It’s perfect timing when you’re planning a piece on the flaws and break downs of an organization’s pitching philosophy for the Monday after the opposition piled up 47 runs against them in a series. That’s the kind of beat down the Cubs laid on the Pirates, but they’re not the only ones getting in on the hit parade as Alex noted:
— Alex Stumpf (@AlexJStumpf) September 15, 2019
And the season isn’t over yet folks!
That Pirates haven’t had the worst staff in the league this season, but they have allowed the second most runs in the National League and the fifth most in baseball and the fourth most earned runs. Only the altitude-challenged Rockies have surrendered more runs sans the DH. The third worst team in the NL, the Marlins, have yielded over a hundred fewer tallies than the Buccos.
Historically, the Pirates have had a slightly better than average staff under the current front office. They had a couple of outlier years on the positive side in 2013 and 2015, but by and large, they’ve lived in the 12th to 15th range in runs allowed in all of baseball. Of course, this measures overall team defense, but it’s mostly about the pitching.?? 2016 was bad but not like this. So what’s going on?
I think the first culprit of the current season’s woes has to do with injuries. While this smacks of excuse making it can’t be ignored. For most teams, losing your best pitcher to injury early in the season would put a damper on the season. I suspect Taillon wasn’t 100% as he posted a 4.10 ERA over seven starts even before the Pirates shut him down. They’re also missing depth options Edgar Santana and Chad Kuhl, both gone for Tommy John. While one could make the argument the Pirates needed to plan better for their absence, it still would have been nice to have them as options as others broke down. I also thought the bullpen looked excellent coming into the season, and I’d imagine they were confident in it as well. Part of the issue has been their razor thin depth. Two pitchers that started the year in Altoona have made starts for the Pirates this month. Even some depth options like J.T. Brubaker got hurt. If we’re being honest, the Pirates current rotation is composed of options 3 (Joe Musgrove), 4 (Trevor Williams), 6 (Mitch Keller), 8 (Steven Brault), 13 (Dario Agarazal) and 16 (James Marvel) from the start of?? the season. Most systems will reasonably break down once you get below option ten.
It’s likely deeper than that. The Pirates, as I have noted in previous pieces, have become stale in pitching tactics. One of the ways they’ve become stale is with their overuse of the fastball compared to other teams. The Pirates have led baseball in fastball usage each of the last three seasons and came in second to only the Mets in 2016. What’s also remarkable is the consistency with which they’ve thrown the pitch from season to season.
2019 – 59.3%
2018 – 62.6%
2017 – 62.8%
2016 – 61.7%
2015 – 61.4%
2014 – 61.2%
2013 – 59.4%
2012 – 61.0%
2011 – 62.3%
To illustrate how other teams have run away from the fastball, the Pirates 59.4% fastball percentage in 2013 placed them 14th in the league. This year, they’d lead the league ever so slightly over the current version of the Pirates. Still, the Buccos seem to cling to the idea that throwing the fastball 60% of the time is the right amount to throw it. It’s the results of their pitch to contact theory they benefited from at the height of their ability to shift. It’s the result of their pitching development philosophy that’s failed to help many prospects reach their potential.
The next breakdown is the Pirates’ seemingly one-size-fits-all approach to the pitching and it stems from their fastball obsession. In 2018, only two Bucs pitchers accumulated more than fifty innings that threw the fast ball less than 55% of the time (Joe Musgrove and Chris Archer). Every pitcher developed in-house threw it more 57% of the time with Tyler Glasnow throwing it 72% of the time. Most every starter throws a four pitch mix of fastball, slider, curve, and then a token change up. For reference, Glasnow still throws it a lot with the Rays, but he has moved almost entirely to the curve as his second pitch dropping his slider. The Pirates simply haven’t let a lot of pitchers pitch to their strengths or experiment much at the major league level.?? Glasnow has improved by dropping his slider and relying more on his curve. Gerrit Cole has featured his slider more prominently to pitch off his fastball even though he’s still throwing the same mix. Charlie Morton dropped his slider with the Pirates, but the Phillies reintroduced a cutter he experimented with in 2011. Morton went right back to a slider he hasn’t thrown since leaving the organization. I was refreshed to see Marvel sort of junk his way through his first nine innings, because it could be a sign that things are changing. Of course, he still threw his fastball more than half the time.
Don’t get me wrong, fastball command is important. At some point, you need to crisp up the off speed and breaking stuff. I like the organization focusing almost entirely on the heater and commanding it until about advanced A ball. Of course, the Pirates haven’t stopped there. If you’ve ever been to a game in Altoona or Indianapolis, starters still throw the fastball about 80% of the time. I do think this has helped a number of pitchers Glasnow being one of them.?? By and large, pitchers developed under the current front office command their fastball quite well. However, it comes at the expense of other pitches. Not one player that has come through the system in recent years has had a killer change up. Since Francisco Liriano left the rotation in 2016, the Pirates have finished among the bottom four of baseball in changeup value. They’re second to last this year.
The Pirates have had their share of bad luck this season on the mound with depth and injuries, but their pitching woes are likely years in the making. They haven’t adjusted organizational philosophies or helped pitchers make necessary adjustments at the major league level to the same extent that other clubs have. The changeup is failing at the major league level, because the club is focused too much of fastball in the middle and upper minors. Sure, there might also be some issues with talent, but there are less talented staffs than Pittsburgh’s getting considerably more from what they have.