Pittsburgh Pirates 2017 ZiPS: Starting Pitching
Fangraphs has been releasing Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections all offseason. On January 23rd, the Pittsburgh Pirates rankings came out. Here at RumBunter, we will break it down positionally.
ZiPS is a projection model, but one that includes minor league players, players moving onto , and often times, recently retired players. Carson Cistulli offers this disclaimer:
"Disclaimer: ZiPS projections are computer-based projections of performance. Performances have not been allocated to predicted playing time in the majors — many of the players listed above are unlikely to play in the majors at all in 2017. ZiPS is projecting equivalent production — a .240 ZiPS projection may end up being .280 in AAA or .300 in AA, for example."
The most intriguing group to look at is the starting pitching group, so a good starting point would be to take a look there. We know that Gerrit Cole will headline the rotation, followed by Jameson Taillon, Ivan Nova, and Chad Kuhl. It leaves a spot open for competition in spring training, unless an additional move is made.
Since ZiPS doesn’t accurately forecast playing time, some of the rate stats – strikeout percentage, walk percentage, and home runs per nine, are a little shaky, but will still be listed.
Gerrit Cole is coming off an injury plagued season, one in which he only tossed 116 innings and posted a 3.88 ERA, but on the bright side a 3.33 FIP and 83 FIP-. But his 2016 campaign was a major let down, considering he pitched magnificently to a 69 ERA- and 71 FIP- in his 208 innings in 2015.
If there was one bright spot for Cole, it was that after his August seventh start, he had a 2.94 ERA and 2.86 FIP. His next three starts before being placed on the disabled list were a nightmare, 7.31 ERA and 5.02 FIP, but his BAbip was insanely high at .459. He was placed on the disabled list, and his final start on September 12th, was just a walk fest, with a home run allowed, just in two innings. 2017 is a new year for Cole, and assuming he has full health, he should return to the front line starter he was previous years.
ZiPS projects Cole to be the Pirates best starter, and having a 3.45 ERA, 3.38 FIP, 86 ERA-, and a 84 FIP- to go along with a 21.7 percent strikeout rate and 6.1 percent walk rate. Cole returning to a pitcher that is of this quality will go along way with the Pirates playoff hopes.
Behind Cole in the Pirates rotation, is Jameson Taillon. Taillon had an impressive rookie season, tossing a 3.38 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 84 ERA-, and 92 FIP- in 104 innings. Taillon limited his walks, a rate just 4.1 percent, and he got his share of ground balls, a rate of 52.4 percent. His largest problem was the long ball, giving that up 3.1 percent of the time, and his exit velocity on fly balls and line drives was 93.7 miles per hour compared to just 86.5 on ground balls.
Taillon looks the number two-part given his control abilities, his success in 2016, and his various prospect rankings. ZiPS has Jameson pegged for a 3.69 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 92 ERA-, and a 93 FIP-. His control is still projected to be there, with a walk rate of just 5.3 percent. But his strikeout rate of 18.7 percent is down from 2016, but with his propensity to be around the zone, intuitively the projection makes sense.
Personally, with Taillon’s curveball, which had a whiff percentage of 10.46 percent, I think he will be above that mark, and for reference Steamer has him at 21.2 percent. But, Taillon’s numbers have him above average, and that is what the Pittsburgh Pirates need him to continue to be, regardless of his strikeout rate.
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Ivan Nova came to the Pirates last year, and we all know he dominated, and his walk rate of just 1.1 percent in Pittsburgh. His strikeout rate of 19.8 percent in the black and gold is his highest since 2013, when he posted a 19.8 percent rate for the Yankees. Nova’s 3.06 ERA and 2.62 FIP allowed him to post a fWAR of 1.9, which happened to be the second highest among Pirates pitchers.
ZiPS projects Nova to be league average with a 100 ERA- and 97 FIP-, or a 3.99 ERA and 3.91 FIP. A serviceable mid rotation starter, especially if he drops a spot in the rotation with an outside addition, such as trading for Alex Cobb or even the big fish in the pond, Jose Quintana.
Given Nova’s 90.3 mph exit velocity with the Pirates, 91.8 mph with the Yankees, and 91.3 mph total, Nova will need a lot more than to keep a low walk rate, which ZiPS has at 5.5 percent, to be successful. But Searage has shown the ability to work with the sinker, something Nova threw 52.83 percent of the time in Pittsburgh. Being an average pitcher boosts the Pirates, as for the most part of 2016, they did not have many average to above average pitchers.
Chad Kuhl is seemingly a lock for the Pirates rotation, but as Marty wrote, he has a left-handed hitters problem. Given his 2016 season, in which he tossed a 4.20 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 104 ERA-, and 98 FIP- in 70.2 innings, he seems to be the perfect four starter.
But for a ground ball pitcher, Kuhl only got a ground ball 44.3 percent of the time last year, and his sinker had a .224 ISO, to pair with his four seam having a .217 ISO. He doesn’t strike many hitters out, just 17.6 percent last season in Pittsburgh, and a career mark of 16.6 percent in the minors.
Steamer gave Kuhl a 4.36 ERA projection, and ZiPS projects a 4.51 ERA and a 4.56 FIP. His 113 ERA- and FIP- are similar to the 113 ERA- and 111 FIP- that ZiPS has for Miami Marlins left-handed pitcher Jeff Locke.
Kuhl will be in the rotation from the beginning, even if an additional move is made. His ZiPS and Steamer projections don’t bode well, and if he pitches to these projections, he likely won’t stay in Pittsburgh as a starter all year.
Next: Who Should Be The Pirates Fifth Starter?
These are the four players we know will be in the Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation to start the season, assuming no injuries. ZiPS projects two better than average starters, one average, and a well below average starter of these four.
The fifth starter options will be further broken down later, as they acquire more analysis as who may have the inside track. But with the current group, more will be needed to put the Pirates back into the playoffs in 2017.
*Numbers from fangraphs, brooks baseball, and baseball savant