Goal #3: Find an Ace
A successful starting rotation needs a pitcher who can step up to plate and win a big game. This could be a game that stops a losing streak, a game against an opposing ace, or even a playoff game. While the Pittsburgh Pirates do not figure to be in the playoff race in 2021, the staff should still look to establish and develop an ace that they can trust in big games. Without Joe Musgrove and Jameson Taillon, the ace role is currently wide open for the Pirates.
While there are potentially a few pitchers that could fill the role of an ace for the Pirates in 2021, the two players who are most likely to step up to the plate are Brault or Keller.
Brault is coming off the best season of his career and both surface level metrics and advanced metrics agree that it was a pretty good one. Over 10 starts in 2020, Brault pitched to a 3.38 ERA and a 3.92 FIP. Brault lowered his hard hit rate from 38.4% to 27.4% and his HR/FB rate from 13.2% to 5.9%. Perhaps most encouraging was Brault’s success against right-handed pitching, which has been a problem for him in a past. In 2020 right-handers slashed .190/.307/.246 against Brault compared to career numbers of .266/.361/.429.
Keller had a decent 2020 season that is hard to get a good read on due to injuries and poor underlying metrics that contradict his 2.91 ERA. Keller’s FIP was actually 6.75 and his SIERA was 6.94 – both of which would suggest an extremely lucky season. From the eye test, I think Keller’s ERA, FIP, and SIERA are all off in properly representing Keller’s 2020 performance. In reality Keller took a step forward in 2020 by pitching 212 innings, limiting damage with runners on base, and by keeping his BABIP low (.104). However, he also took a step back with substantial control issues, posting an extremely high 7.48 BB/9 and relatively low 6.65 K/9.
Going into 2021, both Keller and Brault have the potential to be great pitchers and also have the potential to post 5+ ERAs. For the Pirates starting rotation to be effective, both pitchers will need to pitch well and at least one of them will have to establish themselves as an ace.