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What Would It Take For The 2019 Pirates Rotation To Be One Of The Best In Team History?

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Pirates’ starting pitching has been as advertised so far, if not better. Could this rotation be one of the best in team history?

Obviously it’s way to early to say for sure. Yes, the starters have been terrific, but the season is only at the 1/10th pole. Someone could get hurt, tired or cool off. The ball will fly better in the summer, meaning some of those harmless fly balls will turn into home runs.

But let’s allow our imaginations run wild. Anything is possible, and it doesn’t hurt to see what this rotation would have to do to have one of the best statistical seasons in franchise history. Let’s take a look.

WAR (Since 1900)

1935- 21.6

1945- 21.5

1921- 20.4

1969- 20.3

1920- 19.6

Currently- 2.5

It’s going to be tough to compile a record setting amount of WAR because this rotation will throw significantly fewer innings than previous generations. WAR is not just about quality, but also quantity.

That said, the quality of the innings so far has been fantastic, as we’ll see throughout this post. It’s why their 2.5 fWAR is the best in the NL.

ERA (Since 1920)

1920- 2.73

1968- 2.80

1972- 2.91

1943- 3.01

1965- 3.07

Currently- 2.09

This one deserves an asterisk. If you really want to know which teams had the lowest ERAs in franchise history, look at the totals from 1919 and before. But that’s boring and unbreakable, so we’ll only be looking at teams from the live ball era.

They’re on a great pace so far, though they have benefited (?) from having a good chunk of their runs allowed being unearned. Still, their 2.09 ERA is the second best in baseball, behind only the Rays.

FIP (Since 1920)

1968- 2.87

1969- 2.90

1920- 2.95

1972- 3.02

1964- 3.04

Currently- 3.15

I’ll let you in on a secret: there weren’t a lot of home runs in the dead-ball era. Since that’s one-third of the equation for FIP, let’s omit those teams from this list.

This is one category in this post where the Pirates are not on pace to crack the top five. We’re in a three true outcome league right now, and while that’s good for racking up strikeouts, that means walks and home runs are more common, too. That’s going to raise FIPs considerably.

Right now, their 3.15 FIP is top in the NL.

Quality Start Percentage (Since 1920)

1974- 68%

1968- 66%

1972- 66%

1920- 64%

1921- 64%

Currently- 75%

Again, I decided to omit dead-ball era teams from this category. Runs came at a premium back then, and any starter who did not last a measly six innings was publically humiliated. I also opted for quality start percentage over the number of quality starts in general to give teams with 154 game and strike shortened schedules their fair shake.

At the moment, the Pirates lead baseball in quality start percentage (12/16, 75%). What makes that even more impressive is of the four starts that weren’t considered quality, two were five inning shutouts and Jameson Taillon saw two inherited runners score to kill his QS chance in another. Just about every start has been a QS or right on the border of being one.

Strikeouts Per Nine Innings (Since 1900)

2015- 8.15

2013- 7.87

2017- 7.72

2018- 7.63

1969- 7.57

Currently- 8.56

The 2019 rotation has their best chance at reaching the top five in this category out of any other one in this post. The 2017 and 2018 teams made the cut, and they didn’t have a full year of strikeout artist Chris Archer (career 9.8 K/9). Batters across the league are striking out more and more, which certainly helps the rotation’s chances here.

OPS Against (Since 1920)

1920- .614

1965- .635

1968- .640

1972- .650

1935- .652

Currently- .582

For the final time, we almost have to omit the dead-ball era to filter out those teams who were throwing marshmallows to batters who worked the farm in the morning. Live ball era it is.

OPS is...OPS. You get the jist. Keep guys off base, don’t give up extra base hits. So far, so good, even compared teams from the pitcher dominated 1960s.

Win Probability Added (Since 1974, when FanGraphs started tracking starting pitcher WPA)

1992- 4.90

1974- 4.62

1976- 4.55

1991- 2.71

1990- 2.58

Currently- 1.67

This is a bit of a wild card. Admittedly, WPA may be an unfair stat to compare year by year. While WAR values each inning equally, WPA is very dependant on the context of the game. If the offense is being shutout, then the pitcher’s innings are going to impact the win probability more than if he was up 8-0. Thank the Pirates’ poor offense as much as their terrific pitching for the high WPA so far.

That said, they’re already flirting with a spot in the top five, and we’re still in April!

ERA+ (Whole Staff, Since 1900)

1901- 128

1909- 125

2015- 121

1921- 121

1911- 121

Currently- 168

Baseball-Reference’s Play Index tool doesn’t allow for me to split between starters and relievers for ERA+, so we’ll be looking at the pitching staff as a whole for this final stat.

ERA+ weighs a player or team’s earned run average based on league performance and the home ballpark. That’s why the 2015 Pirates made the list with three dead-ball teams.

This year’s team off to a fantastic, but almost certainly unmatchable pace. The all-time leader in this category are the 1906 Cubs, with a 151 ERA+. The 2017 Cleveland Indians are the best over the last 75 years, finishing with a 138 ERA+. But for now, they’re once again second in baseball, behind those pesky Rays.

*All stats compiled through FanGraphs’ leader boards and Baseball-Reference’s Play Index.