The Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff hasn’t been terrible, but they could take a few initiatives to greatly improve the pitching staff.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have gotten many reliable innings out of their pitchers this year, more than many expected. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement, and there’s quite a bit of opportunity for the Pirates to improve the pitching staff.
From taking advantage of better opportunities to promoting prospects, there are a few things the Pirates can do right now to get better results from the pitching staff. These changes could have a significant impact and help the Pirates limit runs with much greater efficiency and hold leads late into games.
Promote Cody Bolton
Cody Bolton has been a quality right-handed pitcher at Triple-A Indianapolis. However, this might have been a bold claim back in March. Coming off of two missed seasons, there were plenty of questions surrounding if he would come back to form in 2022. But it seems many of those questions have been answered this season.
Bolton has pitched well at Triple-A this year, having a 3.22 ERA, 3.38 FIP, and 1.27 WHIP through 36.1 innings of work. Bolton is striking out batters at a 28.4% rate while allowing a single home run. The only downside is that he has given up walks to 12.9% of batters faced this year.
It’s been a very nice bounceback season from the right-handed pitching prospect. At one point, he was considered one of the Pirates’ better pitching prospects. Admittedly, that was before the arrival of many of their higher-end arms like Roansy Contreras, Carmen Mlodzinski, Bubba Chandler, and Anthony Solometo arrived in the system and the emergence of Mike Burrows, but the point still stands.
The only thing is that Bolton might have a hard time finding consistent starts in the major leagues. The Pirate starting rotation has silently been flying under the radar as a dominant staff. Roansy Contreras, José Quintana, Zach Thompson, and JT Brubaker have a combined ERA of 3.12 since May 1st. All told, Pirate starters not named Bryse Wilson have a 3.34 ERA since May 1st.
The rotation’s fifth spot has been a bit more inconsistent, but even Mitch Keller has been getting better results lately. Since making his sinker his primary pitch over his fastball, Keller has a 2.75 ERA/3.70 FIP, though that is a small sample size and doesn’t take away the fact he struggled heavily before that. Bolton should still get called to the majors. The Pittsburgh Pirates could always use another arm who can start games.
Replace Chris Stratton With Yerry De Los Santos
Chris Stratton opened the season as one of the Pirate set-up options. However, his role was taken by Wil Crowe. He was still kept in a late-inning role but has continued to struggle. But it’s not as if they have a better option. Until Stratton finds his groove again, Yerry De Los Santos should take up his role.
De Los Santos was selected and formally promoted to the Major Leagues nearly a month ago. However, despite being promoted multiple weeks ago, he has just six total appearances. It’s not as if he’s done awful either. In just 6.2 innings of work and 27 total batters faced, De Los Santos has allowed two free passes, eight K’s, and two earned runs. When batters have made contact, they’ve hammered it into the ground 50% of the time. Although he has allowed two home runs, the fact he has a great ground ball rate while limiting opponents to an 87.8 MPH exit velo means he’s likely just getting unlucky on two occasions.
De Los Santos dominated Triple-A batters and has continued to show promise in the Major Leagues. However, the Pirates are severely under-utilizing the 24-year-old right-hander. In comparison, since De Los Santos’ promotion, Stratton has pitched 11 innings but has given up eight earned runs. Opponents are hitting for a 1.019 OPS and .438 wOBA with men on base against Stratton since May 23rd as well. He hasn’t been much better in high leverage situations either, having a .928 opponent OPS and .404 opponent wOBA, dating back to May 23.
That’s not to say that they should give up on Stratton completely. He has provided quality innings since arriving in Pittsburgh in 2019, and some bad luck has played a part in his struggles. Stratton has a .364 batting average on balls in play despite having a healthy 46.2% ground ball rate and almost identical hard-hit numbers from last year (89 MPH exit velo, 40% hard-hit rate) when he had a .293 BAbip. Plus he has a 3.80 xFIP, 3.48 SIERA, and 3.10 xERA, and 4.16 DRA. There’s a decent chance he bounces back, but still.
The Pittsburgh Pirates should play the hot hand and the guy who has a very good chance of being part of the bullpen long term. De Los Santos is 24 year old, a rookie, and might be a long-term set-up man option with Wil Crowe. De Los Santos is someone the Pirates should attempt to use at his full potential, and getting him more innings in Stratton’s current role is an opportunity that needs to be taken advantage of.
Select These Two Lefties Contracts
The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t gotten much from their left-handed relievers this year. Currently, the only healthy left-handed bullpen option is Anthony Banda. Banda has struggled heavily this year, allowing 12 earned runs in only 14.2 innings of work. But the Pirates have two left-handed bullpen options in the upper minor leagues.
The first is Tyler Samaniego. Samaniego has pitched 22.2 innings, posting a 2.38 ERA, 2.96 FIP, and .93 WHIP. Samaniego has an elite 37.4% strikeout rate and has only allowed a single home run all season. He’s been a ground ball machine with a 64.1% ground ball rate, which is one of the biggest reasons he has suppressed home runs as well as he has. But like with many relief prospects, walks have been a bit of an issue. Samaniego has had a 13.2% walk rate so far.
However, on the plus side, his walk rate since May 15th is only 10%, and he’s only allowed a single walk in his first 23 batters faced at Double-A Altoona. Of the six earned runs he surrendered, five came in one outing. He’s been unscored upon in 17 of his 19 total games. After the rough five-run game on June 8th, he bounced back to pitch two scoreless innings on the 12th, striking out five of the seven batters he faced.
Promoting Samaniego straight from Double-A to the majors might seem a bit quick, but he is 23 years old. The Pirates need the help now, and you can push relievers through the system with a little more aggression. The Pirates have been pretty aggressive with most of their prospects outside of the very top MLB-ready ones, so there is a chance that the Pirates do send him from Altoona to Pittsburgh.
The other is Cam Alldred. Alldred already made his MLB debut earlier this year but was designated for assignment quickly after. However, he has been extremely effective at Triple-A this year. Throughout 29 innings of work, Alldred has a 2.17 ERA, 2.83 FIP, and 1.03 WHIP. Alldred might not be the strikeout machine Samaniego is, having just an 18.1% K-rate, but he does have a quality 7% walk rate.
Alldred hasn’t allowed a home run yet. He’s induced a ground ball 57.3% of the time at Triple-A this year. Although he has a 4.08 xFIP, that will happen with a low strikeout rate and high ground ball rate since xFIP normalizes HR/FB ratio, and he hasn’t given up a home run yet. Alldred isn’t a hard thrower whatsoever. His sinker in his MLB debut averaged out around the mid-to-upper-80s, but that hasn’t stopped him from doing well this season.
Both Alldred and Samaniego aren’t on the 40-man roster, but it wouldn’t be hard to make room for them. The Bucs could DFA both Banda and Aaron Fletcher, another lefty who struggled earlier this season, and recall one or both to the majors. The Pirates need another reliable arm behind Crowe and Bednar. The aforementioned Yerry De Los Santos could be another one, but more specifically, they need a lefty and a reliable one at that.