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Is This the Best Pirates Rotation Since The 1960’s?

Two of these three pitchers are responsible for the Pirates having one of the franchise's best rotations this year.  Sorry, Jeff. Photo by Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

Two of these three pitchers are responsible for the Pirates having one of the franchise’s best rotations this year. Sorry, Jeff.
Photo by Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

Over the course of its storied history, the Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t exactly been known for their pitching prowess. The bats on the other hand…

When I checked the list of retired Pirates numbers, I actually had to read it twice, because there wasn’t a single pitcher among the seven immortalized for their contributions on the field. Even the two managers on the list were position players during their career. It seems remarkable that over the entire 100+ year story of the franchise, not one pitcher has a chapter named after him.

In a pitcher parched organization such as the Pittsburgh Baseball Club, it’s not unreasonable to ask the question of whether or not the current staff is among the best in the team’s history, especially when an obvious starting point isn’t out there, at least based on all-time greats. The Pirates did have two Cy Young winners since the award came into existence in 1956. World Series titles have been less elusive, but there is likely competition.

A couple of caveats before I proceed. The current Pirates’ rotation has been after it for a couple of months at this point. Clearly, they will need to keep it up over an entire season before any conversations get too serious. The game has also changed even going back just a few years. I’ll look at some stats that naturally adjust like ERA+, along with pitcher independent stats like K:BB ratio and FIP. I’ll also look at how they stack up against other rotations in the NL. While I could make this into a “bigger, faster, stronger” conversation that argues today’s athletes are better, I won’t and I’ll compare them solely to their peers.

To establish a baseline, the Pirates’ current rotation has four pitchers with an ERA+ of over 100 (three if you’re not buying Morton’s sample size), four with K rates in excess of 7 per nine innings and three have a K:BB ratio of two or higher as of the afternoon of June 10th. Gerrit Cole and A.J. Burnett are leading the way with an ERA plus of 223 and 183, respectively, and while it’s highly unlikely Burnett will sustain his numbers over the full season, Cole might. As a rotation, they rank first in the NL in FIP (3.22) and second in ERA (3.15) to the Cardinals 3.09.

If you thought it would be safe to gloss over the twenty years of losing when looking for a better rotation, you’d be correct. The group of Jason Schmidt, Kris Benson, Todd Ritchie and Francisco Cordova wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t elite either. In 1999, they managed the 7th best ERA in the NL, but that was the high water mark from the time I was in fourth grade until the time I could have conceivably had my own child in fourth grade.

The 1991 rotation had solid depth even if it was overshadowed by the offense led by Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke. As a group, they finished second in the NL in ERA and third in FIP, but what all of the individual pitchers had was an ERA+ over 100. Whether it was John Smiley, Bob Walk, Zane Smith, Randy Tomlin or reigning Cy Young winner Doug Drabek taking the hill, the Pirates had a real shot to win. It was a rotation with an ace who performed like a two, a two who performed like an ace, and a few solid 3’s that came after you night after night.

In the early to mid-80’s, the Pirates fielded a solid, lefty heavy staff with John Candelaria, Larry McWilliams and righty Rick Rhoden 1-2-3. The journeyman McWilliams really enjoyed the best stretch of his career in Pittsburgh, but as his performance went, so did the value of this rotation. Rhoden and Candelaria both managed All-Star seasons, just not during this stretch. Lefties also dominated in the mid-70’s, as the Pirates posted the second best ERA in 1975 in the NL with something of a patchwork six man squad. Dock Ellis was the weak link and at 96, was the only member below 100 in ERA+.

Going back a little further, Vern Law and Bob Veale provided the backbone to an excellent 1965 rotation that led the league in fWAR. Veale, who was still getting himself established, finished the year second in strikeouts per 9 innings while Law, who was wrapping up a long career in Pittsburgh, managed one last big season finishing a career best third in ERA. Bob Friend was also in that 1965 group and in the staff that won the World Series in 1960.

The current staff has a long way to go to match the success of any of these groups in the sense that they’ll need to finish as strong as they’ve started to stay in the conversation. On top of that, the team will likely need to have success. The 1960 and 1991 staffs, their stiffest competition in my opinion, won the World Series and the NL East Pennant respectively. That said, they have solid chance to cement themselves among the franchise best from the past fifty plus years. They have two pitchers looking like sure things for the All Star Game, whose current performances will put them into consideration for the Cy Young down the road. They have another in the top five in strikeouts whose ERA is well short of his peripherals. They have a talented back end that still needs to come together, but that is beginning to look better.

The Pirates have throughout their history been known as a team built around their offense. For the first time in a long time, the Pirates’ success will depend on how well their starters pitch. It’s not inconceivable that they’ll lead the league in ERA and FIP by the time it’s all through. It’s not out of the question that the individual awards will pile up. They are not the best rotation since the sixties because they haven’t finished what they’ve started yet, but they’re building a case for themselves.

Steve is a naturalized yinzer hailing originally from just north of Allentown, PA. He came to Pittsburgh to attend Duquesne University and decided to stick around after graduation. Steve is best known for his contributions to Duquesne hoops community as the owner of the Duquesne Dukes forum on Yuku and as the former editor of We Wear the Ring on the Fansided network. He is an avid Pirates fan, home cook and policy nerd. He is the co-founder of the Point of Pittsburgh. Easily irritated by people who misuse the word regress.