Zeroes on the board in Boston
Most of the fans will remember the walk-off three-run home run by Sandy Leon and the three-run home run by Andrew Benintendi to cap the Red Sox fifth inning rally on Opening Day. The key numbers here, are the eight runs allowed in 21 innings by the Pirates pitching staff in hitter friendly Fenway Park. Not only that, but the Pirates pitching staff put a zero on the scoreboard in 19 of the 21 innings they pitched there. Following a season in which the Pirates pitching staff saw a sharp decline from 2015 to 2016, recency bias has the baseball world underrating the Pirates pitching staff. The reality is that the Pirates pitching staff has improved dramatically in one area that plagued them last season from the very start. The team’s walk per nine innings pitched rate, was well below expectations after each of their starting pitchers struggled in this area to start last season. While the Pirates finished last season with a very different starting five than they started the season with, injuries and inconsistency never allowed the pitching staff to find their day-to-day rhythm the way they expect to this season. With different personnel on the pitching staff this season, the Pirates are now positioned to be a team that pounds the strike zone, while maintaining some semblance of control over each at-bat. The answer to the question posed in the title, is yes the Pirates pitching staff is poised to exceed expectations, but that is not hard to do with the bar set low due to last season’s results.
Growing pains for a young rotation?
The 2017 season marks year two in the MLB careers of Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow. For some, this signals struggles for the Pirates, because of the league wide precedent that generally accompanies inexperience on a pitching staff. Wildness and poor mechanics are often the undoing of young pitchers around baseball. The good news for Pittsburgh fans, is that neither Kuhl or Taillon have a history of any prolonged issues in these areas. Glasnow is the one pitcher in the Pirates 2017 rotation who could experience some significant growing pains this season, but we will address that after an overview on Taillon and Kuhl. According to fangraphs, Taillon averaged 1.47 walks for every nine innings that he pitched last season. Also according to fangraphs, Kuhl averaged 2.55 walks for every nine innings that he pitched last season. This put these two rookies in a class of their own from a control standpoint, and it allowed them to push the trend of true outcome at bats against them, in their favor. By limiting base runners in such a spectacular fashion, it is unlikely that opposing hitters will collect enough base hits against either Taillon or Kuhl to have their season trend in a negative direction. Both pitchers have had tight mechanics throughout their minor league careers, and it would be out of character for either one of them to suddenly have an extended stretch of wildness.
This brings us to the breakdown of Glasnow’s chances of success this season. Glasnow has created an identity for himself as a professional pitcher, which is that he can rip off a bunch of strikeouts in a row, but also issue a bunch of free passes. This spring, Glasnow experienced plenty of growing pains in the month of March alone. Glasnow went through a stretch where he was asked to get his fastball command as sharp as possible before moving on to using his off-speed pitches. This led to him giving up a lot of hits, but also helped him to find the arm slot that he is looking for to start the season. Since he is accustomed to dominating hitters with one or two pitches, he may face some of the same unevenness that Gerrit Cole has experienced when throwing his fastball a high percentage of the time early this season. This does not mean he will not have a successful season in his second chance to get a look at MLB hitters. Throughout his minor league career, Glasnow has found a way to adjust while doing enough to advance through each level of the Pirates system. His ability to induce swings and misses, will ultimately allow for him to develop into an effective pitcher at the MLB level.
Is Gerrit Cole an Ace pitcher?
Pirates fans have been quick to write off Cole following his fifth inning struggles on Opening Day, and coming off an injury-filled 2016 campaign. Cole has an elite fastball, and he has shown that he will live and die while using that pitch a high percentage of the time. This has been his downfall in some of his rough outings, because MLB hitters will catch up to a fastball if they see it enough. Cole knows this however, and as an ace pitcher who is the leader of the Pirates pitching staff, he is prepared to make the necessary adjustments. Cole is now prepared to show batters a strong four-pitch mix now that he has established his fastball around the league as one of the best. 2015 was not a fluke year for the Pirates 26-year-old ace. He is prepared to give the team 200 or more innings again at the top of their rotation, while striking out nearly a batter per inning. Cole has been known for his slow starts to the season, and people were ready to write him off as a potential ace in 2015 when he went only five innings in his first outing of that season. Gerrit Cole’s fiery personality and the loss in the 2015 NL Wildcard game, have some people rooting against him. He is healthy to start the 2017 season however, and he is fully prepared to help lead the way to Pirates pitching greatness this season.
Will they exceed expectations?
I believe the Pirates pitching staff will exceed expectations in 2017, because they will be among the league leaders for fewest walks in 2017. Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke and Jonathan Niese all walked a significant number of hitters for the Pirates last season. All three of those pitchers are gone to start the 2017 season, and the Pirates are left with four starters who all do a fantastic job of limited the base on balls. That alone gives the Pirates pitching staff a head start towards exceeding expectations throughout the 2017 season, and Glasnow’s presence at the back end of the rotation will not be enough to bring down their ranks among the league’s best strike throwers. With Ivan Nova bringing veteran leadership along with bridging the gap between the top of the Pirates rotation and their youngest starting pitchers, the Pirates are poised to once again vault to the top of the pitching leader boards. The Pirates starting rotation will also better serve the team this season by often skipping the need for middle relief in ball games, with efficient outings that last at least seven innings. This will keep the bullpen well rested, along with giving the Pirates a much better chance to earn a win in each game that they compete in. With a strong back end of the bullpen, and a rotation full of young horses, the Pirates pitching staff is definitely poised to exceed expectations in the 2017 season.