The Pittsburgh Pirates secured the number one pick in next year’s draft, so what does the future hold for the team and their possible draft pick?
During the 2020 season the Pittsburgh Pirates finished with a 19-41 record. Despite being the worst team in baseball by record, there were a handful of positives to come out of the 2020 season. Some of their pitchers took steps forward and, most importantly, got the team got the number one overall pick in next year’s draft.
It’s almost certain the Pittsburgh Pirates will select a pitcher with the first pick. Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter are unanimously the two best draft prospects available. So, odds are, one of these two Vanderbilt Commodores will be the top pick.
Rocker has been outstanding in 114.2 innings at the NCAA level. All told, he has a 3.06 ERA, but an outstanding 1.93 FIP and 1.07 WHIP. He only allowed three home runs as well. Rocker is a strikeout machine with a 31.8% strikeout rate and shows good control despite throwing into the mid-to-high-90s (6.1% walk rate).
Rocker’s plus fastball pairs really well with his wicked slider with gyroscopic movement and he occasionally throws in a change- p to mix things up, a pitch that grades out around average. The cherry on top was when Rocker threw a no-hitter against Duke in the College World Series.
Leiter might not be a hard thrower like Rocker is, but was very effective in his 15.2 innings of work at the college level. He only allowed three earned runs on five hits, none of which were home runs. He did struggle with walks a bit surrendering eight free passes, but struck out 22 batters. Even though his walk rate didn’t look so hot, he’s considered a pitcher with very good control. He also possesses four pitches some analysts already considered 55-grade (above average) pitches before his 21st birthday.
Regardless of who they take, the Pittsburgh Pirates will be set to take a pitcher with ace-level potential. The last time the Pirates had the number one pick, they went all in. While some believe the Pirates will go cheap in the draft, the draft is one of the few areas that the Bucs like to put tons of money into.
During 2011, the last time they had the number one pick, the Pittsburgh Pirates broke three draft signing bonus records. Gerrit Cole (first-round), Josh Bell (second-round) and Clay Holmes (ninth-round) all received the most money ever for the round they were picked in at the time (Cole’s first round signing bonus has since been passed by Orioles’ Adely Rutschman in 2019 yet still remains as the 2nd highest total received by a draft pick).
Recently, they gave Travis Swaggerty, Quinn Priester and Nick Gonzales more money than some of the picks before them. During that 2011 draft, they also selected a handful of other players who would eventually become notable names. Tyler Glasnow was picked in the fifth round and Trea Turner in the twentieth-round.
If and when the Pittsburgh Pirates select either Rocker or Leiter, their development will be much different than when they selected Glasnow and Cole. Most of the issues surrounding the Pirates’ developmental issues with pitchers stemmed from the major league level. For example, Glasnow was awesome throughout the minors and especially Triple-A.
Not only did he have the stuff to warrant being ranked as a top 15 prospect, but the numbers to back it up too. Through 247.1 innings at Indianapolis, Glasnow had a 1.93 ERA, 2.56 FIP and 1.11 WHIP. While his walk rate wasn’t super impressive at 12.1%, his strikeout rate was 32.8% and he gave up just 11 home runs for a 0.5 HR/9.
It wasn’t until Glasnow got to the majors when they applied their pitch to contact and ground ball approach over strikeouts on him did he start to struggle. When he was given that chance to pitch to his strengths (or being a strikeout pitcher) after being sent to the Tampa Bay Rays, Glasnow became a good MLB pitcher.
Cole, on the other hand, didn’t have insane strikeout numbers like Glasnow did throughout the minor leagues. He pitched 230 innings in the Pirate farm system and only put up a 22.5% strikeout rate, but his stuff flashed high strikeout potential. He also had solid control to go with it with a 8.3% walk rate.
Still, Cole’s bottom line consisted of a strong 2.66 ERA, 3.16 FIP and 1.12 WHIP and impressively putting up a 0.5 HR/9 rate. Cole was able to last a bit longer than Glasnow did with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he came up in 2013 when the ground ball for all approach was still working very well and the cracks in the philosophy started to show during Cole’s 2016 and 2017 seasons which just so happens to be right around the same time Glasnow started to get reps in the majors. Like Glasnow, once Cole was able to unleash his full strikeout potential to MLB batters on a different team, he became a great pitcher.
The new change in pitching philosophy showed improvements last year. Though the season was short and none of the Pirate pitchers threw a notable amount of innings, the development of some pitchers looks promising. Joe Musgrove started to use his curveball and slider much more often. He put up a 33.1% strikeout rate and also put up career best numbers, albeit in less than 50 innings pitched. However, Richard Rodriguez, Steven Brault, and Chris Stratton all had career-best years while also putting up career best strikeout rates.
While it is a pretty small sample size for all four pitchers, it’s not a coincidence all of them had career best years with career best strikeout rates once Oscar Marin took over. It’s clear that the new philosophy Marin has brought to the table has helped Pirate pitching development at the Major Leauge level.
So what does this mean for the future of the Pittsburgh Priates? Either Rocker or Leiter are going to be very talented pitchers for the Pirates. As evident by the 2011 draft, they’re not afraid to go all in on signing bonuses when it comes to selecting first overall.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are also good evaluators of talent. After all, they’ve been decent at drafting recently and they selected a handful of extremely talented players in 2011. Even the development of pitchers throughout the minors wasn’t an issue. That is where Mitch Keller, Cody Bolton, Tahnaj Thomas, JT Brubaker, Nick Mears, and Blake Cederind have put up pretty decent numbers. It was development at the Major League level where the Pirates seemed to struggle the most.
Glasnow and Cole are the best examples based on how well they did in the minors just to struggle in the majors with the Pirates after completely changing their repertoires to fit a certain philosophy. Knowing that the Pirates aren’t fitting the ground ball and induce weak contact strategy for all their pitchers gives plenty of hope for the future, and especially this draft considering how much pitching talent there is.