This season for the Pirates was bound to be a special one. As fans, we were optimistic about Gerrit Cole returning to his 2015 form, and we were excited to see some new faces in the rotation for an extended period of time.
New faces such as Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Tyler Glasnow and Ivan Nova were all going to get full seasons in the Pirates rotation. There were so many questions surrounding this staff—Would Cole be himself again? Would Nova sustain his elite, post-trade form? Could Taillon stay healthy for a full season and potentially pitch 200 innings? With the sad news that filled the Pirates fan-base yesterday, we will more than likely not be able to see Jameson surpass that mark this season. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Jameson and his family during this time and a full recovery should be the main focus. The other questions stated above have surely not been answered with the season still being so young, but we can definitely look at the progress that is being made.
If you have followed the Pirates closely for the past few years, you know that Ray Searage likes the members of his pitching staff to use the 2-seam fastball. This is due largely in part to the spin rate of the staff not being a strong suit. Based on the amount of shifts that the team has been using, I’m sure that Dan Fox and Ray Searage have a reason for this method, but as of now let me explain what spin rates do for a pitcher.
High spin rate (SR) pitchers have their pros and cons. In most cases, when velocity is paired with spin rate, the result is a high strikeout pitcher. These pitchers also induce a high amount of fly balls, which consequently means that they will give up more extra base hits than a ground ball pitcher. When a pitching staff is constructed of mostly fly ball pitchers, it is important to have a good outfield defense in order to minimize these extra-base hits. Below is a graph representing the fly ball percentages for 4-seam fastballs with different spin rates.
You can see that as the Revolutions Per Minutes (RPM’s) increase, so do the fly-ball percentages. I have highlighted the league average RPM’s (2264) in red for a reference point.
Pitchers with low spin rates are usually ground ball dependent pitchers. When a pitch is thrown with less spin, the effect of gravity on the pitch is greater. This gravitational effect will give the pitch more vertical movement. In most cases, pitchers with low spin rates will not get as many strikeouts as pitchers with high spin rates. However, they induce more ground balls, which will result in a reduction of extra-base hits. It is more important for them to focus on efficiency and keep the ball low in the zone to prevent extra base hits. Leaving a low spin fastball up in the zone will more than likely result in an unfavorable outcome for the pitcher. Below is a graph representing the ground ball percentages for 4-seam fastballs with different RPM’s.
You can see that as the Revolutions Per Minute decrease, the ground ball percentage increases. I have highlighted the league average RPM’s from 2016 in red.
So where do the Pirates stand in all of this? As I mentioned earlier in the article, through the past few years the staff has rarely used the 4-seamer. The Pirates staff has below average guys when it comes to spin rates, but that does NOT mean that they will be less effective than other Major league pitching staffs.
Cole, Glasnow, and Nova (who I will take a more in-depth look at later in the article) are the only pitchers in the starting rotation who have used their 4-seam fastball as their primary pitch so far in 2017. Cole’s spin rate has been much higher than it was last year. In 2016 his 4-seamer sat around 2,161 rmp’s, but through six starts this year the spin rate on his 4-seamer is at about 2,659 rpm’s. The average spin rate around the MLB in 2016 for a 4-seam fastball was 2,264 rpm’s, so Cole is much above average in his start to 2017. Although Cole’s spin rate will eventually come down a bit, it is great to see this type of increase from him. This has translated to more fly balls for Cole to start the season, as well as, more strikeouts. On the other hand, Glasnow is sitting at 2,441 rpm’s which directly correlates to his high strikeout totals in Triple-A last season. If he can figure out his control problems, he will become a gem of the Pirates organization.
Nova and Taillon are the low spin guys on the Pirates rotation. They are usually pitchers who heavily use the 2-seam fastball. They thrive on efficiency and focus on ground ball rates. In the past, Nova has not been a high strikeout pitcher, but will definitely be a great arm (at a great price) for the Pirates this season. Taillon has the capability to have a good K/9 ratio due to his arching curveball that we saw in full effect against the Cubs during his April 16th start. Unfortunately, due to Taillon’s new of his surgery for suspected testicular cancer, it’s unknown when we’ll see Taillon back on the mound.
While I was preparing this article, I ran into something very interesting. Previously, Nova has been a low spin pitcher who pounds the bottom of the zone with his 2-seamer. However, in his last three starts he has increased his 4-seam usage and his spin rate is way up. This is something we have not seen in Nova since he joined the Pirates in 2016. During his starts on April 23rd and April 29th, he averaged seven strikeouts and 3.5 hits. He has been great since joining the Pirates last season, but has was elite during those two starts. Although he was hit hard against the Reds in his last start, he showed elite upside in April. If he can keep that up, his $28 million deal will go down as one of the best signings in recent Pirates history. Below, I have attached 3 photos of heat-maps representing his 4-seam usage from three of his starts this season.
When taking a look at these heat-maps, it is easy to recognize that through the past couple weeks Nova has been increasing his 4-seam usage. This is contrary to previous versions of Ivan Nova that we have seen. I will definitely be keeping an eye on this as the season progresses.
Chad Kuhl’s arsenal is one to keep an eye on as well. He relies heavily on his sinker and his secondary pitch is a slider. When his sinker is on, it’s a great pitch for him, but when it’s off, he runs into a plethora of problems. Through the minors he was very ground ball dependent, but so far during his time in the Majors those numbers have not translated. In a way, he is a mixed bag. Half of the time his results are ground balls and the other half of the time they are fly balls. He has the capability to be a great No. 4 or 5 arm in the Pirates rotation, but he has to start being more consistent.
From all of this information one can see that the Pirates rotation is made up of pitchers who pitch differently. Certain guys focus on different ways to retire batters. We have seen the defense struggle early on in 2017, and it’s hard to be optimistic about it getting much better. Our ground ball pitchers are running into errors from the infield, and our fly ball pitchers are running into errors from the outfield. One of the reasons for this is because our gold glove center fielder is out for the huge part of the season and we do not really have an answer at shortstop.
When Nova (unless he keeps using his 4-seamer the way we have seen him the past couple weeks) and Taillon are on the mound, it is important to have a good shortstop and a good second baseman backing him up. They are ground ball pitchers, and it is necessary to have players in the infield who are going to swallow up the majority of balls that come their way. At second base, we actually have a pretty good defender in Josh Harrison. In 2016, Harrison had eight Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) while playing second base. This is very encouraging, especially since he’s posting a 133 wRC+ so far this season.
Mercer used to have a great glove, but recently he has been a liability for us. In 2014, he saved the team 9 runs, in 2015 he didn’t save the team any runs, and in 2016 he LOST the team 9 runs. This is not ideal, especially when paired with the fact that he is currently batting .223. To put his defensive struggles into perspective, Addison Russell saved his team 19 runs last year. The Pirates have an intriguing option in Gift Ngoepe. He is an excellent defender, but his minor league strikeout totals were through the roof. No, he will not be on Addison Russell level, but I could see him saving the team around 10 runs if he played full-time at shortstop. Gift has been hot so far in his time in the Majors, but it is a very small sample size. Until the strikeout totals start racking up, I think he should get a legitimate chance. If he could somehow manage to produce a .300 OBP (just slightly lower than Mercer’s OBP), I feel as if he could be a contributing factor for the Pirates this season.
The pitchers mentioned above have different styles than Cole and Glasnow. These two pitchers are the high spin rate starters on the team and they induce a high amount of fly balls. This is a problem when your gold glove centerfielder is out for 80 games and gets replaced by Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen’s defense has been among the worst in the entire MLB. He had a -28 DRS last season, which puts him in the bottom of the league. Polanco isn’t bad defensively, but he isn’t great. Cole is doing his job, he is getting fly balls and the outfield is not supporting him. Granted, he is still inducing a good amount of ground balls, but a fly ball percentage around 36.2% would most likely finish inside the top 30 pitchers in terms of FB%. Glasnow has shown horrible control, but has definitely shown some improvements. In the minors he was fly ball dependent, so once he figures his game out in the Majors, he will again be fly ball dependent.
The Pirates are good at developing pitchers, but it is necessary to have a defense that is capable of supporting the pitchers that are developed. Fly ball pitchers need good outfielders, and ground ball pitchers need good infielders. Obviously, it is not as easy as it sounds, but I feel as if the Pirates could benefit from focusing on one pitching mold. Furthermore, building a defense and farm system around that mold would increase the efficiency of the pitching staff. For example, if they went with fly ball pitchers, then draft players who swallow up balls in the outfield. If they went with ground ball pitchers, they could fill their farm system with great defensive infielders.
It is so frustrating to see Pirates pitchers do their job to induce a routine fly ball or a routine ground ball and watch a position player make an error. The Pirates pitching staff is doing great so far this season, but their defense has not done much to help. However, it is very encouraging to see the young arms on the team show signs of growth regardless of the type of pitching they are using.