Pirates' rotation succeeding thanks to Ben Cherington's "type"

The Pirates' general manager would fill an entire rotation with soft-tossing lefties if he could.
Mar 29, 2024; Miami, Florida, USA;  Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Martin Perez (54)
Mar 29, 2024; Miami, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Martin Perez (54) / Michael Laughlin-USA TODAY Sports
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Eleven games into the 2024 season, the Pirates' record sits at an MLB-best 9-2. There are many facets to this, including an offense that ranks fourth in runs per game and a bullpen that ranks 10th in ERA and third in FIP.

But after two times through the starting rotation, that has proven to be a strength as well, but not in the most exciting or sexy ways. Staff ace Mitch Keller has actually gotten off to the worst start so far, with 10 runs allowed in his first two starts before a strong comeback outing last night against Detroit. Top prospect Jared Jones has been outstanding, with a 3.86 ERA and a 17:2 K:BB ratio to begin his MLB career. But this isn't about those two. They don't fall under the categorization of Ben Cherington's "type."

In each of his off-seasons as the GM of the Pirates, Cherington has added a crafty veteran left-handed starter (or two, in this year's case) to the pitching staff. This "reclamation project" strategy started off poorly with former World Series hero Derek Holland in 2020, whose first seven appearances with the Pirates resulted in a 7.29 ERA and an opposing OPS north of .900. He finished the season in the bullpen and only pitched one more major league season.

Things were much better in 2021 with Tyler Anderson, who made 18 starts with Pittsburgh before a deadline trade to Seattle. Anderson had a 4.35 ERA in those 18 starts, but that number was inflated by one really bad start against Atlanta; without it, his ERA was 3.75. He then enjoyed an excellent 2022 with the Dodgers and parlayed that into a $39 million contract with the Angels.

The greatest success story has been that of Jose Quintana. He signed with the Pirates for just $2 million prior to the 2022 season after a disastrous 2021 campaign split between the Angels and Giants. His 3.50 ERA as a Pirate was a mark he hadn't achieved since 2016. He was even better after a deadline trade to St. Louis, where he posted a sparkling 2.01 ERA and was the Cardinals' Game 1 starter in the playoffs. Both Quintana and the Pirates entertained a reunion in 2023 before he ultimately signed a two-year, $26 million contract with the Mets.

After failing to re-up with Quintana, Cherington pivoted to 43-year-old Rich Hill. Through nine starts, the last of which saw Hill pitch six innings in what turned out to be a one-hit shutout, his ERA sat at 3.80. He slumped badly from that point on, with a 5.40 ERA through the rest of his Pirates tenure and an 8.23 after a trade to the Padres.

That brings us to 2024, where the Pirates have not one, but three soft-tossing southpaws in their rotation - off-season acquisitions Martin Perez and Marco Gonzales, as well as 2023 trade deadline acquisition Bailey Falter. While that trio doesn't possess the stuff of someone like Jared Jones, the results have been there after two starts apiece:

Name

Opponent

IP

H

ER

BB

K

Perez

@ MIA

4.1

6

1

3

2

Falter

@ MIA

4

5

6

3

2

Gonzales

@ WSN

5

4

1

2

2

Perez

@ WSN

6.2

6

2

2

6

Falter

BAL

6

1

0

1

1

Gonzales

BAL

6

5

2

0

4

Perez and Gonzales both have successful track records. Perez posted a sub-3.00 ERA in almost 200 innings as recently as 2022. Gonzales had a 3.94 ERA across five mostly-full seasons from 2012-2022 before a shoulder injury hampered and ultimately ended his 2023 season.

Perez has turned his changeup into a plus out pitch in 2024. Five of his eight strikeouts have come on changeups, and hitters are whiffing on 42.9 percent of swings against the pitch while averaging an exit velocity below 80 MPH. He is also benefitting from a 52.8 percent groundball rate.

Gonzales' greatest asset has always been his control (career six percent walk rate), and that has continued so far, with just two walks allowed in two starts. The metrics say he has actually been quite lucky so far, as opponents are hitting .225 and slugging .300 off of Gonzales in 2024, while his expected marks are .326 and .516, respectively. It will be interesting to see how long there's that much of a discrepancy between his actual and expected numbers.

Falter is a very interesting case. His first start is really the only blemish between the three pitchers so far, but he rebounded well after quite the rough start. Each of the first five batters he faced this season scored, but he has allowed just one run in 10 innings pitched since then, including the gem he threw against the Orioles on Sunday, where the only hit he allowed across six innings was on a pop up that dropped between Jack Suwinski and Alika Williams.

Like Perez and Gonzales, Falter doesn't have electrifying stuff by any stretch of the imagination. But what he does have is 96th-percentile extension, meaning his release point is closer to home plate than nearly anybody else, so his fastball is perceived as being thrown much harder than it actually is. While his fastball averages just 91 MPH, it looks like it's coming in at 93.

That's a significant difference - only six pitchers this year possess a more deceptive heater than Bailey Falter, and since the start of last year, the difference between a 91-MPH fastball and a 93-MPH fastball is nearly 40 points of slugging. Falter doubled the usage of his fastballs against Baltimore and coasted through six innings despite striking out only one batter.

Before too long, the Pirates' rotation should be a force to be reckoned with.

A starting rotation with Mitch Keller, Jared Jones, and Paul Skenes at the top will likely be able to hold its own in October. The team's ability to get results from its other starters, particularly old-school left-handers who pitch to contact and consistently change speeds and timing, just might help get them to October.