When Chris Archer pitched against the Pittsburgh Pirates in June 2017, he saw in Jameson Taillon a young starter who had good stuff but didn’t yet possess the separator pitch that would make him a major league star.
When Archer joined the Pirates after being acquired from Tampa Bay in a trade-deadline deal late last July, Taillon was on the mound against the Chicago Cubs. By this time, Taillon had unveiled a new pitch Archer hadn’t seen, adding a dimension to his repertoire.
“I saw him throwing something like 90 miles an hour that was slider-ish,” Archer said of the 27-year-old ace. “I was like, ‘This dude’s legit now. He’s not just a young buck with good stuff. He knows what he’s doing.’ ”
That was a peek through the window of progress Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage witnessed with Taillon and fellow starters Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove last season. Searage believes it takes a year to 18 months for a starting pitcher to learn his craft in the majors, and the trio turned that corner to rise to the top of the Pirates’ rotation.
“You have a better idea because they earned their stripes last year,” Searage said. “Those guys have been out there on the bump and have learned so much that I wish you could be in my shoes and see what I saw and how they grew up, from inning to inning and from pitch to pitch. That’s the biggest thing.”
The biggest thing for the Pirates is they have a young pitching staff that knows how to use its stuff. Even better, they added a weapon in Archer that should make the starting rotation — still in search of a fifth starter — the strength of a team coming off an 82-win season.
“I think you see some guys growing up at the big-league level,” Taillon said. “Seriously, every game we throw, we learn something. Every start we make, we’re learning something. The game teaches you. Coming into this year, I feel like there’s a little bit less of that and more of a feeling that we know what we need to do, know what we need to get done and now we need to go do it.”
1. Hey, now
A two-time All-Star who pitched on the same staff as 2018 AL Cy Young award winner Blake Snell with the Rays, Archer projects stardom for Taillon.
So does Searage.
“Jamo could probably be one of the best of the best,” Searage said. “That’s the way I feel from seeing the way he progresses and the way he goes about his business.”
Taillon went about his business to a 14-10 record with a 3.20 ERA and 1.18 WHIP last season in 32 starts last season. He was dominant in the second half, when he allowed three earned runs or fewer in 22 consecutive starts.
Taillon already earned the nod to start Opening Day. Next on his checklist should be a selection to the Midsummer Classic.
“It’d be great to get the recognition,” Taillon said.
“Kind of like I said about Opening Day, I’m not thinking about it when I’m working out, but every kid dreams of playing in an All-Star Game. … It would definitely be somewhere on my goal list.”
2. An encore
Williams considers goal-setting a “tricky” proposition, one that doesn’t work for him.
Where other Pirates pitchers can overpower hitters with heat, Williams relies more on the command of his changeup and slider.
So, he’s not even trying to duplicate his 14-10 record with a 3.11 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. While those numbers are eerily similar to Taillon’s, Williams compiled them without a high strikeout rate.
Williams was 7-3, with a 1.38 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in the second half, when batters slashed .216/.274/.304 against him. Asking Williams if he wants to duplicate his second half is a waste of time.
“I want to make every start,” Williams said. “I can’t have a repeat of the same season that I did last year. That’s impossible. I can either do better or do worse. How much better or how much worse? That’s completely dependent on my performance on the field.”
3. Picking up
Musgrove was ecstatic when the Pirates traded for Archer, a pitcher whose mound presence he finds relatable.
“Me and Archer are similar in our intensity on the mound and our passion that we show,” Musgrove said. “He’s aggressive. He’s an energy ball. When he’s on the mound, he wears off on other people. His energy is infectious and sets the mood for the whole game.”
The passion on the mound made Archer and Musgrove fan favorites at PNC Park, as much for their competitive fire as for their willingness to stand up for his teammates.
Where Archer struggled in August, going 1-2 with a 6.45 ERA and 1.75 WHIP as the Pirates faded from contention, he recovered with a strong September: 2-1, 2.70 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. Searage noticed a difference once Archer got comfortable with catcher Francisco Cervelli and started to show more command in his fastball to set up his slider in his final three starts.
“Once I got my feet on the ground here,” Archer said, “I showed the fan base what I was capable of.”
Musgrove made the transition from starter to reliever with the Astros and back to the rotation for the Pirates, so he studied Taillon and Williams while going 6-9, with a 4.06 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 19 starts last season.
“You’ve got guys like Jamo and Trevor who are more cerebral and composed and almost stoic on the mound. You never can tell what situation they are in if you just see a score on the board,” Musgrove said. “Those are all things you try to pick from. … They set the tone for me, and they set the tone for the series.”
4. Belief in back end
The Pirates have yet to name a fifth starter, though general manager Neal Huntington indicated Jordan Lyles has the “inside track.”
But they have options, with Nick Kingham, Steven Brault or Rookie Davis likely serving a long-relief role. With the Pirates committed to lefty Francisco Liriano making the Opening Day roster, they have experience capable of making spot starts.
One reason the fifth starter is not an overwhelming concern is the strength of the bullpen. A year ago, only closer Felipe Vazquez entered the season with a defined role.
Despite a late May stretch where he blew two leads and two saves, the lefty was electric. Vazquez earned his first All-Star bid, with 89 strikeouts in 70 innings and 37 saves.
“We love watching him throw,” Musgrove said. “You don’t see stuff like that very often, and he comes with it back-to-back nights if he has to. He’s one of the most elite closers in the game, and I’m definitely glad he’s on our side.”
Now, the Pirates have a strong back-end of the bullpen. Vazquez has a strong setup man in Keone Kela, who had 24 saves for the Texas Rangers last season, with Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez serving as a bridge.
“That back end is nasty,” Taillon said. “And you have some guys who are established back there now. Felipe and Keone, they’ve done it enough years that they’re not fluke, one-year guys. They’re legit, both closer, back-end guys. … It’s seriously special.”
5. Banking on pitching
By not adding a power bat to a lineup that will start the season without Gregory Polanco, their home run leader last season, the Pirates are putting a lot of faith in pitching.
They are betting big on Taillon and Williams to build upon a strong second half, on Archer to return to All-Star form, on Musgrove to prove he can be healthy and effective and on the bullpen to be as reliable as it is nasty.
That’s a lot to ask, but not too much to ask of Pirates pitchers.
“You’ve got some guys who aren’t afraid to step up and be leaders and be a strength of this team,” Taillon said. “I feel like we’ve all got that attitude, where we’re all comfortable with some weight on our shoulders.”
Clearly, what the Pirates pitchers lack in experience they make up for with confidence. There is widespread belief on the staff that the starting rotation could be the strongest in the NL Central and the bullpen one of the best in baseball.
“Last year was a good steppingstone for all of us and something for us to build off, but it’s a new year with new expectations and higher expectations,” Musgrove said. “What we did last year was good for us to build some confidence but that was last year. We’ve got to go out and perform and produce.”
Archer offers a reminder that the Pirates only have to pitch to their capabilities, that he has been on both strong pitching staffs and others where it was a coin flip whether they could win.
“Every night, we have a chance to win based off who’s on the mound,” Archer said. “Five nights a week, we’re going to have somebody who is capable of winning the game or at least gives a chance to win.
“If we just keep doing what we can do, we’re going to be playing in October. That’s what we want to do — and not just a wild card. Wild card is not where we want to be. We want to win the division.”
The Pirates pitching staff added weapons. Now they have to prove they are legit.