On Wednesday, I took a look at the Pirates’ position players to see which ones had brighter days in their future. Today we’ll run through the same process with the pitching staff.
As with the hitters, we’ll be using BABIP in this article. As a refresher, BABIP (Batting Average of Balls In Play) takes homers and strikeouts out of the equation to evaluate a player. The league-wide average is typically .290 to .300, but I always like to look at a particular player’s BABIP history, as well.
We’ll also be discussing LOB%, which stands for Left On Base percentage (also known as Strand Rate). For a starter, LOB% is usually around 70% and for a reliever it is around 80%. I’ll be comparing a pitcher’s current LOB% to his career rates in order to determine how lucky/unlucky he’s been so far.
And finally, I’m comparing a pitcher’s ERA to his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) rate. FIP is a good “groundtruthing” mechanism to determine regression/progression potential — it evaluates a pitcher on what he can control (strikeouts, walks, and homers) to factor out great or poor defense behind him.
Gerrit Cole, RHP — The 2015 season has seen Cole begin to ascend to his potential ace-hood status as we hoped he would earlier this year. Through seven starts, Cole has a 2.32 ERA and 2.64 FIP, indicating that his performance has not been influenced (positively or negatively) by the defense behind him. Gerrit Cole’s peripherals are all outstanding career-bests across the board — 9.49 strikeouts/9 innings, 2.53 walks/9 innings, 0.42 homers/9 innings, and a 55.3% ground ball rate.
Cole’s K rate puts him in 9th among NL starters and his groundball rate is 7th, meaning that Cole is in the sweet spot of being able to either strike a batter out or induce a grounder to get his defense to do the work. Less line drives means less chance of extra-base hits or homers. All of the peripherals, plus Cole’s .301 BABIP and 78.4 LOB%, indicate that none of this is a fluke.
VERDICT — Cole appears to be capable of continuing his dominant season.
Francisco Liriano, LHP — The re-signing of Liriano for 3 yr/$39M is looking more and more like a steal of a deal for the Pirates. So far this season, Liriano is striking out batters at a rate of 10.24 K/9, a level he hasn’t seen since his 10.71 K/9 in 2006. His ERA of 2.79 as compared to his 3.55 FIP indicate that he is getting some help from his defense, probably because Liriano is walking 3.72 per 9 innings so far.
Liriano’s BABIP of .186 is well below his career rate of .298 and he is giving up 0.93 homers per 9 innings, so some regression is in the forecast. However, Liriano will still provide the Pirates an excellent #2-caliber performance. Hopefully, he can eclipse the 161 IP threshold that he hasn’t been able to do in his first two seasons as a Pirate.
VERDICT — Liriano will regress towards his FIP rate of around 3.50, most likely
A.J. Burnett, RHP — Burnett just wanted to come home, apparently. Last year was derailed by his groin injury and pitching for a terrible Phillies team. Back in comfortable surroundings (where he’s cheered when he flies out to the warning track), Burnett is putting up stunning numbers through his first seven starts.
1.60 ERA, a walk rate of 2.60/9 IP that is his lowest since 2006, and a 0.40 HR/9 IP.
None of this is sustainable, of course, as Burnett has a ridiculously high left on base rate of 87.7% and an FIP of 3.07. But A.J. Burnett’s curveball has never looked better in his split tenure as a Pirate, even as his fastball is only averaging 91 mph so far.
VERDICT — Burnett will regress quite a bit, but what he has already given the Pirates is amazing for only $8.5M this year.
Jeff Locke, LHP — Locke’s three basic rate stats of 6.44 K/9, 2.72 BB/9, and 0.74 HR/9 are roughly in line with his career rates. However, Locke’s 4.71 ERA and 3.79 FIP indicate that he has pitched better than the results have shown so far. Part of that could be his .315 BABIP (above his .286 career rate) or his slightly low 65.5 LOB%.
Locke is still inducing ground balls at a very impressive 52.3%, good for 15th highest in the National League among starters.
VERDICT — Locke will improve slightly.
Vance Worley, RHP — Worley’s rate stats are pedestrian so far this year — 5.91 K/9 and 3.34 BB/9 — and his ERA of 4.63 is nothing to write home about. But like Locke, Worley’s FIP of 3.70 and BABIP of .339 (career rate of .320) indicate that better days are ahead.
VERDICT — Worley should improve slightly, if he remains in the rotation when Charlie Morton returns.
I’m not going to detail every member of the bullpen, but rather highlight the three key members.
Mark Melancon, RHP — Melancon will be the subject of an article next week, but suffice it to say that there are some alarming factors. Melancon‘s strikeout rate of 5.28 K/9 is nearly three strikeouts lower than his career rate of 8.27 K/9. Just as worse, his HR/9 rate of 1.17 is double his career rate (0.57 HR/9) and far above his HR/9 rates from his first two Pirate seasons (0.13 HR/9 in 2013, 0.25 HR/9 in 2014).
Melancon’s 4.11 ERA is roughly in line with his 4.46 FIP. His BABIP of .304 and LOB% of 75.6 both indicate that this is what Melancon is.
VERDICT — This appears to be the new normal for Melancon.
Tony Watson, LHP — After a few early rough outings (par for the course for Watson in April), Tony Watson has settled into his typical dominant self. His 1.89 ERA versus his 3.11 FIP indicate there will be some regression, mostly because his BABIP is a miniscule .200 and his LOB% is 89.3. However, even with a touch of regression, Watson is an elite reliever with a penchant for getting ground balls.
A lefty reliever that can gas it at 93-94 is a special commodity. If Melancon continues to struggle, Watson will be next in line for the closer role.
VERDICT — There will be regression, but not a lot for Watson.
Jared Hughes, RHP — Jared Hughes has evolved into an extremely valuable piece of the Pirates’ bullpen. His heavy 2-seam fastball induces scads of ground balls (58.3% GB rate) and a beefed-up slider has caused his K rate to skyrocket from 5.04 K/9 last year to 9.37 K/9 this year.
Essentially, he’s the fireman that Hurdle uses to get out of whatever hairy situation he deems necessary at a key juncture. His 2.20 ERA and 1.61 FIP show that there is ample room for improvement (scary) mostly due to a double-take-inducing BABIP of .438 (!). That is bound to drop, just by sheer math.
VERDICT — Hughes will improve as the season progresses.