Pittsburgh Pirates: Weekend Starters Recap

Apr 1, 2017; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Chad Kuhl (39) pitches the ball during the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Olympic Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 1, 2017; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Chad Kuhl (39) pitches the ball during the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Olympic Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Pirates swept the Atlanta Braves this weekend.  However, the starting pitching performances did not go as planned. Let’s analyze what happened.

Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Ivan Nova made his 2017 debut on Friday against the Braves.  He tossed six innings of run one ball, with the run stemming from a double by Ender Inciarte.  The runner that scored, Emilio Bonifacio, reached base when Gregory Polanco dropped a fly ball.  But Nova gave up no other runs and allowed six other hits.  He didn’t walk any batters, through 60 percent strikes, and threw a first pitch strike 64 percent of the time.

Opponents did square up the ball, as the average exit velocity was 92.2 miles per hour.  In 2015 the average exit velocity for Nova was 90.0, and that was followed by 91.3 mph in 2016.  It’s very small sample for 2017 numbers, but the trend has been Nova allows hard contact.

Nova also relied on his four-seam (32.26 percent) and sinker (50.54 percent), but that could have been because of the cold and snow factor.  The 16.13 percent of curveballs is extremely low, but he was efficient and the fastball was working.  He pitches against the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday.  Look for more strikes, hopefully, less hard contact, and an increase in his curveball usage.

Chad Kuhl started for the Pirates on Saturday.  He was supposed to go Thursday, but that was rained out.  He lasted only five innings and allowed three runs, with only two being earned.  Kuhl struggled with his command, as he walked six hitters, but two of those were intentional.  After starting 0-1, a ball reached the backstop to even the count, and the Pirates ended up walking Kurt Suzuki for one of the two intentional walks.  Suzuki was also the other, as the intentions on both were to get the pitcher up.

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Kuhl did strike out five hitters, which was 20 percent of the hitters he saw.  But he only threw 54 percent strikes, 56 percent first pitch strikes, and only 31.8 percent of his pitches were in the zone.  When batters did put the ball in play, it was hard contact.  The average exit velocity was 91.6 miles per hour, and most of the balls in play were line drives.  Kuhl, a sinker ball pitcher, only got groundballs 38.5 percent of the time.  That could be because of the lack of feel, as he threw his four-seam 48.24 percent of the time.

Getting Kuhl to induce more groundballs is key.  Kuhl will also need to throw more strikes, 63 percent last season, to have the type of success he did last season.  It’s a small sample, incredibly small really, but his projections didn’t do him any favors, and it’s a bad Braves lineup.  Kuhl looked rather mediocre, which fine, he’s the five starters, it’s livable.  His next start, look for him to pound the zone more often, and as he does maybe he’ll get more groundballs.

Gerrit Cole did not have the success that many thought he would against the Braves.  He lasted six innings and allowed three runs, and allowing two home runs.  He was still not missing bats when it mattered, striking out just four.  However, he did get swinging strikes, as the 10.2 percent in that game matches his 2015 season, they just didn’t come with two strikes.  That’s concerning.

Cole did jump out ahead of hitters, throwing a first pitch strike 57.1 percent of the time.  But he also only threw the ball in the zone 37.8 percent.  When batters swung at pitches inside the zone, they often made contact, a rate of 92.9 percent of the time.  In his first start, that mark was 90.3 percent.  The average exit velocity dropped from 92.3 in his first start to 89.1.  That’s encouraging, but weak(er) contact is still contact.

Cole used his slider, thankfully, 30.61 percent of the time.  The pitch got 37.5 whiffs per swing, but that’s a drop from 2014, 2015, and 2016.  Cole needs that pitch to be successful for him to have the success his talent indicates he has.  He faces the Cubs next, so that could be fun.  He’s shown encouraging signs in both his starts, but also discouraging signs.  For the Pirates to have success this season, the team needs more encouraging signs.

Overall, the staff could have done better.  Nova pitched like many thought he would against the Braves.  Kuhl needs to throw more strikes and get groundballs since he is a groundball pitcher.  Cole was frustrating, dancing with fire, but still some moments of shine when looking at the numbers.  They’re still small samples, and this is just a recap of one weekend, but there were a lot of balls hit hard.  With that, Cincinnati comes to town, and Glasnow takes the bump tonight.

*Numbers from Fangraphs and baseball savant