Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates

Unless you are a fan of the recently-struggling Cardinals (Baseball’s Best!), it is hard to imagine not enjoying the rise of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Sure, compared to the Pythagorean record or projected true talent, Pittsburgh seems to have been pretty lucky so far. First of all, almost any team that wins their division has some luck. Secondly, are we really going to complain about the Pirates having good luck for once?

In any case, I did not really see them as contenders of any sort this season, and I would guess I was not alone. The Pirates themselves thought they had a chance, given the moves they made to shore up their team over the last year, particularly the starting rotation.

The Pirates primarily have relied neither on big-time draft picks nor big-name free agent signing. Rather, they have put together a staff good enough to contend through shrewd trades and buy-low opportunities. Unless a team is going to get exceptionally lucky with their draft picks or has a huge payroll (not an option for Pittsburgh), this is what they have to do, thus, the Pirates’ rotation is worth examining.

It would be wrong to write that the Pirates’ success this year is primarily due to their starting rotation. The offense has actually been better, having the fourth-best offense (according to wRC+) in the National League to date. As for their pitching, the Pirates are just eighth in the National League in fWAR, but lead the National League in RA9-WAR (Pirates are only 10th in FIP-, but are second in FIP-. Starters are just ninth in fWAR (seventh in FIP- at 98), but fourth in RA9-WAR (third in ERA-). Their relievers lead the league in RA9-WAR.

Credit should also go to the fielders, as the Pirates are 11 runs above average according to UZR, 30 runs above average according to DRS, and second in baseball in Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency.

Still, the Pirates needed a rotation, and they have done well enough as a group to keep the team atop the National League Central. While we usually think of big-money contenders as buying their best pitchers, and small-money contenders as drafting and developing them, the Pirates’ rotation is mostly made up underrated trade targets and salary dumps by other teams. Let’s see how they did it by looking at what I take to be the Pirates top six starters this season.

Wandy Rodriguez

Wandy Rodriguez is currently on the disabled list, but should be back soon. The Astros traded him (along with $5 million for 2013 salary) to Pittsburgh in July 2012. The Pirates sent back Colton Cain (a 22-year-old pitch-to-contact guy currently in High-A), Rudy Owens (a 25-year-old pitcher with control issues who has been hurt most of year), and Robbie Grossman (might have a chance to be an everyday outfielder, but currently looks like a tweener/backup at best). Rodriguez’s club option is a $14 million player option due to the trade, but the Pirates will have to pay just $7.5 million of it.

Obviously, elbow and forearm problems are not good for any pitcher, and Rodriguez is 34. He does not have a history of prior arm problems, though, and threw more than 190 innings every season since 2009. The strikeout rates are not what they once were, but his control has also been better the last two years. When healthy, he is a decent mid-rotation pitcher at a reasonable price for the Pirates. It is not completely clear to me who (if anyone) should give up their spot in the rotation when Rodriguez is healthy, but these things often work themselves out anyway, and it is a nice problem to have.

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton came to the Pirates along with Jeff Locke and Gorkys Hernandez in the 2009 trade a mentioned a couple of weeks ago in my discussing Nate McLouth. It took a while for Morton to establish himself in the majors, pitching only one full season in 2011, and then missing most of the second half of 2012 and the first half of 2013 with Tommy John surgery.

Morton’s velocity belies his method of success. He throws hard (his four-seamer and sinking fastball sit at around 93-94 this year), but he has never had a good strikeout rate — it has always been below average in the majors. Morton does a nice job with his control, having a walk rate around five percent the last two season. Still, even in 2011, with a strikeout rate of only about 14 percent and walking batters about 10 percent of the time, he managed a 3.83 ERA.

Morton does it by being a ground ball machine. In 2011 his ground ball rate was about 59 percent, and this season it is almost 66 percent. Morton has been hurt, so he does not qualify, but has the highest ground ball leads all starting pitchers how have pitched at least 60 innings this season. Ground balls are at the root of his 3.79 ERA this year. He is not getting lucky with runners on (if anything, he has been unlucky) or on home run rates — his home run per fly ball rates is actually high (some research finds this to be common among ground ball pitchers). Morton has his problems — even when healthy, he has issues with left-handed hitters, as do a lot of right-handed sinkerball pitchers without a good change. Still, it is a good partial return on a trade by the Pirates years ago, and he should not cost much going into his last year of arbitration. If the Pirates feel good about his health, it might be a good time to lock him up.

Gerrit Cole

There is not much new to say about the acquisition Gerrit Cole, the first overall draft pick by Pittsburgh in 2011 out of UCLA. Cole made his major-league debut this year, and if he has not been anything like as dominating as Strasburg or Harvey was rookies, he has clearly been good.

Cole is a huge part of the Pirates future but, for the purposes of this piece, is the exception to the rule and has only been up for about half of the season. The time for a closer look at Gerrit Cole will come.

Francisco Liriano

Francisco Liriano has a complicated contract. From his BP player page:

Signed by Pittsburgh as a free agent 2/8/13. 13:$1M, 14:$8M club option. May earn additional $3.75M in 2013 roster bonuses based on days not spent on disabled list with injury to humerus bone in non-throwing right arm. 2014 option guaranteed at $8M with 150 days not spent on disabled list in 2013 with the right arm injury, $6M with 120 days not spent on disabled list with the right arm injury, $5M with 90 days not spent on disabled list with the right arm injury. (If option vests at $5M or $6M, Liriano may earn 2014 performance bonuses up to $8M based on games started.)

The short version: the Pirates risked very little on Liriano, with just $1 million guaranteed prior to the season. Liriano came cheap in the off-season after an up-and-down career. He burst onto the scene in 2006 with the Twins, putting 121 innings of Cy Young-level performance before going down with Tommy John surgery.

When he finally returned to the majors in 2008, the dominant Liriano from his debut seemed to be gone, as his strikeouts were down (although probably not low enough for the Twins’ taste) and his control became increasingly problematic. It is probably forgotten that prior to the 2010 season, the Twins were rumored to be thinking of shifting Liriano to the bullpen full-time. It was forgotten because Liriano went on to be a legitimate Cy Young candidate for the Twins in 2010, putting up 5.8 fWAR.

Liriano fell apart again in 2011. He threw a six-walk, two-strikeout no-hitter in May, which sort of summarized his 2011. His strikeout rate dropped to a career-low 19 percent, and his walk rate shot up to almost 13 percent. If that was a hitter, one would think he had make a big leap in plate discipline. Liriano’s strikeouts rose back to about 24 percent in 2012, but his walk rate stayed at the same level as the previous season. Liriano was traded to the White Sox mid-season, but nothing really changed, and for the second year in a row, finished with an ERA over five. Sure, his FIP was better, but given his control problems and concerns about his durability due to heavy use of his slider, he did not seem promising.

The Pirates still took a small chance on him. Although Liriano missed the first six weeks or so of the season due to a Spring Training (non-pitching) arm injury, he has been excellent in 18 starts since coming back: 2.68 ERA, 2.81 FIP, and a 3.16 xFIP. His control is still not good (almost 10 percent walk rate), but his strikeout rate is still around 24 percent and his ground ball rate is back up over 50 percent for the first time since 2010. This season Liriano seems to have almost completely scrapped his four-seamer in favor of his sinker, which probably factors into the return of his ground ball rate. Assuming I understand the contract properly, Liriano’s 2014 option is guaranteed, and although he is unlikely to be quite this good next season, the Pirates probably do not mind at all.

Jeff Locke

As noted above, Jeff Locke came over in McLouth trade along with Charlie Morton. Locke’s 2013 resembles to Morton’s 2011: bad strikeout and walk rates, but a excellent ERA (2.43) nonetheless. The ERA is likely at least somewhat of a facade, as Locke’s FIP is 3.74 and his xFIP is 4.17. But, again like Morton, Locke is a ground ball pitcher, although he is not as extreme as Morton in that respect.

According to Pitchf/x, lefty-throwing Locke does not use a sinker very often, relying quite heavily on his four-seam fastball, mixing it up with a curve and, mostly against right-handed hitters, using a change to get swing-and-misses.

Personally, I think Morton is a better pitcher than Locke, but getting two legitimate starters (assuming Locke gets hits walks under control) out of a trade for an above-average outfielder (as McLouth projected to be back in 2009) when the team is years away from contention is masterful rebuilding.

A.J. Burnett

Finally, we come to the big one, a player with whom I suspect readers of Getting Blanked are quite familiar: A.J. Burnett. The former Marlins and Blue Jays pitcher signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract with the Yankees prior to the 2009 season, was good the first year as New York won the World Series, then seemingly fell apart. Whatever the cause, the Yankees had enough and, rightly or wrongly, pretty much wanted to dump as much of his salary as they could after 2011. He was still going to get paid $16.5 million for 2012 and 2013, but from the Pirates perspective, it was not so bad, as Yankees agreed to pay $11.5 million in 2012 $8.5 million and in 2013. In return, Pirates sent back Diego Moreno (a 26-year-old reliever currently in AA), Exicardo Cayones (21-year-old outfielder now with the Angels in High-A).

The Pirates were on the hook for $13 million over two years for Burnett, but given his five-plus ERAs the two seasons before, that was not necessarily a bargain. His FIP was not much better, although his 2011 xFIP indicated something good might lurk in there somewhere. The Pirates thought so and it turns out they were correct. In 2012, Burnett not only had his best ERA- (81) since 2007, it also lined up with his FIP- (79). There were probably a number of factors at work: getting to pitch to pitchers, getting out of Yankee Stadium, among others. One big difference seems to have been the increased use of his sinker. He had used it less than 20 percent of the time in 2010 and 2011, but in Pittsburgh, he started using it about 35 percent of the time (according to Brooks Baseball). The increased sinker usage would also seem to align with ground ball rate going up to about 56 percent.

In 2013, Burnett has done a great deal to show that 2012 was no fluke, and has been even better: 81 ERA-, 79 FIP-, and 78 xFIP-. Although his walk rate his back up to a not-great nine percent, his 26 percent strikeout rate is the best of his career, and his ground ball rate is still at 56 percent. He did miss most of June with leg injury, but when he has been on the field this year, Burnett has pitched like, well, a legitimate #1 pitcher. Who in Toronto or New York would have seen that coming?

Other than grabbing a top of the draft stud when presented with the opportunity, one has to give the Pirates credit for building a solid rotation their own way. Their rebuilding path has not been smooth, and even last year there were serious questions about the sanity of their player development methods. Overall, the 2013 rotation has been closer to adequate than dominant but the Pirates’ front office deserves credit that goes beyond getting the knowing who to pick first overall.

They traded for Wandy Rodriguez despite his age. They got two decent but far-from-elite pitching prospects back in the McLouth trade and now they’re solid mid-rotation starters. Most impressively, they took chances on both Liriano and Burnett at a when many thought they were both done and have made them into the front of a legitimate contending rotation.

Combine that savvy with the apparent ability to teach pitchers to induce grounders (with a stellar defense behind them), and you have a contending group of starters.