Has The Pittsburgh Pirates Pitching Staff Turned The Corner?

Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /
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For the first three weeks of the 2016 season the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff struggled immensely. However, it appears they are beginning to turn the corner.

19 games into the 2016 Major League Baseball season the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff was struggling immensely. Through the team’s first 19 games, which was comprised of 162 1/3 innings pitched, the Pirates had a team ERA of 4.82. Obviously, that is not good at all.

Despite the fact the Pirates were struggling mightily to pitch the ball during the first three weeks of the season, there were still reasons for optimism. Pitchers such as Francisco Liriano, Jon Niese, Juan Nicasio, and Tony Watson are simply too talented to continue to be the 5.00+ FIP pitchers they were for three weeks. Also, the bullpen was missing a key piece in Jared Hughes who just returned from the disabled list yesterday.

During this past week it looks as if the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff is starting to turn the corner. In their last six games, which have been comprised of 56 innings pitched, the Pirates have a team ERA of 2.89. It is not a coincidence that the Pirates have gone 5-1 in those games because, ultimately, pitching still wins in Major League Baseball.

Arguably the biggest key to success for any Major League team is strong starting pitching, and the turnaround of the Pirate rotation began even before this recent six game stretch. Over the course of the last ten games the Pirate starting rotation has a 3.15 ERA in 60 innings pitched.

In their past ten games the Pirate rotation has average six innings per start while allowing 8.6 H/9, 2.7 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9, 8.3 K/9, and posting a 1.25 WHIP. While the hits and home runs allowed per nine innings pitched are still a tad high, the rest of the numbers are very good to see.

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Also, the overall numbers of the Pirate rotation are clouded some by Jon Niese who has struggled his last two starts after being the Pirates best starter the first three times through the rotation. In his last two starts Niese has pitched just 10 1/3 innings allowing nine runs on four walks, 20 (!) hits, and four home runs allowed.

Pittsburgh’s other four starters (Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Juan Nicasio, and Jeff Locke) have combined to post a 2.17 ERA in 49 2/3 innings pitched over the course of their last eight starts. Also, these four have allowed just 48 hits, four home runs, and 12 walks in those starts.

The biggest issue the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff had through the first three weeks of the season was that they were walking too many batters and allowing too many home runs. At one point, the Bucs led the Majors in both walks and home runs allowed. However, these two problems have started to be taken care by the Pirate pitching staff.

What had been a struggling Pirate bullpen has also began to right the ship which has made a big difference as well. The usually dominant Tony Watson struggled early on posting a 5.06 ERA, 5.69 FIP, 5.06 BB/9, and 1.69 HR/9 in his first 5 1/3 innings pitched. However, in his past six appearances Watson has begun to resemble himself once more.

Apr 24, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Tony Watson against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 24, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Tony Watson against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

In his last 7 1/3 innings pitched Watson has allowed just a pair of solo home runs, while striking out seven batters and walking just two. While you would still like to see Watson issue less home runs, the fact his WHIP has dropped from 1.31 through his first 5 1/3 innings pitched to 0.95 in his last 7 1/3 innings pitched is a very encouraging sign.

The Pirate bullpen has also been aided by closer Mark Melancon continuing to be one of the National League’s best closers. This season Melancon has converted seven-of-eight save opportunities while posting a 2.61 ERA, 3.26 FIP, 8.71 K/9, 1.74 BB/9, and he has allowed just nine hits in 10 1/3 innings pitched.

Another big shot in the arm to the Pirate bullpen the past two weeks has been the unexpected emergence of right-handed pitcher A.J. Schugel. In 10 2/3 innings pitched this season Schugel has posted a 3.26 FIP, 8.44 K/9, 2.53 BB/9, and 0.84 HR/9. Entering the season A.J. Schugel was at AAA Indianapolis, but the past two weeks has played a large role in helping to settle down the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff.

Neftali Feliz, the Pirates other setup man along with Watson, has also pitched well throughout the season. Feliz’s 4.91 ERA does not tell the story on him at all. In 11 innings pitched Feliz has allowed just nine hits, he has walked just three batters, and has struck out 15 while posting a 3.37 xFIP. Feliz’s ERA is very inflated due to him allowed a two run home run, while recording just one out, two outings ago against the Rockies.

While the Pirate bullpen struggled early in the season, it appears to be rounding into a team strength yet again. Mark Melancon and Neftali Feliz have pitched well all season, and Tony Watson is starting to look like Tony Watson once again. This trio gives the Pirates a shutdown back end of the bullpen.

Furthermore, the return of Jared Hughes from the disabled list and unexpected emergence of A.J. Schugel have given the middle relief a much needed shot in the arm. Also, Kyle Lobstein (3.85 xFIP in 17 innings pitched) has been a solid addition as well. Honestly, Ryan Vogelsong and Arquimedes Caminero appear to be the lone weak spots in the Pirate bullpen right now.

Next: Pirates Win Series, Miss Chance at Sweep

For the first three weeks of the season, the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff really struggled. However, this appears to be changing. At one point the Pirates led the Majors in walks allowed, home runs allowed, and were 29th out of 30 teams in xFIP. Over the course of the past ten games though the  Pirates have seen their xFIP fall to 4.10 (21st in the Majors) and ERA fall to 4.10 (19th in the Majors).

The Pittsburgh Pirates team xFIP and ERA are still too high, but they have both taken major steps in the right direction the past ten games. Also, the Pirates are walking less batters and allowing less home runs than earlier in the season. There is reason to believe that the Pirate pitching staff is turning the corner.

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