3 things Pirates pitchers will need to happen in 2019
Oddsmakers and media analysts aren’t overly bullish on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ chances to make the playoffs. But if the Pirates qualify for the postseason for a fourth time since 2013, it will be a sneaky-good pitching staff that carries them there.
MLB.com recently named the top 10 starting rotations and top 10 bullpens in baseball. The Pirates were on each list (No. 3 bullpen, No. 7 starters), one of only five teams to have that distinction.
Last season, starters Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams finished among the top nine in the National League in ERA. Fellow starter Chris Archer is among the top 22 of active pitchers in ERA and WHIP (walks and hits allowed per inning pitched). No. 4 starter Joe Musgrove had an FIP (fielding-independent pitching) of 3.59 that would have ranked among the top 30 in baseball had he thrown enough innings to qualify.
In other words, you can talk yourself into believing the starters will be good. For the relievers, that’s even easier. The Pirates have four legitimate, late-inning shutdown arms.
Potentially, at least. Plenty could go wrong to thwart the Pirates’ plans for run prevention and their path to the playoffs. A look at three things the Pirates pitching staff needs to fall its way in 2019:
1. ’Pen is mightier?
In 251⅔ innings between them last season, Felipe Vazquez, Keone Kela, Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez allowed fewer baserunners (289 hits and walks) than they had strikeouts (308). If they again can combine for more than 11 strikeouts per nine innings and post an aggregate 1.15 WHIP, rest assured the Pirates will win many games in which they carry a lead into the sixth inning.
General manager Neal Huntington has earned reputation for assembling groups of relievers that keep the Pirates bullpen strong. But part of what has made Huntington appear so shrewd might be his downfall this season.
A tenet of the Pirates’ bullpen philosophy has been: A reliever who is great one season might not be the next — and vice versa. The Pirates have exploited this for many seasons, buying low on quality arms. Could this be the year their proven commodities have some hiccups? The track records largely suggest this won’t be the case, but you never know.
2. Error Jordan?
The Pirates saved about $7 million by dumping Ivan Nova as their fifth starter and turning to Jordan Lyles. The organization believes Lyles is poised for a breakthrough after tweaking his pitch selection last season, and they point to strong 2018 statistical peripherals.
The Pirates’ track record for pitcher reclamation projects over the past decade is among the best in the industry. But Lyles has been mostly disappointing throughout his MLB career (5.28 ERA, 4.50 FIP, 1.46 WHIP), posting metrics that have ranked well below league average.
Lyles might not be ready to make his first start because of a nagging spring-training injury, and his exhibition statistics aren’t inspiring (5.06 ERA, .313 opponent average, 1.56 WHIP).
Of course, that doesn’t mean Lyles won’t be a reliable No. 5 starter. How he pans out, though, could have a significant impact on the season.
3. Golden Archer
About five months before they signed Lyles, the Pirates took a chance on Archer. The trade for the veteran right-hander sent three high-profile prospects to the Tampa Bay Rays — the type of compensation that suggests the Pirates expected ace-level performance.
And while he embraced the team and its fans off the field, Archer, for the most part, did not hold up his end of the bargain on it. In 10 starts for the Pirates, he had a 4.30 ERA, 1.36 WHIP and was graded as a below-average MLB pitcher by baseball-reference.com’s “ERA+” all-encompassing metric.
Even more troubling for the Pirates, Archer’s finish didn’t differ dramatically from how he performed over the previous three seasons. That might suggest this is the pitcher he is at this stage of his career.
But Archer got better as he settled in to the National League (2.70 ERA, .217 opponent average in September), and the Pirates believe a full season in the NL will allow him to shine.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .