At 27, Michelangelo finished the Sistine Chapel, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space and Ernest Hemingway wrote ?The Sun Also Rises. ? The 14th congressional district of New York just elected 29 year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. By 29, Alexander the Great was already King of Persia and had conquered most of the known world. Not to be outdone, Alexander the TPOP writer is turning 27 next month and learned the hard way last night that frozen Uncrustables PB&J sandwiches need to be thawed out, not put in the toaster. Late 20s, here I come.
Some age into their late 20s more gracefully than others. That goes for your humble author- who is trying to convince himself that he can live without toasting anything until Black Friday- and the local baseball club ?s roster. 27-29 has been an awkward tween age for Pirates ? starting pitching in recent years. They aren ?t quite youngsters anymore, but they ?re not veterans yet, either. They ?ve also been used by the Bucs far less in recent years.
Since 2000, there have been 17 individual campaigns where a Pirates pitcher had 3+ RA9-WAR (a variation of pitcher WAR that is based on runs allowed and innings pitched). Only two of those pitchers were between the ages of 27-29 (Jeff Suppan in 2003, Francisco Liriano in 2013). For comparison, approximately 27% of 3+ WAR seasons from starting pitchers across the league this millennium have come from 27-29 year olds. It ?s a small sample size for the Pirates, but they are clearly behind the pace of the rest of the league.
Over the last five seasons, the Pirates have used late-20s starting pitchers for 598 innings pitched. That clocks in at about 13% of the innings their starters have thrown in that time. Meanwhile, the 26 and 30 year old pitchers they’ve employed have combined for over 1,600 IP since then.
In that same time frame across baseball, that age group accounted for roughly 28% of the innings pitched by starters.
25-26 may be considered the ?prime ? years for a starting pitcher, but 27-29 is not far behind. Those are also the years where pitchers go into arbitration and start to get more expensive. Cost and team control was part of the reason they traded Gerrit Cole after his age 26 season. Besides him, the Pirates haven ?t had any pitchers in that age range worth keeping. Take Jeff Locke, for example. He was a bland but good enough number five starter for most of his career. He was also cheap, which is valuable. Most teams can use a cheap back-end of the rotation starter. Most teams can not use a back of the rotation starter who is due to make almost $5 million.
Since 2014, the 27-29 year old pitchers the Pirates have used are Locke (2015, 2016), Vance Worley (2015), Juan Nicasio (2016), Ivan Nova (2016), Jon Niese (2016) and Chris Archer (2018). While Neal Huntington has a history of being gun shy when it comes to investing in veterans, he hasn’t been afraid to target people in their late 20s. The only two who aged into this group are Locke and Worley (who came to the Pirates the season prior).
The problem is the under-30 veterans he has rolled the dice on haven ?t been good. His only real hit was Liriano in 2013. Nicasio was a reliever masquerading as a starter. Niese was a disaster. Archer and Nova were acquired midseason and were in their age 29 seasons at the time of the trade, so they quickly aged out of this grouping. Archer’s first impressions as a Pirate were less than ideal, too.
Those seven seasons by Pirates starters aged 27-29 were valued at a combined 1.1 WAR. Every other Pirate starter in that stretch was worth a total of 45.5 wins above replacement. Over the last five years, there have been 46 individual seasons by a pitcher who made at least one start for the Pirates. Here is how they plot out, based on age, innings pitched and WAR:
That top right corner is for pitchers who gave quantity and quality. It ?s full of young studs and reclamation projects in their 30s. If you ?re lucky, you have a choice between good pitching in a small sample size (2016 Nova) or a replacement level inning eater (2015 Locke). Neither is particularly helpful over a 162 game season, though.
This trend should change in 2019, though. Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams will be turning 27 this year. Nick Kingham and Steven Brault are the next in the line for rotation spots, and they will also be entering their age 27 season. Chad Kuhl will be 27 season when he returns from Tommy John surgery in 2020. All of these pitchers are still pre-arb and the Pirates shouldn ?t be looking to sell for a couple years.
For years, the Pirates have failed to produce, keep or acquire quality starters in their late 20s. The 2019 and 2020 rotations should look very similar to last season ?s, but they will be a different age than we ?ve seen in years.