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Piratesguide 2019 Excerpt: Starting Pitching Notes

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MLB: Spring Training-Pittsburgh Pirates at Minnesota Twins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The following is an excerpt from PIRATESGUIDE 2019, a PIttsburgh Pirates season preview book from myself and Alex Stumpf here at Bucs Dugout, among others. This week, the book is on sale for just $10.50 for Paperback / $5.99 for Ebook. See the link below for more details.

I’ll be doing something a bit different with this excerpt. This is an example of our complete player peviews for each unit (SPs, RPs, Position Players). “2019” stats in the tables below refer to Steamer projections, or at least those that were available at press time. THe bottom charts for each pitcher show batted ball data — an * refers to a sample size of 10 batted balls or last. Dashes (—————) refer to a sample size of ZERO.


In many ways, the 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates will finish the job the club started back in mid-2016. That mission was simply to revitalize a tired starting pitching corps. You do remember the 2016 Opening Day rotation don’t you? It featured names such as Jon Niese, Jeff Locke and Ryan Vogelsong in prominent roles. Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano were there, too, but had long since reached the peak of their time with the Pirates for one reason or another.

It also saw the debut of Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl, along with the addition of Ivan Nova. Retrospect on the “bridge year” is still unkind, but Neal Huntington deserves at least a shred of credit for recognizing that the starting rotation needed something akin to a complete overhaul.

Two full seasons since the end of that disastrous campaign, how has the Pirates’ starting pitching performance progressed at a team level? The results are a bit mixed:

One cannot deny the change in talent level that has taken place over the past two-plus seasons. Chris Archer and Joe Musgrove have served as an injection of talent from the outside, while Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams look like honest-to-goodness well developed pitchers. Even the fringes are much more talented than in years previous; Ivan Nova could have been considered a number two starter on the 2016-2017 teams yet now has been jettisoned off to the White Sox in favor of a seemingly better curveballer in Jordan Lyles.

If the fringes have improved, that means the depth has improved also – in 2016 the club relied on a relative unknown in Kuhl for its main depth option along with the likes of Wilfredo Boscan, Drew Hutchison and a very-green Steven Brault. 2019’s version of depth chiefly amounts to Nick Kingham, who was as widely regarded of a starting pitching prospect as Taillon until injuries ravaged his development.

Yet the work the Pirates rotation has put in towards becoming a top of the line unit in Major League Baseball is largely unfinished. The club’s starting pitching is still finding its way to missing more bats and completing more strikeouts.

The good news is this: this deficit has been recognized and addressed. From a few different angles.

It started when the Pirates made a shrewd, underrated move in bringing up pitching coordinator Justin Meccage to serve as a lieutenant to venerable pitching coach Ray Searage. Uncle Ray’s reputation is well deserved at this point. If you’re reading this, there is more than a solid chance that I won’t have to waste time reviewing Searage’s bona fides. Yet the honest truth is that his is a very young rotation. A fresh voice – and in Meccage’s case, one they have come up through the minors with – clearly did wonders to ease those young charges into maturation. Ray’s messages become more amplified as a result, and the new perspective at the table will likely prolong Ray’s effectiveness as one of the well-regarded pitching coaches in all of baseball.

Yet another angle is the gradual-at-first then not so gradual at all ditching of the club’s tired pitch to contact mantra. Ever since May 11th, when Taillon introduced a slider, the writing has been on the wall for the club’s sinker-heavy ways. To be clear, the two-seam has not gone the way of the dodo – far from it, as our notes on Archer and others will attest to – but its days as a “go to out pitch” are over. In its place, the Pirates’ staring pitching group will chase the strikeout. Death to “three pitches or less.” Long live the strikeout.

2018 marked the year that the Pirates realized one of their longest-simmering desires by bringing in Chris Archer. The club hoped, and still hopes, that adding a pitcher with Archer’s swing and miss stuff can have a significant impact on the team’s rotation, with some hidden benefits along the way. The proof is in the proverbial pudding. Prior to Archer’s arrival, the Pirates ranked 21st among MLB starter units with a 13 percent whiff per swing rate overall. After Archer came over in the deadline, the team ranked 10th the rest of the way with a 15 percent rate.

Two percent does not seem like all that much. And in the context of two months, maybe it does not. But consider this: in 2016, Pirates starters ranked dead last in MLB with an 11.7 percent rate.

What will the unit look like in this regard by the end of 2019? We hope that our robust player notes which follow will help illuminate the answer.

SLIDING INTO THE PITCHER WE KNEW HE WOULD BE: Taillon’s 2018 season – and possibly his career – took a new turn on May 11th. That would be the day that he unleashed his slider on unsuspecting bats. By the end of the season, the pitch would often be seen a third of the time or more during any given outing, and with good reason. The pitch added an incredible amount of dimension to his repertoire that resulted in a greater whiff ability.

TO-DO LIST: With a season that saw him take tremendous strides, it can be hard to nail down those next steps for Taillon to truly elevate into the upper echelon of MLB starting pitchers. Perhaps he could start by getting back to keeping the ball on the carpet. Though Taillon did not give up many dingers (20) on the season, his FB rate and HR/FB ratio both spiked in 2018, up to 31.5 percent and 11.7 percent, respectively, from his 2017 rates of 27.6 and 9.9. Perhaps his decline in soft contact was the impetus for this, yet this all amounts to a bout of nit-picking. Taillon now has a firm base from which to continue to hone his craft.

WORKHORSE?: With health issues firmly behind him, Taillon can now become the 200+ innings starter the Pirates envisioned him to be. The question now becomes if the club needs him to fill that role. With a stout bullpen, the club will likely be tempted to pull back the throttle on their starters more often than not. Pittsburgh ranked tied for fourth in baseball with a ton of other teams at 5.5 innings pitcher per start. The team also ranked next to last in maximum pitches for a starting pitcher at 111. Don’t expect an overriding philosophy to prevail in how the club pushes its starters.

CEILING REALIZED? Let’s get one thing right. Williams has worked himself into absolutely earning a level of respect. A mid-rotation type of starting pitcher does not post 3.8 pitcher WARP across two seasons without having a considerable amount of talent. Did 2018 signify Williams’ floor or his ceiling? It would be nice if an answer to that would present itself, wrapped with a nice little bow. The reality is that we may not have enough data points to draw a substantial conclusion.

Yes, Williams blew past his previous career-high in innings; He limited walks, kept the ball in the park and put up solid quality of contact stats. But he also struck out less batters with less whiff overall. It took a stretch in which every Williams start was appointment viewing to leave him with these improved metrics. As much as many are ready to “crown” Williams as the next big thing to hit the Pirates rotation, the jury is firmly out.

CRAFTING A PUNCHOUT: Williams has the tools to create more swing and miss with his less-than-dazzling stuff. For one, he throws a very good slider and an even better changeup. Two, he does a fantastic job at changing eye-levels. Among all Pittsburgh Pirates starters with at least 50 innings pitched as a starter, Williams carried the highest amount of average vertical break in at-bats that ended with a strikeout. One last note on that changeup – it carried a 16 percent whiff per swing rate in 2018. The building blocks are absolutely there to miss a few more bats.

NOW WHAT: After seemingly years of near-misses, the Pirates finally landed their “Big Fish” in Chris Archer. Many were so flabbergasted that Pittsburgh actually swung the big deal at the deadline that they may not have noticed some clamoring on about downturn in Archer’s recent production. A closer look shows that to be exaggerated, but one cannot deny the steady decline in run prevention and strikeout totals over the past three seasons.

No matter. The Pirates got their guy, and will now look to maximize Archer’s offerings by bringing back his two-seam/sinking fastball. Archer more or less abandoned the pitch after 2014, leaving his four-seamer as the lone pitch to set up his still-wipeout quality slider. Sounds great, except for one thing: Archer seems to get inconsistent movement on the sink/two-seam at any given moment. Though the esteem in which a sinking fastball is held as a “set up pitch” has taken a hit among pitch sequencing gurus in the past few years, bringing it back for Archer was a shrewd move. One more toy to play with could very well equal less peaks and valleys for the still-young right hander.

BUILDING A BETTER FASTBALL: Then again, the club might have some work to do with Archer’s four-seamer. The table below shows cumulative fastball average exit velo figures; The four-seam fastball on its own was lit up to the tune of 94.2 mph, regardless of batter handedness. Hitters were only fooled into missing it 18.3 percent of the time -- down from 21.5 percent the year previous – and only 32 of Archer’s 162 total strikeouts were completed on a four-seam. The pitch has life – 95.3 mph velo on average and a 32.4 percent chase rate – so perhaps better sequencing will help the natural heat as well.

PICK YOUR POISON: Musgrove carries with him three distinct fastballs – four-seam, two-seam and cut varieties. With velo that can touch the mid-90s and movement on the cutter to match, Musgrove can throw these three pills anywhere in the zone. Left-handed hitters can’t square them up, averaging just 86 mph of exit velocity against them combined. Righties do a little better; One thing both groups of hits do well is not get fooled by it. Even with these three flavors of heat, hitters only whiffed 9.3 percent of the time.

OR, PARE IT DOWN: Then again, perhaps Musgrove might want to simplify his offerings. The cutter and two-seam were tagged as the season dragged on, to the tune of .438 and .368 batting averages against, respectively, over 2018’s final two months. It would seem like a waste to throw it all away, but Musgrove’s four-seamer stood tall throughout the duration, with a .221 BAA/.132 ISO against/.353 SLG against.

THE GOOD NEWS: Despite getting knocked around a bit, Musgrove’s two-seamer and slider did not get pegged very much, with isolated power (ISO) figures of .083 and .115 against. Expect the Pirates to continue to tinker with Musgrove’s pitch mix, much like they did by having him drop his pre-existing curveball.

A HAPPY AND A HEALTHY YEAR: Musgrove clearly enjoyed staying on the mound the entire year in Pittsburgh, and he likely especially enjoyed seeing results after an abbreviated start to 2018. Musgrove will once again have to deal with an offseason injury, but will be ready to go for Bradenton. Perhaps a full offseason can unlock another level?

FULL COMMITMENT: The signing of Lyles to a 1-year/$2.05 million dollar contract for 2019 signifies a full commitment by Neal Huntington towards the breaking ball. What started with Taillon’s slider introduction has now blossomed into a full-on acceptance of one of the major trends in today’s game. In Lyles’ case, this takes the form a vicious curveball. 45 of Lyles’ 85 strikeouts in 2018 came on the curve, which carried a 37 percent whiff rate overall. He didn’t enter 2018 this way, but he left it with better marks in terms of strikeouts, whiff, and wOBA-related stats all from making one small arsenal change. Not bad.

TO START OR NOT TO START: Part of Lyles’ 2018 rebound was joining the bullpen full-time, first with San Diego and then continuing after his trade to Milwaukee. Yet, Huntington insists that Lyles’ ultimate future in Pittsburgh is likely with the rotation. “..he’s going to come in and be in our rotation, although we like Steven Brault and Nick Kingham as options as well.” Huntington was quoted as saying. Well, alright then, but if that is to be the case then Lyles will have to offer something other than his curve and four-seam fastball to get by. Historically, that third pitch has been a sinker, though Lyles also has a slider and changeup in his tool chest. The slider got pounded to the tune of a .356 wOBA in 2018 – though to be fair Lyles did post a .314 xwOBA on the pitch – while his two-seamer did much better with a .212 wOBA rate. Forget about the changeup – hitters tagged it for a .366 wOBA rating.

I LIKE TO MOVE IT MOVE IT: Among the 61 pitchers with at least 300 curveballs thrown in 2018, Lyles ranked 47th in average vertical movement with 1.69 feet. That sounds bad, but it really isn’t – the leader, Rich Hill, came in at 2.23 feet. Movement isn’t everything with a curveball, but it’s a heck of a baseline.

MIX IT UP: Nick Kingham finally made his major league debut on April 29, 2018, and what a debut it was, as he tossed seven innings of one-hit, nine-strikeout ball. He crashed down back to earth pretty quickly, but if one thing was evident, it was that he carried an interesting pitch mix. Throwing a Four-Seam/Two-Seam along with a slider, curve and change allows Kingham to pivot to other pitches if something isn’t working on any particular start.

The key for Kingham will be if he can get his slider to consistently play at the Major League level. Among all Pirates starters in 2018, Kingham ranks fourth in whiffs per swing on the slider with 7.4 percent; ahead of Jameson Taillon but behind Chris Archer (17.5%), Chad Kuhl (9.9%) and Joe Musgrove (7.4%). However, the overall slider whiff numbers are buoyed by his 12 whiffs in his debut. From that point forward, Kingham never had more than five whiffs on the pitch in any appearance, be it in relief or as a starter. The pitch also carried a .345 wOBA on the season; The overall impression of the pitch is that which is a work in progress. If Kingham can continue to use the pitch effectively, he might actually have some of the intrigue that many placed upon him back when he was considered to be as equal a prospect as Taillon. If he cannot do that, he may as well be just another guy.

NO ROOM AT THE INN: Kingham is out of options, and thus the Pirates will need to roster him on the 40-man for the entirety of the season, lest they expose him to waivers. With a starting rotation more or less set in stone and a very crowded bullpen, Kingham may be a roster casualty. Barring a Spring Training injury or the wheels falling off of several other pitchers, Kingham very well may no longer be a Pirate by Opening Day.

You can read the rest of this piece as well as 23 other insightful works, not to mention complete player previews for every significant player on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 40-man roster, in Piratesguide 2019, available at Amazon