Pittsburgh Pirates and the Mid Innings


The 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates have had their problems with their pitching, a trend that has been so offsetting compared to the previous years. But the middle innings, 4-6, is where the team has struggled most.

The Pirates pitching has been dreadful to watch, as they rank 26th in ERA at 4.56, their 4.66 FIP ranks 29th, and their 4.53 xFIP ranks 27th. The good news with those last two numbers, the 48-27, second best in baseball, Texas Rangers rank 26th and 28th in FIP and xFIP respectively. The bad news, those Rangers rank 12th in ERA, so although their pitching should regress, they are able to out pitch their metrics, for now.

But those metrics only paint a picture of how bad the pitching has been. The 2016 team ranks eighth worst in HR/FB percentage with a 13.8 percent mark, far off from the 9.9 percent since Ray Searage’s first full season as Pirates pitching coach in 2011 to 2015. The 2011-2015 Pirates also led the MLB in groundball percentage at 49.1 percent, where as the 2016 Pirates are down to 46.5 percent, but are still top 10, ranking at number nine.

Even with these down trends in these numbers, there is one area that deserves much more concern, the middle innings. In these middle innings, innings 4-6, the Pirates rank dead last in ERA at 5.76, and that number is 0.31 points worse than the Arizona Diamondbacks, who rank 29th at 5.45. The team’s 1.700 strikeout/walk ratio ranks 29th, ahead of only the Cincinnati Reds, who are at 1.169. The Pirates have given up the most home runs with 46 allowed. Opponents have a .230 ISO (slugging-average), which ranks dead last and is .020 points better than the Diamondbacks who rank 29th. Simply, they’re the worst team in baseball when it comes to innings 4-6.

The starters ERAs in innings 4-6:

Pittsburgh Pirates
Jun 3, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano (47) hands the ball to manager Clint Hurdle (right) after being removed from the game against the Los Angeles Angels during the fourth inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

Gerrit Cole (29.1 innings) and Juan Nicasio (25.1 innings) are the only two Pirates starting pitchers who have less than a 4.00. However, Cole is on the DL and Juan Nicasio is now in the bullpen because of his 5.05 ERA as a starter and the fact opponents are hitting .326/.410/.596 with only a .319 BAbip in their second plate appearance. But the rotation’s struggles are not necessarily the problem.

Last season, the World Series Champion Kansas City Royals ranked 22nd in ERA, 21st in FIP, and 29th in FIP. Their top six starters, in terms of starts, in ERA from innings 4-6 is as followed:

The Royals starters were clearly better in innings 4-6 than the Pirates this season, but they were still not elite. They had pitchers such as Ryan Madson, Yohan Pino, Joe Blanton, Franklin Morales, Luke Hochevar, and Brandon Finnegan at various points in the year to help the starters out and get to their dominant back of the pen.

The 2016 Pirates have had to rely on pitchers such as AJ Schugel, Kyle Lobstein, Rob Scahill, Arquimedes Caminero, and Jared Hughes to help out their starters and get to Neftali Feliz, Tony Watson, and Mark Melancon. The problem with the Pirates is, only AJ Schugel has a sub 4.00 ERA in innings 4-6. Also, of those five pitchers, only Schugel and Lobstein have a sub 4.00 ERA, and only Schugel (an impressive 3.05 mark) and Scahill have FIP’s under 4.00. There in lies the teams problems. Their starters are not getting it done, and their is nobody to bridge the gap to the back three. 

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Over the last three starts, Liriano has shown glimpses of what he has been as a Pirate, with having one bad inning against both the Cardinals and Cubs. Jon Niese has not been what the Pirates expected, and after having six straight good outings, he has given up 12 earned in 10.2 innings over his last two starts. Taillon has shown glimpses of what makes him a top prospect in baseball, but he has struggled his last two starts, going four innings each. Since the beginning of May, Jeff Locke has had three (of ten) disastrous starts. Chad Kuhl gets the ball today, and he hasn’t been as great in his last five AAA starts as he was to start the season. So the first step to fixing the problems would be to add a starter, but when Cole comes back, that may not be the most needed trade target.

The best way for the Pirates to get back on track is by acquiring a bullpen piece or two to bridge the gap to the back three. A couple names that have flown under the radar that could help the Pirates in the mid innings are:

Fernando Abad, from the Minnesota Twins, is a left handed reliever who does not become a free agent until after 2017. He has posted a 2.16 ERA and 2.77 FIP in 25 innings. He would be a solid addition to help get the many lefties in the National League Central out, and could also help be that bridge.

Former Pirates and current Phillies reliever, Jeanmar Gomez, is also a free agent at the end of 2017. He has a 3.17 ERA since becoming a Pirate in 2013, and after joining the Phillies last season, Gomez has a 3.04 ERA. He would be a welcomed addition to the staff.

Ryan Webb of the Tampa Bay Rays has just come back from injury and is a free agent to be. He has posted a 3.31 ERA and 4.05 FIP this season in just 16.1 innings, but he has a career 3.35 ERA and a 3.25 ERA since 2013.

Fernando Rodriguez pitches for the Oakland Athletics and is a free agent after 2017. He has posted a 3.05 ERA and 2.95 FIP this season in 38.1 innings. Last season he posted a 3.84 ERA in 58.2 innings, but a very good 3.08 FIP.

Related Story: Juan Nicasio To The Pen

No matter what the Pirates rotation does, the big problem is with the Pirates not being able to bridge the starter to Feliz, Watson, and Melancon. The Royals showed last season that you can get away with a bad rotation as long as your offense and bullpen is stellar. The Pirates bullpen has been less than that, and that starts with not being able to help pitchers in the middle innings. These middle innings need fixed if the Pirates want to improve their 10-20 record in their last 30, and only 4.5 out of the Wild Card game. Their schedule gets easier in July-end of the season, the time to fix these middle innings is now.

*numbers from baseball-reference and fangraphs