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Pirates insider: Starting pitchers not holding up their end of innings bargain

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 11:42 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates starting pitcher A.J. Burnett reacts after getting out of a jam against the Cubs Monday , April 1, 2013, at PNC Park.

There are a lot of ways to quantify the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of a starting rotation. You can look at its combined ERA, opponent's batting average, WHIP or any of the more esoteric stats.

One number that usually is quite telling is the average innings pitched per start.

“When you get length from your starters, it's a good thing because it means they're not giving up a lot of hits or a lot of runs,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “It allows the manager to use the bullpen when he wants to, not when he needs to. It's a great recipe for success.”

This year, Pirates pitchers are averaging 5.1 innings per start, which is tied with the New York Mets for lowest in the National League. The league average is 5.8 IP/GS.

In 2010, Pirates starters averaged 5.4 IP/GS. The team lost 105 games. The rotation averaged 5.7 IP/GS in each of the past two years — both of those seasons were marked by a second-half collapse, due in part to an exhausted bullpen.

Over the past 20 years, the NL average for IP/GS has dropped by nearly a half-inning. In 1992, when the Pirates won a third straight division title, they finished right on the NL average of 6.2 IP/GS.

Several factors, including expansion and the emergence of bullpen specialists, have conspired to push down the league average. But this year, the Pirates' starters have nothing to blame but their own ineffectiveness.

Pitching coach Ray Searage constantly challenges his guys to get outs on three or fewer pitches. Quick outs mean low pitch counts. In that regard, a strikeout isn't usually the most efficient form of an out.

A.J. Burnett (1-2) is the NL strikeout leader. He's throwing 103 pitches per start, a typical number for him. But the right-hander's 5.8 IP/GS matches the lowest of his career.

That's not to say it's a bad thing for Burnett to rack up Ks. But every baserunner he allows does the double damage of boosting his pitch count and shortening his outing.

The bullpen, which closer Jason Grilli has dubbed The Shark Tank, has been superb. At the middle of last week, its 1.78 ERA was second-best in the majors. The Pirates' five relief wins were tied for third-most in the NL.

There's every reason to expect that to continue, “as long as you don't have to go to the well too often,” manager Clint Hurdle said.

Through the first 21 games, the Pirates used four or more relief pitchers in a game five times. They used three relievers nine times. And that doesn't include times when relievers warmed up once or twice during a game but were not used.

Perhaps putting veterans Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton into the rotation in a couple of weeks will help. Yet Liriano averaged 5.2 IP/GS last season for the Chicago White Sox; he hasn't been better than 5.5 since 2010. Morton also has been hounded by short outings. And both pitchers are coming off major injuries.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter@BiertempfelTrib.

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