With the Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation having been hit hard by injuries and Roansy Contreras struggling, Luis Ortiz has quickly become one of the most important players on the team
Last season, right-handed pitcher Luis Ortiz had a meteoric rise through the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system. After starting the season as a little talked about pitching prospect at the Double-A level, Oritz would finish the season in the majors.
Ortiz did not just finish the season in the majors, but he finished the season by impressing in the majors. Flashing a wicked slider and a power fastball that regularly hit 100 MPH, Ortiz posted a 4.50 ERA and a 3.67 FIP in 16 MLB innings pitched across four starts. Other than allowing 6 earned runs while recording just two outs in his final start of the season, Ortiz was lights out in September.
The 2022 season Ortiz had quickly put him on the map. He is now ranked a top 100 prospect by both FanGraphs and Baseball America, and is viewed as potentially being a big piece of the future Pirate starting rotation.
Well, for Ortiz the future needs to be now.
Entering play on June 13th the Pittsburgh Pirates own a 34-30 record. This puts them in first place in the National League Central, a game ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers. If the Pirates are going to continue to contend in the NL Central then they will need Ortiz to step up in a big way.
Mitch Keller has emerged as a bonafide ace. Veteran Rich Hill and youngster Johan Oviedo are putting together solid seasons as middle of the rotation type arms. However, behind these three, the Pirate starting rotation is a massive question mark.
There are two main reasons for the questions.
The first and biggest reason are injuries. JT Brubaker was lost for the season to Tommy John surgery at the end of spring training. Highly touted pitching prospect Mike Burrows was shutdown at Triple-A in April and also underwent Tommy John surgery. Veteran Vince Velasquez was putting together a career year, but has also been lost for the year to elbow surgery. That takes out three of the team's top nine starting pitching options, including two starters who were expected to be in the rotation from Opening Day and be key cogs all season.
The second reason for rotation question marks is young arms struggle. Roansy Contreras was looked at as a potentiall budding top of the rotation arm coming into the season. Contreras still has the ceiling of being a very good MLB starting pitcher, but with him struggling mightily, at least for the time being, he will be moved to the bullpen.
Additionally, former first-round pick Quinn Priester is struggling at Triple-A. In 12 starts at Triple-A this season Priester owns a 4.63 ERA, 3.66 FIP, 10.1% walk rate, 23.1% strikeout rate, and his fastball has been a poor pitch.
All of that said, Ortiz needs to step up as the team's fourth starting pitcher. Barring injury, Ortiz will be in the Pirate starting rotation through the end of the season. Even with his potential, you're seeing why Ortiz started the season in the minors.
Ortiz needs to figure out what it is he wants to do with his fastball. In the majors this season he has tinkered more with a sinker. Does Ortiz and the Pirates want him to use that more, or go back to his power fastball we saw last season?
Ortiz also needs to develop a third, consistent major league level pitch. This was the main reason he started the season in the minor leagues. Until this happens, he will likely continue to struggle to find consistent results in the majors.
So far this season Oritz has pitched in six MLB games with five being starts. In his lone relief appearances he pitched 5 innings after Contreras failed to get out of the 1st inning against the A's, so it was essentially a start.
In these six outings Ortiz has pitched 27.2 innings, posting a 4.23 ERA and a 6.09 FIP. He's allowed 35 hits, five home runs (1.63 HR/9), walked 11.7% of batters faced and struck out just 12.5% of opposing batters.
He has struggled with allowing opponents to square his pitches up too much. Opposing batters own a 13.4% barrel rate, 49.5% hard-hit rate, and an average exit velocity of 92.1 MPH off of Ortiz. All of these are among the worst in all of baseball. He's also in the bottom 29 percentile of baseball in whiff rate.
A lot of the struggles mentioned above can likely trace back to Ortiz lacking a quality third pitch. Without that pitch, it is difficult to keep a MLB lineup off balance enough to find success the second and third time through an order.
The Pittsburgh Pirates would love to have Ortiz at Triple-A working on that right now. However, due to the current state of the starting rotation that is not an option. So Ortiz is now tasked with the challenge of trying to work on developing a better, more consistent third pitch while pitching to MLB hitters.
Hopefully, his start on Tuesday night against the Cubs will be the start of Ortiz stepping up to emerge as a consistent fourth starter in the Pirate rotation. If the club is going to continue to contend in the NL Central they need this type of work out of Ortiz. Due to that, Ortiz has quickly become a very important piece for the 2023 Pirates.