Pittsburgh Pirates: Two Pitcher Bounce Back/Break Outs Vital to Team's 2024 Success

These two pitchers breaking out will be huge in the Pirates' 2024 success.

Oakland Athletics v Pittsburgh Pirates
Oakland Athletics v Pittsburgh Pirates / Justin K. Aller/GettyImages
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Roansy Contreras

Roansy Contreras had high expectations for 2023. Coming off a quality rookie campaign at just 22, many were hoping he could take that next step forward. Instead, Contreras had a worryingly bad sophomore slump. In 68.1 innings, Contreras had a 6.59 ERA, 5.19 FIP, and 1.57 WHIP. Contreras saw his K% dip below 20% to just 18.5%, while his HR/9 rose from 1.23 to 1.45.

First, let's look at the good. Contreras' breaking stuff was extremely effective. His slider held opposing batters to a .229 batting average, a .356 slugging percentage, and a .278 wOBA. Batters had a whiff rate of 37% against it. Batters hammered his curveball for a .593 slugging percentage, but his xSLG percentage was just .386, and his xwOBA on his curve was .266, giving him two pitches with an expected wOBA below .300. His 42% whiff rate was the 12th best among pitchers who used a curveball in 25+ plate appearances.

Now, let's look at what went wrong. Contreras’ fastball had lost its spark. After consistently working 94-96 MPH and topping out at 98 in 2022, Contreras saw that dip closer to 93-95 MPH and only topped out at 96.5 MPH. Contreras hit 96.5+ MPH 58 times in 2022. Although his overall spin rate didn't change, his active spin dropped 4%. This caused his fastball to gain 2.1 inches of sink and lose about 2.2 inches of break. Contreras, however, still used the pitch like it was the riding fastball he threw in 2022. The difference in his fastball's overall ability was night and day between 2022 and 2023. In 2022, Stuff+ rated his fastball at 106. But in 2022, that dropped to just 90, a massive 16 percentage point fall in fastball quality.

For what it's worth, Contreras is reportedly trending back upward, according to Alex Stumpf, formerly of DK Sports. Many wanted to blame the dip in fastball velo on coaching, but Stumpf reported around the time of Pirate Fest that the velocity loss wasn't from the Pirates coaching instructing him to throw less hard but from other issues, and that progress has been made. If this holds, that could be a major development for Contreras.

Contreras working back into the mid-90s would be a Godsend for the Pirates' rotation. The breaking stuff looked as good as always. His slider had about the same movement as in 2022, and his curveball moved more. If he can regain the velocity and movement of his fastball, he could once again have three quality pitches.