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Pirates 2021 Season Preview: Starting Pitching

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The Buccos need a big improvement from this group in 2021.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Toronto Blue Jays Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Pirates Starting Pitching

Of all 30 teams last year, the Pirates finished 28th in total starting pitching fWAR (1.2). Looking ahead to 2021, things don’t look much more optimistic. According to Fangraphs, the Pirates are projected to have the 29th-best rotation in baseball. But hey, this is why they play the games, right? Let’s take a look at the starters who will carry the Pirates through the 2021 season.

The four locks to be in the rotation

Chad Kuhl

Pittsburgh Pirates v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Now 28 years old, Kuhl has more or less been the same guy since debuting in 2016. The problem with him has never been stuff. His fastball reaches the mid-90s. For the most part, his slider is unhittable (opponents have hit .186/.235/.271 against that pitch in his career). His curveball might even be nastier (opponents have hit .105/.130/.190 against the hook in his career). The problem with Kuhl has always been health. In 2018, when Kuhl was able to toss 157.1 innings (the only season in which he surpassed the 100 innings mark), he was worth 2.2 fWAR. For the Pirates in 2021, staying on the field will be key.

Mitch Keller

Baltimore Orioles v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Keller has had one of the most peculiar starts to a career that I could ever remember. In 2019, when he first made his debut, Keller looked really good. In 48 innings pitched that year, the now 24-year-old (he’ll be 25 in a week) struck out hitters at an elite 28.6 percent clip. Somehow though, his ERA was 7.13. On the other hand, his xFIP was just 3.47. It truly was confounding to watch just how unlucky Keller was that year. In 2020, the exact opposite happened. For the most part, Keller was bad. In 21.2 innings pitched, he walked more batters than he struck out. His xFIP was 6.57. That said, his ERA looked solid at 2.91. This upcoming season, it will be interesting to see what happens. I think Keller has great stuff. His fastball sits in the mid-90s and at times, reaches the upper-90s. His curveball has a chance to be elite. I’m excited to see what a full season looks like.

Tyler Anderson

Pittsburgh Pirates v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Last month, the Pirates signed this 31-year-old left-hander to a one-year, $2.5 million deal. His purpose with the Pirates this season will be to eat innings. He will more than likely get flipped to a contender at the trade deadline if he is good. If not, just keep on eating those innings. Over 59.2 innings pitched with the San Francisco Giants last season, Anderson was pretty solid going 4-3 with a 4.37 ERA. His fWAR of 0.8 was not too shabby. Although he struggled in 2019 (-0.3 fWAR), Anderson had never had an fWAR below one in the three seasons prior.

JT Brubaker

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Last season, this 27-year-old righty got his first taste of the major leagues. Over 47.1 innings pitched, he was 1-3 with a 4.94 ERA (0.7 fWAR). Although never seen as a top-tier prospect, Brubaker opened some eyes last season. His fastball sat in the mid-90s and his slider looked nasty at times. His strikeout rate of 23.4 percent was solid and his ground ball rate of 46.7 was also pretty nice. I’m a bit bullish on Brubaker. I think he has two plus pitches and may want to use the slider more often. Last season, he used the slider 32.5 percent of the time. I wouldn’t mind seeing that rate jump up to 37 percent at least.

Fringe number 5s

Trevor Cahill

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Signed just a few weeks ago, Cahill may be better served to start the season in the bullpen before getting stretched out as a starter. Like Anderson though, his role on this team will be to eat innings as either a starter or long man reliever. Looking ahead to the season, keep an eye on Cahill’s strikeout rate. In 2020, he struck a higher rate of opponents (29.2 percent) in his limited 25 innings pitched than he ever has. Since he has spent his entire career as a ground ball guy, it will be interesting to see if he tries to continue the high strikeout trend.

Wil Crowe

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Like Brubaker, Crowe made his major league debut in 2020. Unlike Brubaker, this 26-year-old right-hander had next to zero success. He started three games in 2020 and pitched a total of 8.1 innings. He allowed five home runs. He walked as many hitters as he struck out (8). 2021 is a new year though. Acquired in the Josh Bell trade, Crowe will have some chances with the Pirates this season. Although spring stats are meaningless, Crowe has looked sharp in Spring Training thus far allowing just one earned run over 9.2 innings pitched.

Cody Ponce

Detroit Tigers v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Ponce was yet another pitcher on this roster who made his debut in 2020. He was okay over 17 innings pitched, mostly lucky. His ERA was a clean 3.18, but his xFIP was a loud 5.67. Like most of the pitchers in this fringe number 5s section, he more than likely get an opportunity at some point in 2021.

Miguel Yajure

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Acquired in the Jameson Taillon deal, this 22-year-old will probably start the season in AAA. That said, overall, I like his stuff. He throws a fastball in the low to mid-90s, a cutter, a curveball, and a changeup. Keep an eye out for Yajure’s call-up at some point this season.

Steven Wright

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If I’m being honest, I doubt Wright ever throws a pitch for the Pirates. At age 36, Wright has not pitched since 2019, and when he did that year, it was only for 6.1 innings. He has been suspended in the past for both using PEDs and domestic violence. The yikes meter is high with him. That said, Wright has a history with GM Ben Cherington when they were both in Boston. Having a knuckleballer on the team would be kind of neat.

Oh, I almost forgot...

Steven Brault

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The 28-year-old lefty will miss at least a month (probably longer) with a strained lat. When he returns though, he will most definitely provide the Pirates with a shot in the arm. Like Kuhl, Brault pretty much is what he is at this point in his career. He gets a decent amount of strikeouts and groundballs, but control has always been his biggest issue. When throwing strikes, Brault’s ceiling is that of a decent middle-of-the-rotation starter. When not throwing strikes though, the counts get deep. The pitches pile up. The outings are short. When he eventually gets on the mound in 2021, throwing strikes consistently has to be the main goal.