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Pirates starting pitching critical to 12-7 record

Pittsburgh starters have contributed nine straight quality starts.

Pittsburgh Pirates v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation has been the guiding force behind a 12-7 start following back-to-back 100-loss seasons. Starters have toed the rubber and delivered nine consecutive quality starts for the first time since 2015, the last time the Bucs made the postseason during a 98-win campaign.

The Pirates’ 11 quality starts in 19 games are tied for the best in baseball with the Dodgers. Meaning members of Derek Shelton’s rotation has delivered outing after outing of six innings of three runs or fewer. A 4.08 staff ERA as a collective (rotation and bullpen) is also 13th in the sport.

Mitch Keller, Roansy Contreras, Rich Hill, Vince Velasquez and Johan Oviedo have been a terrific group for the Pirates, in a limited sample size, with a mixed bag of experience and high upside. The leader of the pack, Keller owns a 3.80 ERA in four starts spanning 23.2 innings. The experienced right-hander allowed four runs on opening day but has pitched to top-of-the-rotation potential in his last three outings. He allowed one run on four hits and struck out seven in as many innings against Boston, six frames of two-run ball hosting Houston, and three runs on seven hits through six in St. Louis.

Keller is inducing weak contact with his sinker, gaining a 94th percentile ranking in hard hit percentage and 90th in average exit velocity, according to Baseball Savant. He has walked 10 and sits in the bottom half of whiff percentage (30th) but has solidified himself as a dependable starter he flashed glimpses of to conclude 2022.

Contreras will start Thursday against Cincinnati to begin a four-game series and was effective in two of three starts. He allowed seven in 3.1 facing Houston but a combined three runs in 11.2 frames against the Red Sox and Cardinals. His fastball spin (70th) and barrel percentage (60th) are major reasons why Contreras bounced back, and a slider he throws 42 percent of the time may soon result in additional swings and misses.

Hill’s welcome to PNC Park was certainly not warm after giving up seven runs in four innings to the Chicago White Sox. Since the performance, the Pirates’ only lefty starter delivered six innings of two and one run-ball in a win and loss, respectively. The 43-year-old’s high 80s fastball has been thrown 30% of the time and primarily relies on his curveball (36 percent), cutter (14.6 percent), and sweeper (13.5 percent) to put hitters away. A veteran leader who may have found his stride with the pitch clock, Hill brings an experienced presence to the Bucs’ young rotation and an alternative to a heavy fastball-slider approach.

Velasquez also didn’t start out on the right foot in Pittsburgh. The 30-year-old righty allowed three runs to the Reds and five against his former club (White Sox) in 2.2 innings pitched. Everything changed in the next two starts after two poor ones. Velasquez struck out six in as many innings and did not allow a run to the Cardinals. He gave up a three-spot to Colorado in the bottom of the first but locked in and delivered five scoreless. 11 of his past 12 innings have prevented runners from crossing home plate. His 5.12 ERA is not appealing but a testament to the first half of starts compared to the later half. Not disregarding the small sample size, but a consistent run of starts has pushed Velasquez into a better position.

Pitching well has been contagious for Pirates starters, and the main catalyst outside of Keller is a trade acquisition that was not expected to make the opening-day roster. Traded from the Cardinals in the Jose Quintana 2022 trade deadline deal, Johan Oviedo is 7th in the National League in ERA (2.22) and tied for 8th with Keller in strikeouts (25). After allowing five runs (four earned) to the Red Sox in his first appearance, he’s allowed two in 19.2 innings and struck out 21. His percentile numbers are off the charts. Oviedo ranks high in extension (92nd), fastball velocity (88th), barrel percentage (86th), whiff percentage (81st), and average exit velocity (72nd). He replaced JT Brubaker - who is out for the season - and pitched like a top-of-the-rotation player at the bottom of the rotation.

The Pirates are off to a surprising start, but one telegraphed by the actions and words of players and coaches in spring training. Shelton and Derek Shelton have compiled a solid five capable of keeping the Bucs in games for the bullpen to take over. Colin Holderman and David Bednar have commanded results in the 8th and 9th, thanks to quality starting pitching resulting in a lock-down final two innings. Pitching and defense are critical to winning games during the course of 162, and the Pirates are doing their best in both categories for the first time in 8-10 years.