Pirates at the Quarter: A Few Rays of Sunlight on a Dismal Pitching Staff

So, yes, the pitching sucks, too.  The Pirates have the third-worst ERA in the NL (and the two teams below them, Philadelphia and Arizona, play in hitter’s parks) and the worst walk rate by a very wide margin.  They also have easily the worst WHIP, although they do have a K/9 that’s a little above average.  The walks shouldn’t be surprising; no team in MLB throws a lower percentage of its pitches for strikes.  They give up the league’s third-highest percentage of barreled balls and the third-highest average exit velocity.  Their fastball velocity and usage are about average.

The pitchers have been hurt a bit by factors arguably outside their control.  Their BABIP is a little on the high side, at .304 (the midpoint is around .270).  They have the NL’s fourth-worst strand rate (67%), but that’s probably in part due to the use of relievers who have no business in the majors.

Ben Cherington didn’t add many pitchers in the off-season, but the ones he brought in have been just as awful as the hitters he added.  Derek Holland has an ERA of 8.33 and the missiles have been flying.  Yeah, Derek Shelton left him in too long in his second start, but he stayed on to take one for the team in his disastrous third start and actually pitched a few good innings, so it kinda evens out.  Robbie Erlin lasted just two games and is getting bombed with the Braves now.  Miguel Del Pozo . . . well, I can’t mention his stats because we don’t want to get an NC-17 rating.  Nick Tropeano is doomed.

I don’t have much to say about the rest of the original rotation because they’ve pitched so little.  Mitch Keller and Joe Musgrove are hurt.  Steve Brault is still Steve Brault; some days he can throw a strike and some he can’t.  His velocity is up a tick, which is good.  Trevor Williams so far has been better than he was most of last year, although he’s been helped a little by a .250 BABIP.  He’s throwing a lot fewer fastballs and his swinging strike rate is up from 10.4% to 11.3%, which is about average.

The two new starters, Chad Kuhl and J.T. Brubaker, have been very encouraging.  That’s especially true considering that they’re coming back after missing most or all of last year.  Kuhl’s use of his slider is way up (double, to be exact) and his curve usage is also up.  Both pitches have whiff percentages just over 21%.  His velocity is down 1-2 mph, but I’m not sure that means much given that he’s just getting back from TJ and has thrown only nine innings.  Brubaker is also using his slider and curve heavily and has a very high whiff rate on the latter.

The bullpen is a mixed bag, but much of the carnage has come against guys who have no earthly business on a major league roster.  Leaving aside the injured relievers, Rich Rodriguez has been solid and Chris Stratton downright good.  Stratton’s velocity is up about one mph and he’s also throwing a lot more breaking stuff.  The result is a swing and miss rate of 15.3%, which is up nearly 50% from last year.  Rodriguez has always thrown mostly fastballs, but he’s more than doubled the frequency with which he throws his curve.  He’s also doubled the whiff rate on the pitch.  His fastball velocity is down nearly one mph, but his swing and miss percentage is up to 16.3%,, well above his strong 2018 season.

Some of the less familiar relievers have made some progress, most notably Sam Howard.  (Howard wasn’t a Cherington pickup.  He was claimed off waivers just after Neal Huntington was fired and the claim may have been made before then.)  He’s been very good, including a 12.6 K/9.  He’s throwing his slider two-thirds of the time; I don’t know how long he can succeed doing that, but it’s working so far.  Another newcomer and lefty, Nik Turley, has had a lot more trouble, but he hasn’t pitched in three years and had little major league experience before now, so I’m not inclined to draw any conclusions yet.

Some of the holdovers have been decent at times.  Geoff Hartlieb has been erratic, but he at least has been able to get through an inning, which he couldn’t last year.  Even Dovydas Neverauskas has made progress.  The 6.43 ERA is largely a product of a .450 BABIP and 51.7% strand rate; his xFIP is 2.53.  His walk and K rates are drastically improved over last year.  He’s another guy who’s throwing fewer fastballs.

Cody Ponce and Nick Mears at least made their debuts, and there’s reason to hope Blake Cederlind will this year, too.  If the team would stop fooling around with deadenders, there’s reason to hope something can be accomplished with some of the less experienced pitchers.