Goal #2: Limit the Walks
While home runs are a large issue for pitchers, most games are not won by a score of 1-0. The damage of home runs can be limited by keeping runners off the bases. Sadly, in 2020, the Pittsburgh Pirates did a really poor job of keeping runners off of the bases.
If the home runs were the main issue for the starters in 2020, free passes, or walks, were right behind it in a close second. In 2020 Pirate starters led the league with 4.23 free passes per nine innings. That is nearly double the rate of the World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
Walks are potentially the most damning issue that a pitching staff can face. Walking a batter has a domino like effect that can lead to progressively worse and worse scenarios later on in the game. To begin with, walks lead to longer innings with higher pitch counts.
As this happens, starters will tire quicker and batters will be able to see more pitches and pick up on future pitches better. In addition, walks can force starters into pitching from the stretch instead of the windup, can push runners into scoring position, and can also be demoralizing for other teammates.
With all of this taken into consideration, a starting rotation that can limit walks will inevitably find more success. There are many ways that pitchers as a group and individually can limit walks, but here we will just briefly cover some starters that can improve their walk rates, leading to a more successful 2021.
The first pitcher that can have a large impact on lowing the starting staff’s walk rate is Mitch Keller. Keller had a far improved 2020 posting an ERA of 2.91, but did have some concerning underlying metrics. To start Keller’s walk rate was unsustainably high at 20.7%. Thankfully, Keller’s low batting average on balls in play (.104) partially counteracted this walk rate, but BAbip is typically a volatile metric and a high walk rate will eventually outweigh a low BAbip.
A second pitcher that could help lower the staff’s walk rate is Chad Kuhl. Kuhl should be a mainstay in the Pirate rotation for 2021 and will look to build on his 2020 season in which he returned from having Tommy John surgery. Kuhl’s arsenal of pitches is above average, but he struggled with his command in 2020 and posted a walk rate of 14.3%. If Kuhl can get his walk rate under control, he could easily post a sub-4.00 ERA for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2021.