The Pirates pitching staff has been an absolute dumpster fire this season, producing an ERA north of 4.00 at 4.55. The staff has been far off from what they have been under Neal Huntington, especially over the last three seasons, which was a 3.33 ERA ranking second in all of baseball behind only the St. Louis Cardinals.
Finding pitchers for below market value and making them quality starting pitchers is what the Pirates have specialized with Neal Huntington, Ray Searage, and previously Jim Benedict. This year they have failed to do, and have even seen pitchers regress such as left-hander Jon Niese and reliever Arquimedes Caminero. It hasn’t been the same Pirates staff. Do not mistake it, however, as it being Jim Benedict was more important than Ray Searage, as both Benedict and Searage worked closely together, and Searage worked with the pitchers day in and day out.
Thankfully, the Pirates have capable starters in Triple-A Indianapolis who seem like they should be able help fix some of the Pirates pitching problems. Fans have clamored for pitchers such as Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and to some extent Chad Kuhl. I’d agree two of them should be, namely Chad Kuhl and Jameson Taillon. These three young arms have shown they are more than capable to carve up minor league hitters and would benefit from facing steeper competition, but I still don’t think they answer the Pirates question of what is wrong with the starting staff. They’re good, young arms, but their perceived impact is overblown for a variety of reasons.
To begin with, the Pirates have not been able to throw strikes on a consistent bases and have been walking batters at an incredibly high pace. Entering the day Saturday, the Pirates pitching staff has the third highest walk percentage at 10.5 percent, and the teams starters have a 10.2 percent walk rate, which ranks sixth. The only teams that have a worse walk percentage are the Kansas City Royals (17-18 record), the Miami Marlins (18-16 record), the Cincinnati Reds (14-21 record), the San Diego Padres (16-21 record), and the Oakland Athletics (15-21 record).
Francisco Liriano, the Pirates number one or number two starter depending on who you ask, has not helped much in this department. His 12.8 percent walk rate is the highest of his career, 2.8 percent higher than his career mark, and 2.75 percent higher than his Pirates mark. Gerrit Cole, the Pirates ace depending on who you ask, has a walk percentage of 8.5. Cole’s career mark is 6.2 percent, and last year he featured a walk percentage of 5.3. Juan Nicasio is walking batters 9.6 percent of the time, the second highest of his career, and almost a whole percent more than his career mark (0.9 percent). Jon Niese, who walked two guys in his first 11 innings and two starts, has been bitten by the walk bug. He’s walked the hitter 8.3 percent of the time, which is the highest it has been since 2008 when he pitched in 14 innings. Niese’s career walk percentage is 7.0, so he is walking batters 1.3 percent more this year than in years prior. Jeff Locke entering Saturday had his highest walk percentage in his career at 13.0 percent, 3.5 percent higher than his career mark.
The starters have been walking batters at levels that some of the worst teams in baseball are walking batters at. That falls on the staff as a whole, and unless the starters can figure out a way to throw strikes and stop walking batters, calling up the young arms will not matter. Every single Pirates starter is above their career marks, and despite assumed regression to their respective means, it is not a good sight to see. Pitchers like Locke, Liriano, and Nicasio, pitchers who have walk issues and at times or effectively wild, are walking hitters at higher rates which is a formula for failure.
The Pirates top dogs have to pitch better as well. Gerrit Cole, despite showing a good FIP of 3.11, has posted a 3.78 ERA, 1.350 WHIP, 3.2 BB/9, and a K/BB of 2.67 in 33 innings and six starts. Cole has not gone more than six innings yet this year, going that mark four times, and only four and two thirds innings in his other two starts. Cole has only had one dominate game, coming against the San Diego Padres, who are hitting .231/.289/.356 with 134 runs, ranking 27th, 28th, 29th, and 23rd respectively.
Francisco Liriano, who is getting paid 13.67 million dollars this season , has also struggled. Frank leads the National League with 23 walks, he has a 4.99 ERA, and even worse 5.28 FIP, a 1.538 WHIP, a 1.8 HR/9, and a K/BB ratio of 2.00 in his 39.2 innings and seven starts.
Cole and Frank are averaging five and a half innings and five and two thirds innings per start respectively. They are not going deep into games, they are walking batters, and they are giving up runs. For a pitcher in Cole who wants to be paid as a top dog and a pitcher in Liriano who is being paid 13.67 million dollars this season, the Pirates need better. No matter the potential Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Chad Kuhl have, the Pirates won’t go far unless their top two pitchers start pitching like they know how and have shown in the past. The young arms will not magically fix Cole and Liriano, those two need to pitch better regardless of who fills out the rotation.
The other reason, which mainly falls onto Tyler Glasnow and Chad Kuhl, but it is readiness. Jameson Taillon, who after missing two years, appears to be ready. Taillon is throwing 67 percent strikes, has a K/BB ratio of 8.6, a WHIP of 0.81, and an ERA of 2.08 in his seven starts and 43.1 innings. He certainly looks ready.
Glasnow, despite his 2.13 ERA, 1.184 WHIP, and 11.6 K/9 in his seven starts and 38 innings, needs work. He only has thrown strikes 60 percent of the time, which is never a good sign. He may end of being effectively wild throughout his career due to his plus, plus stuff, but throwing 60 percent strikes won’t cut it, even Randy Johnson threw 64 percent, Nolan Ryan 62 percent (only six years of data available), and Jeff Locke features a career a 62.3 strike percentage. Glasnow needs to work on the control just a tad more and he’ll be up, he just may be a little longer.
Chad Kuhl, a pitcher I am high on, has a 1.10 ERA, 0.888 WHIP, a 3.00 K/BB, and a ground out/air out of 1.65 in 32.2 innings and six starts. But those 32.2 innings are his only 32.2 innings he has thrown in Triple-A Indianapolis, and his 95.7 left on base percentage and .216 BABIP are unsustainable, which shows he will regress big time. His FIP is 3.33, which is 2.23 points higher than his ERA, and is not a good sign. I still like Kuhl, probably one of the highest on him, but with his extraordinary high left on base percentage and low BABIP, he may not truly be ready, and one cannot get an accurate gauge without seeing his stuff.
The Pirates are, or at least appear to be, waiting until the Super Two date passes, which is just a guess anyway, to call up any of the three pitchers. They’re trying to gain that extra half year of cheap control. By waiting until after the Super Two date, the Pirates will get each pitcher for six and half years, and will only have to go through arbitration three times. If it was about years of control, that passed early in April, but if they did what the Chicago Cubs did with Kris Bryant, they would have to go through the arbitration process four times in six and three quarter years of control.
But in truth be told, the finance part of Taillon, Kuhl, or Glasnow, and the potential of the three does not matter. The Pirates are walking batters at too high of a rate, and that is every single starter being at their career worst or second career worst. Each starter will regress to their mean, and Nicasio and/or Locke likely will move to the bullpen when somebody gets calls up, but how much they regress remains a question.
The Pirates also need their top arms to step up. Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano need pitch better for the team to succeed. It does not matter who is their third, fourth, or fifth starter, if the top two pitchers have a given up 36 runs in 73 innings for a combined ERA of 4.48 ERA. Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Chad Kuhl will be good, if not great, starters and they would be an improvement of Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and Juan Nicasio – who would likely replace Arquimedes Caminero and therefore improve the bullpen. But the potential of those three is not the answer if the rest of the pitchers on the team cannot figure it out and pitch the way they have in the past.