Pittsburgh Pirates: Examining Why Ben Cherington Has Focused on Pitching


Pittsburgh Pirates’ general manager Ben Cherington has brought in a notable amount of young pitching talent since taking over the club, but why has he focused so heavily on this area?

Since taking over as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Ben Cherington has acquired a boatload of talented pitching prospects. This started last offseason when he traded Starling Marte to the Arizona Diamondbacks for two prospects. One was 2019 first-round pick Brennan Malone, who was considered one of the best pitching prospects available in the draft. This was just the start.

Then during the 2020 draft, five of the six players selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates were pitchers. Most recently, he traded switch-hitting first baseman Josh Bell for two pitching prospects, Eddy Yean and Will Crowe.

The only major acquisitions he’s made that aren’t pitchers are 2020 first-round pick Nick Gonzales and Liover Peguero, the other piece in the Marte trade. The 2020 draft class has many talented pitchers who are projected to be picked in the top five, including Kumar Rocker, Jack Leiter and Jaden Hill. One of which will likely be selected by Cherington.

Clearly, Cherington has put a heavy emphasis on starting pitching. He hasn’t put much into position players, so why has he put so much effort in improving the future of the pitching?

Well, for one, when Cherington took over, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a decent amount of talented hitters. Ke’Bryan Hayes and Oneil Cruz were the Pirates’ most talented prospects, but far from their only good position player prospects. Travis Swaggerty also had an above average offensive season. Mason Martin showed elite power the year prior. Rodolfo Nolasco was a top international signee. Jared Oliva followed up his very productive 2018 with another good 2020 season. In terms of position players, the Pittsburgh Pirates weren’t short of talent.

But what about the pitching side of things? Mitch Keller was the only prospect widely recognized as a top 100 prospect. While the Pittsburgh Pirates weren’t devoid of pitching prospects when Cherington took over with guys like Tahnaj Thomas and Cody Bolton showing a lot of promise in the year prior, it needed some work. Their 5th best starting pitching prospect was Santiago Florez, a pitcher who has a future 60 grade fastball and curveball, but has walked 13.3% of the batters he’s faced while putting up a strikeout rate of just 16.4%. It’s arguable that it still needs work as the only top 100 prospect they have is the aforementioned Thomas who ranks as a top 100 prospect by FanGraphs, but not MLB Pipeline.

However, Cherington is very smart for building around the pitching staff. This is why I think he’s putting so much emphasis on getting so many young pitchers. When you look at the last handful of World Series winners, you’ll notice they all have very deep pitching staffs with many reliable options.

The Los Angeles Dodgers had so many productive starting pitchers, they had to push Julio Urias, a guy who had a 130 ERA+ during the regular season, to the bullpen. In 2019, the Washington Nationals had one of the best starting rotations in baseball consisting of their four aces Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez and solid fifth starter Austin Voth. Going back to 2018, the Red Sox had six starters who made at least 10 starts and had an ERA+ of at least 100 or league average. That also included Chris Sale who had an ERA+ of 209.

It’s not just limited to those three teams either. The 2017 Astros had a very deep rotation and were aided by that (and a few other external factors) in their run. The 2016 Chicago Cubs had two pitchers finish in top-3 in Cy Young voting that being Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester, and both weren’t considered their ace starting out the season. That would have been considered Jake Arrieta who also had an All-Star season. Their worst starting pitcher that year was Jason Hammel with a 3.83 ERA and 109 ERA+.

The San Francisco Giants’ reign of terror in the early to mid 2010s was heavily influenced by their pitching. In each of the three World Series they won, they had gotten outstanding performances from the likes of Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong, Matt Cain, Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson just to name a few.

While this is just the last five winners,Stark Raving Sports analyzes each of the last 20 winners to see what their biggest strength is. He came to the conclusion that the biggest strength of most of the winners was their starting pitching staff.

The Pittsburgh Pirates themselves can attest to what a good pitching staff can do. During 2015 when they won 98 games, the third most in their history and the most since post-integration, they were led by strong seasons from Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and eventually joined by J.A. Happ. In 2013 when the Pittsburgh Pirates returned to the postseason, Burnett, Cole and Liriano posted the three lowest single season xFIP marks in Pirate history (min. 100 innings pitched).

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Obviously, you need more than just pitching to win. Every winner has a solid offense to back it’s pitching, however it’s clear that most winners have a very reliable pitching staff. Plus, it’s not like Cherington is completely forgetting about the offense. His first pick as general manager was Nick Gonzales, who looks like he could be a borderline five-tool guy. Liover Peguero has a lot of talent as well. He knows when he has talent and he knows how to build an offense.