The Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff, to put it one way, is running on fossil fuels. Before long, the whole party’s going to crash.
The Pirates are currently 10-9 despite playing one of the most challenging early-season schedules in baseball. They’re fourth in the Majors in staff ERA and second in batting average against, just good enough to float an offense that still ranks 20th or worse in every meaningful offensive category. That kind of middling, just-about-.500 baseball is nearly identical to the starts the Pirates have enjoyed in each of the last two seasons, when they hovered around .500 before making their hay in May, June and July.
Of course, the gas always seems to run out just when the party’s getting good.
The Bucs have, in historical fashion, fumbled away winning seasons in each of the last two years. In 2011, the Pirates went 18-38 in August and September to drop out of contention, and turned the trick again in 2012 by going 19-39 in their final 58 games to fall out of first in the NL Central and all the way to a 20th-consecutive losing season.
The culprits were many, but none so obvious as the overworked wheels that fell off the team’s pitching staff down the stretch.
In 2012, the Pirates’ Opening Day rotation consisted of A.J. Burnett, James McDonald, Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton and Erik Bedard. By the end of the year, only Burnett was still pitching effectively. McDonald fell off a cliff following the All-Star break. Correia split his time between the rotation and the bullpen. Bedard had been traded. Morton underwent Tommy John surgery.
Barring injury, is there a chance that any of those players will go wire-to-wire?
Burnett and Rodriguez seem the likeliest candidates to be effective all season long. McDonald has the stuff to pitch reliably, but hasn’t shown the mentality to keep it all together over a full season.
Just over half of the Opening Day rotation can be said to have reliable stuff and season-long potential coming off a winter in which management touted its aim for depth in all parts of the pitching staff at each level of the organization.
Of course, the direct victim of a bad rotation is a beleaguered bullpen, and the Pirates might work theirs into the ground before the 2013 season reaches its second month.
So far, the Pirates have held things together relatively nicely from the mound. As mentioned, their 3.31 team ERA and .215 team batting average against rank 4th and 2nd, respectively, among all 30 MLB clubs. As a staff, they rank 12th in baseball in WHIP, at 1.24.
In contrast to those numbers, however, is their number of quality starts: 6. Six quality starts in 19 games played, or less than three in five starts that result in at least six innings pitched and no more than three earned runs allowed.
That, more than anything, is unsustainable.
In fact, only Rodriguez, Burnett and McDonald have compiled any quality starts at all, each with two. Sanchez and Locke have yet to earn a quality start. Only Burnett is averaging more than 90 pitches per game started. Locke and Sanchez each have yet pitch past the sixth inning, averaging just 5.06 and 3.7 innings per appearance, respectively.
The poor outings have forced the bullpen into a heavy workload early on.
New hire Mark Melancon, who arrived as part of the offseason trade that sent Joel Hanrahan to Boston, has appeared in more games than any Pirates pitcher. His 11 appearances lead the team and are tied for second amongst all MLB pitchers. Jared Hughes is just behind Melancon at 10 appearances. Several of the team’s long relievers have nearly as many innings pitched as some in the rotation. Hughes, Melancon, Jason Grilli, Tony Watson, Jeanmar Gomez and Justin Wilson have each pitched more than nine innings of relief this season.
All told, Pirates relievers have accounted for 69.2 innings in 19 games. The team’s six starters (Phil Irwin made a spot start for Wandy Rodriguez two Sundays ago) have accounted for 94.7 innings pitched. It’s an unsustainable split that’s going to see a lot of recycled arms taking turns in the bullpen until the rotation gets its act together.
And, as always, the dilemma can be laid at the feet of management.
The Pirates acquired a number of pitchers this offseason, and GM Neal Huntington assembled a nice bullpen out of unexpected parts, something of a trademark of his since taking over in late 2007.
However, the team had all winter to replace Morton, Bedard and Correia from last year’s rotation. They did so by re-signing Karstens and Morton, and acquiring Francisco Liriano — all of whom were injured.
As May approaches, each arm of “the cavalry” is still toiling in some part of his respective recovery process. Reclamation project Jose Contreras is also working his way back from an offseason injury, but likely only to bolster the overworked bullpen.
Right now, the group is counting on a pile of unknowns to help even things out. Morton and Karstens have been very good in the past, but will they be effective following significant (and, in Karstens’ case, recurring) injuries? Will Liriano and Contreras regain their forms in Pittsburgh, or continue their descents into retirement? When Gerrit Cole and perhaps Jameson Taillon make the jump, what’s to say they won’t need time to adjust to the MLB game?
The staff was shorthanded to begin with. Leaning on rookies is no kind of plan. Asking the rest to pick up the slack against a brutal early schedule until they can be spelled by a group of pitchers who are returning from injury or irrelevancy (or both) is plain poor planning.
The Pirates are a small market franchise and those clubs only survive their schedules by being better planners, if not just a bit luckier, than the game’s heavy hitters.
Pittsburgh has had relatively good luck so far. They certainly hope their offseason reclamation projects can return, healthy, and be effective parts of the line-up.
No one in their right mind would call luck, or hope, an assured path to success.