The organizational pitching philosophy of the Pittsburgh Pirates is broken, but it should not be too difficult of a fix to make. That is, if the Pirates are willing to change.
*- Stats and data in this article come from before the start of play on Sunday, May 6th
In August of 2010, Ray Searage became the pitching coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates. This is a position that Uncle Ray as he has affectionately become known as has held ever since.
During his time as Pirate pitching coach Searage has become known as a guru for fixing broken pitchers. However, there is now a different type of fix that needs to be made. What needs fixed is the pitching philosophy of the Pittsburgh Pirates, because it is currently broken.
Now, before we go any further, I am not saying that Searage is completely at fault here. Personally, I believe the philosophy the Pirates have for the pitchers in their organization comes from the top and that Searage is simply trying to coach to that philosophy. In my opinion, Searage still remains as one of the top tier pitching coaches in baseball.
Also, I am not saying that the philosophy the Pirates have can’t work. After all, the Bucs currently own a 19-16 record and lead the National League in shutouts. So, something is working. The Pirates, however, are not maximizing the talent of their pitching staff with their philosophy.
With their pitchers throwing a fastball 65.5% of the time, there is no team in Major League Baseball that throws more fastballs than the Pittsburgh Pirates.
|Toronto Blue Jays||61.9%|
The problem with this is that this is an outdated approach to pitching. Furthermore, being a fastball heavy pitching staff will often times lead to pitchers using their best pitches less often and, in turn, be less effective. It also makes a staff very predictable and easier to hit.
Fastballs are easier to hit, especially with the increased emphasis on launch angles we see in baseball now, than any other pitch. So, it is not a surprise that three of the five teams listed above – the Reds, Twins, and Blue Jays – all rank in the bottom ten in Major League Baseball in staff ERA and FIP.
Overuse of the fastball has led to what could be avoidable struggles for Pirate pitchers. Take Ivan Nova and Chad Kuhl for example. Nova’s best pitch is a curveball with great bite. Yet, he is throwing his curveball a career-low 19.2% of the time this season while his fastball usage has spiked to a career-high 70.7%. Despite owning a nasty slider, Kuhl had thrown it just 18.3% of time entering his start on Sunday in comparison to throwing a fastball 61.9% of the time.
Both Nova and Kuhl would benefit from throwing their secondary pitches more often. Instead, the Pirates have them throwing their fastballs more than ever. And that is a frustratingly annoying philosophy for the team to have.
Morton has gone from throwing a fastball around 3/4th of the time as a member of the Pirates to leaning more on his curveball as a member of the Astros. The results, as you can see below, have been very positive for Charlie:
|Year – Team||Fastball %||Curveball %||FIP||Strikeout %|
|2012 – Pirates||52.8%||24.4%||4.17||11.2%|
|2013 – Pirates||71.4%||21.8%||3.62||17.2%|
|2014 – Pirates||67.7%||25.0%||3.70||18.9%|
|2015 – Pirates||67.7%||23.7%||4.19||17.1%|
|2016 – Phillies||50.7%||25.7%||3.09||26.8%|
|2017 – Astros||54.3%||28.4%||3.46||26.4%|
|2018 – Astros||59.3%||25.7%||3.86||28.7%|
The correlation here? The less fastballs that Morton throws – the more success he has on the mound.
For Cole, the changes the Astros have had him make to his pitch usage has turned him into one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. Cole always had this potential during his time with the Pirates, but due to the Pirate emphasis on fastballs and pitching to contact Cole never reached his full potential in Pittsburgh.
|Year – Team||Fastball %||Curveball %||Slider %||FIP||Strikeout %|
|2013 – Pirates||64.8%||12.4%||15.0%||2.91||21.3%|
|2014 – Pirates||66.7%||16.2%||12.1%||3.23||24.2%|
|2015 – Pirates||67.1%||8.0%||21.2%||2.66||24.3%|
|2016 – Pirates||66.7%||10.0%||17.9%||3.33||19.4%|
|2017 – Pirates||60.1%||12.2%||17.2%||4.08||23.1%|
|2018 – Astros||52.9%||18.0%||23.1%||1.55||41.9%|
Unsurprisingly, with Cole throwing less fastballs and more curveballs and sliders he has watched his strikeout rate skyrocket this season. It’s not a coincidence that prior to 2018 the season in which Cole used his slider most was 2015 when he damn near won the National League Cy Young Award.
Another issue with the Pirate pitching philosophy is that the team preaches pitching to contact and generating groundball outs over swings and misses and strikeouts. The reason Pirate management holds this view is to try and help keep pitcher’s pitch count lower, however, this train of thought has its warts, too.
Due to this philosophy, the Pirates emphasis fastball command at the lower levels of the minor leagues. It can be argued that this hinders the ability of some Pirate pitching prospects to develop secondary pitches. Tyler Glasnow‘s struggles to develop a third pitch is an example of this.
This philosophy, as one would expect, also leads to less strikeouts for the Pirate pitching staff. And while groundball outs are less likely to lead to base hits and baserunners than fly balls are, strikeouts will never lead to either of these things.
This season, the Pirate pitching staff has struck out just 20.7% of the hitters they have faced. This checks in as the 8th lowest in the Major Leagues. Other than the San Francisco Giants, the seven teams with a worse staff strikeout rate than the Pirates all own a sub-.500 record.
Pirate pitchers also rank 22nd in the Majors in swinging strike rate (10.1%), and they are allowing contact on 77.6% of pitches thrown which is the 9th most in baseball. Obviously, the more contact a pitching staff allows and the fewer swings and misses they generate they less successful they will be. The best way to allow fewer contact and generate more swings and misses? Throw more off-speed pitches and fewer fastballs.
The Pittsburgh Pirates pitching philosophy of being fastball heavy and pitching to contact is broken. While it has led to success in the past for the Pirates, it is one that is no longer maximizes the success of the Pirate pitching staff. And it is time for the Pirates to make a change.