Pirates opt for new model for pitching reclamation projects
BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pirates have built a reputation. They fix pitchers.
The list of fixer-upper starting pitchers is a familiar one and includes: A.J. Burnett (twice), Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez and J.A. Happ.
But until this spring, the Pirates fixed a particular type of starting pitcher. They identified arms with plus velocity and swing-and-miss pitches and improved their command.
Burnett (knuckle-curve), Liriano (slider), and Volquez (change-up) all came with strikeout-inducing pitches and low- to mid-90s velocity. Pitching coach Ray Searage and company smoothed their mechanics and helped them throw strikes.
Production and lucrative multi-year free agent deals followed.
In part because the market for starting pitchers “blew up” this offseason, according to Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, the Pirates targeted a new type of reclamation project starting pitcher — a seemingly higher-floor, lower-upside variety.
The Pirates signed Ryan Vogelsong, who is competing for the final rotation spot, to a one-year, $2 million deal. Vogelsong’s fastball averaged 91.1 mph, and he missed bats at a 6 percent rate last season.
The Pirates traded second baseman Neil Walker for left-hander Jon Niese, who is a lock for the rotation despite striking out 5.7 batters per nine innings last season, well below the league average. Niese has a fastball that averages 89 mph and a 5.8 percent swinging-strike rate.
The only Pirates pitchers to have a sub-7 percent swinging strike rate since 2014? Casey Sadler, Vance Worley and Brandon Cumpton.
Only two Pirates starting pitchers since 2013 have thrown fastballs averaging less than 90 mph, Wandy Rodriguez and Worley.
“I’d love to sit here and tell you we have one model and acquire players to fit the model, but we don’t,” Huntington said during the offseason. “Jonathan might be of a different style than pitchers we acquired in the past. … But if you only stick to (one model) especially at the major league level, especially given how the market has evolved, you are really going to limit your options.”
After a formidable top of the rotation in Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, the back of the rotation is littered with question marks.
Huntington announced Tuesday that left-hander Jeff Locke will open in the rotation, leaving Vogelsong and Juan Nicasio to compete for the final spot.
“We saw a good first half from Vogelsong, and there are things we think we can help him with,” Huntington said. “We saw a good first half from Niese, there’s some things we can help him with.
“And Jeff Locke, again, has put together extended stretches that are very good, and how do we help him?
“It’s that combination of subjective and objective, of what your analysts think, what your scouts think and what your coaches can go apply. We think with those three guys, we’ll come up pretty well.”
The Pirates could help Vogelsong and Niese throw more strikes.
Vogelsong walked more batters per nine innings last season (3.87) since he was with the Pirates in 2005. Niese’s walk rate was above his career average last season.
Nicasio is more like prior reclamation projects because he has a mid-90s fastball and a slider that can miss bats.
But Nicasio could help the staff in another way — as a power-armed, multi-innings reliever, a role the Pirates plan to take advantage of to lessen the exposure and innings of the back end of their rotation.
“That’s why we are consciously putting together a bullpen with multiple guys that can go multiple innings to allow Clint (Hurdle) to go get that starting pitcher,” Huntington said.
Starting pitcher production typically drops off after two trips through a batting order.
The Pirates would welcome a back-end starter to exceed expectations like Burnett and Happ did a year ago. They essentially filled one rotation spot with a five wins-above-replacement season.
The best bet in the back of the rotation? Perhaps it’s Locke. He has hit 94 mph this spring, rare velocity for a southpaw. He has three pitches.
However, Locke rarely has put it all together. He has worked with Searage since January on developing a more over-the-top delivery, a similar arm slot that helped Liriano.
“We’ve seen him good in different halves, we’ve seen him good in stretches,” Hurdle said. “He wants to take the next step, and it’s not about potential anymore, it’s about consistency.”