This is a lot less straightforward than grading the hitters. Putting together a pitching staff is always a more organic process than establishing a starting lineup, due to the vagaries of health and performance. When the Pirates have been more or less in a rebuilding mode, I’ve always said that it’s more important where the staff is at the end of the season than at the beginning.
With their hitters, the Pirates never made the remotest pretense that they were trying to build for the future, at least not apart from the belated callup of Ke’Bryan Hayes. It was somewhat different with the pitchers, at least once they divested themselves of the likes of Robbie Erlin, Miguel Del Pozo, Yacksel Rios and (as a starter) Derek Holland. A lot of it was forced by injuries, but J.T. Brubaker and Geoff Hartlieb got regular work, and Cody Ponce, Nick Mears and Blake Cederlind got a little time. So I’m more inclined to grade the pitchers partly on what they showed for the future, while for the hitters it was more a simple, “They sucked.”
Another thing that makes the pitchers more difficult is small sample sizes. Not only was the season just 60 games, some key pitchers — Mitch Keller, Nick Burdi, Clay Holmes, Kyle Crick and Michael Feliz — missed a lot of time. And the sample sizes contributed to a further problem: In many cases, there was a disparity, often a massive one, between traditional results (like ERA) and the metrics (like xFIP).
Some of this is easy. Trevor Williams was awful, again. It’s sad, because he’s such an easy guy to root for, but you can make an argument that he was the worst regular starter in MLB this year. Joe Musgrove was Joe Musgrove, with good stretches and bad stretches. His strong finish will probably lead to more hopes that he’s going to be a #2 starter or something. He sharply increased his K rate, probably because of the large increase in his use of his curve. His walk rate went up with it, but the end result was a 3.19 xFIP, easily a career best, so there was progress.
Steven Brault also made legitimate progress, probably due to increased reliance on his change and on Jacob Stallings. His performance didn’t win over the metrics entirely — his xFIP was 4.85 due to an extremely low HR/FB ratio and a low BABIP — but Statcast shows he gave up a lot less hard contact than in the past.
Chad Kuhl and Brubaker were sort-of in the same boat and sort-of not. Both were coming off injury seasons and obviously couldn’t get any minor league rehab time, plus Brubaker was making his debut in The Show. Kuhl’s results were so crazy it’s hard to know what to say. His ERA was good (4.27, badly inflated by one total meltdown in which Derek Shelton left him in way too long), but he had a very low BABIP and struggled to throw strikes, so the metrics were bad. Brubaker went the other way, with a better xFIP (4.14) than ERA (4.94).
We’ll just ignore Holland, who got hit really hard, and finish with Keller. He had some of the strangest stats ever in a SSS: 2.91 ERA, 6.57 xFIP, .104 BABIP (?!), 20.7% walk rate. He clearly wasn’t healthy when the season started.
The bottom line is that there are a bunch of guys — mainly Keller, Kuhl and Brubaker — whom the team needs to continue evaluating. Williams, they don’t. To some extent, it seems like they’ll be starting this season all over again next year. And the rotation still looks like a collection of 4th/5th starters.
The bullpen was a big source of injury-related disappointment, primarily due to Burdi and Holmes essentially missing the whole season. Also, Crick evolved from something of a question mark to a major question mark. Richard Rodriguez, at least, looked a lot like he did in 2018. A bit better, even, probably due, once again, to increased use of his breaking stuff, so he’s a piece going forward. Keone Kela . . . well, buh-bye.
The Pirates did, however, give a lot of time to some unfamiliar faces and got some passable results, which was a sharp contrast to the endless stream of combustibles that they featured under Neal Huntington. Nik Turley, Sam Howard and Geoff Hartlieb were mostly solid, although it’s questionable whether any of them projects as a shutdown reliever. Turley was probably a little better than his ERA, Howard a little worse and Hartlieb, due to significant control issues, a lot worse (3.63 ERA vs. 5.48 xFIP). Chris Stratton was solid in middle relief, probably better than his ERA due to a low strand rate. Again, though, the question remains whether any of these guys can fill a late-inning role.
Mears and Cederlind, though, might. Mears in his brief trial didn’t look ready yet due to control issues, but coming in he had only five innings above class A, only 88 pro innings total, and not much time even in college. Cederlind looked pretty good in his own brief chances and should get a legitimate shot next spring.
A few in-season castoffs produced mixed results in little bits of time. Tyler Bashlor looked bad and Austin Davis good (plus . . . a lefty!). Nick Tropeano had a 1.15 ERA, but most of the contact against him seemed to produce lasers. Whether they stay around probably depends on the off-season’s game of waiver pong.
Finally, it’s time for Dovydas Neverauskas to go away. Feliz, too, but I doubt the Pirates will agree.
There’s something to work with here, but the components of the next Melancon/Watson shutdown combo haven’t appeared yet, unless Burdi stays healthy and Cederlind develops in a hurry.