Pittsburgh Pirates: Starting Pitching the Biggest Deterrent to Winning

ST LOUIS, MO - JUNE 26: JT Brubaker #34 of the Pittsburgh Pirates reacts after giving up a home run to the St. Louis Cardinals in the fifth inning at Busch Stadium on June 26, 2021 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
ST LOUIS, MO - JUNE 26: JT Brubaker #34 of the Pittsburgh Pirates reacts after giving up a home run to the St. Louis Cardinals in the fifth inning at Busch Stadium on June 26, 2021 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t been a bad team-outside of their starting pitching staff who’s killed their chances of doing well.

Nobody had that high of hopes for the Pittsburgh Pirates this season. But they haven’t been god awful, in their defense. Things could have gone worse for their first handful of games, but they’ve stayed only one or two games below .500. Obviously, that’s an extremely small sample size, but it’s still a positive to see the team at 6-7 through their first 13 games.

The bullpen has been phenomenal this year. Pirate relievers have combined for a 2.79 ERA, a solid sub-4.00 FIP, 0.97 WHIP, and .165 opponent batting average. David Bednar was a sure thing to be good, but who could’ve seen Wil Crowe and Dillon Peters combining for 19.2 innings of shutout baseball? Anthony Banda has been solid, and offseason addition Heath Hembree has looked good so far. In terms of run prevention, they’ve been about 20% better than average.

The hitting hasn’t been awful either. Entering play on Thursday, Pirate hitters have a combined 93 wRC+, which is only slightly behind the middle of the pack. They have three guys with a wRC+ of 120 or higher through 20 or more plate appearances. Diego Castillo has looked good so far. Bryan Reynolds is in a slump, but he absolutely could start turning it around and this may have started in Thursday night’s victory in which Reynold drew a walk and hit a triple.

Plus, once you consider that they’ll eventually replace well below average hitters like Cole Tucker, Hoy Park, Josh VanMeter, and Kevin Newman with some of the prospects at Triple-A, the offense the lineup could mend itself by summer. An offense with a 95-100 wRC+ would be a middle-of-the-pack offense. They’re averaging just under four runs a game, which is far from bad. There are a lot worse line-ups out there.

The defense has had its moments as well. Diego Castillo, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and Yoshi Tsutusgo have combined for +6 DRS. Jake Marisnick, Bryan Reynolds, and Ben Gamel have +3 DRS combined. Roberto Perez has saved nearly a run on his framing alone.

Right field has been an adventure with Cole Tucker and Hoy Park, to say the least, and Kevin Newman isn’t off to a great start with his glove. But the Pittsburgh Pirates have gotten average or better defense from 6 of 8 positions, which is pretty normal. It’s unreasonable to expect Gold Glove defense at every position and there are plenty of good teams who don’t send out an above average defender at every position.

But what has killed this team so far has been starting pitching. Not only have the relievers tallied one more inning than the starters, but the relievers have given up 18 fewer earned runs. While the relievers have a sub-3.00 ERA, a WHIP under 1.00, and keeping opponents below the Mendoza line, Pirate starters have a 7.22 ERA and a 1.72 WHIP.

José Quintana came into Thursday as the only Pirate starter with an ERA under 5.00. Mitch Keller was the only Pirate starter to have a FIP below 5. Every Pirate starting pitcher has a WHIP above 1.50. The starts have killed this team. Every win this team has belongs to the relievers. The starters have recorded all the losses. Pitcher wins and losses are arguably the worst stat to look at player performance, but most of these losses have been earned outside of Keller’s start on Wednesday.

I’m not saying there hasn’t been some bad luck involved either. But when you have an 11.8% walk rate, bloopers that should be caught, seeing-eye singles, or jammers against the shift can easily turn into multi-run hits. That has happened more than once this year, and it’s been very damaging. Also, that high walk rate doesn’t go well with a 1.50 HR/9 rate either.

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The bullpen has been lights-out, the defense has been solid, and the offense is doing its job. But this starting pitching staff has been the primary cause of the Pittsburgh Pirates losing. Hopefully, it will get better. There are some positives on the horizon.

The Pirates will secure a 7th year of control of Roansy Contreras around May 15th, Mitch Keller has a 3.26 SIERA and has done well limiting hard contact, and Zach Thompson had a 130 ERA+ last year. But so far, this has been the weakest link, so much so it’s been the game-decider for the Pirates.