have lost eight out of their last eleven games. While Pittsburgh hasn’t clinched a playoff berth just yet, they are close to doing so, and it’s time to start thinking about the postseason. A Wild Card game may stand between them and a playoff series, but if they make it to at least the Division Series, they will have a number of different roster configurations to decide.

A few days ago, we broke down the optimal postseason lineup for the Pirates. In case you missed it, make sure to check that out here. We now move to what some may consider an easier decision for Clint Hurdle to make: the optimal postseason rotation. At first thought, it seems like an easy decision to make. Gerrit Cole is the clear ace of this rotation, and he would start a Wild Card game or the first game of the Division Series if the Pirates were to win the division. After him, Francisco Liriano, though he has had a rough past couple of months, is the clear number two, and he has the ability to pitch like an ace any day of the week.

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After him, however, things get a little dicey. A.J. Burnett is more than likely the number three starter, but he may not be a lock for that spot like many believe he is. He’s only made one start since returning from the disabled list, and his next few starts will be key to cementing his status as the number three starter. I do think that he’ll get that spot unless his last few starts are horrible, which I don’t think they’ll be.

The last two players competing for the fourth spot in the rotation are J.A. Happ and Charlie Morton. A month ago, I might have leaned towards Morton. But Happ has had nothing but success in Pittsburgh, and has allowed two runs or less in six of his seven starts with the Pirates. In essence, he’s pitched like an ace with the Pirates, though he’s pitched past the sixth inning in just one of those starts. Morton, on the other hand, has had good starts mixed with bad starts, and you aren’t sure what you’re going to get from him on a given night. Happ’s consistency gives him the edge over Morton, unless Happ and Morton trend in opposite directions over the last few weeks of the season.

So, to recap, it seems like the Pirates should and will go with a postseason rotation of Cole-Liriano-Burnett-Happ. That’s a strong top half, with the potential for a strong back-end. But let’s break this down a bit further.

Burnett was dominant in the first half of the season, to the tune of a 2.11 ERA before the All-Star break. But after the All-Star break, he fell apart. Including his most recent start since coming off the DL, Burnett has an ERA of 9.00 in the second half, which is bad to say the least. Which A.J. are we going to see come playoff time? These last few starts will be key for him, and we hope that he returns closer to his pre-All Star rather than his post-All Star form. It’s very important for the Pirates to have a solid third starter in the postseason, even more so than a fourth starter. It’s also important to note that Burnett has a postseason ERA of 6.37, including a rough seven-run outing against the Cardinals in 2013 with the Pirates. If that A.J. shows up this postseason, I would hope that Hurdle would keep him on a short leash, and go to a guy like Morton or Joe Blanton in relief or in a spot start if necessary.

Gerrit Cole is the clear ace of this rotation, and he would start a Wild Card game or the first game of the division series if the Pirates were to win the division. After him, Francisco Liriano, though he has a rough past couple months, is the clear number two behind Cole, and he has the ability to pitch like an ace any day of the week.

Happ hasn’t had as much postseason experience as Burnett has, but in two career postseason starts, Happ has an ERA of 4.82. You would want better than that, but I don’t think that will be a big factor in his postseason rotation status, considering he pitched in the playoffs since 2009. I also feel that Happ is due for a bad start. He hasn’t had one since his first start with the Pirates, and his season-long and career numbers suggest that he’s due for regression. Now, maybe he’s managed to turn a corner. But he’s also 32, and hasn’t pitched like this his entire career. Morton is a more known commodity to Hurdle and the staff. His heavy ground-ball tendencies play more to the defense of the Pirates, and he had a decent start against the Cardinals in the 2013 NLDS. If any starter needs to be replaced or if a long relief option is needed, Morton should be that guy, or Blanton.

With all of this being said, one other factor to consider in deciding the postseason rotation is whether the Pirates should go with a four-man or three-man staff. Some teams go four-man, while others go three-man. The Dodgers, for example, may go three-man, considering how great their top two pitchers are, and the lack of depth behind them. The Cardinals, on the other hand, will most likely go four-man, considering they have five-plus quality starting pitchers than can pitch in a playoff game. In 2013, the Pirates went with a four-man staff of Liriano, Burnett, Cole, and Morton. This season, I think the Pirates will also go with a four-man staff as well. Cole is going to end up pitching 200+ innings this season in just his third major league season, and coupled with Burnett’s rough playoff history, it’s a good safeguard to use Happ as the fourth starter. As the playoffs progress, the Pirates may drop the worst of those four and go with a three-man staff, but they will almost surely start with a four-man staff.

This potential postseason rotation has the talent to win a World Series. It’s whether they can turn that talent into consistent, quality performances that can help lead the team to a World Series.

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