Pittsburgh Pirates 2011 Position Recap: The Rotation

Morton had a 3.83 ERA in 2011.

Perhaps no position reflected the ups and downs of the 2011 season more than the starting rotation.  Coming in to the 2011 season, the rotation was looked upon as the biggest weakness of the team.  The priority over the off-season was to upgrade the rotation, with a lot of fans feeling that the rotation had as many as four spots open.  Charlie Morton was coming off a disaster of a year.  Paul Maholm didn’t post good numbers either.  Jeff Karstens had some of the best numbers on the staff, but was still close to a 5.00 ERA.  James McDonald and Ross Ohlendorf were the only two guys that came in to the 2011 season with good results in 2010.

The Pirates added Kevin Correia over the off-season, but largely stuck with the same rotation they had to finish the 2010 season.  Heading in to the 2011 season, the only difference was that Kevin Correia had replaced Jeff Karstens, although Karstens would quickly move back in to the rotation once Ross Ohlendorf went down with an injury.

Despite the worries that the rotation would be the team’s biggest weakness, it actually proved to be the biggest strength.  For the first half of the year, almost every rotation member was performing well, to the point where some were performing over their heads.  Because of the strong pitching – which included a stretch of more than two weeks where the team saw their starters go at least six innings, while allowing two or fewer runs – the Pirates were actually considered contenders, even jumping in to sole possession of first place in mid-July.

I wrote in early July about how the Pirates could expect a regression from their pitching staff, due to most of the members pitching over their heads.  It’s not that the Pirates had bad rotation members.  They just weren’t as good as the numbers showed.  Unfortunately for the Pirates, this turned out to be true, and the team saw a massive decline in the final two months of the season, mostly due to the regression from the pitching staff.

Jeff Karstens was probably the rotation member that saw the biggest “luck factor”.  He had a 2.28 ERA after his start on July 20th, but that came as a result of extremely lucky numbers, including a strand rate in the mid-80% range.  The league average for starters is 70%, which means that Karstens was stranding an unsustainable amount of base runners.  His success didn’t last, as he posted a 6.04 ERA after July 20th, with the big impact being a 3.1 inning start where he allowed nine runs on nine hits against the San Diego Padres.

Paul Maholm had similar results, with a 2.96 ERA after his start on July 10th.  He was benefitting from a Batting Average Per Balls in Play that was in the .250 range.  The league average for starters is around .300.  Sure enough, Maholm regressed, with a 5.75 ERA after his start on July 10th, and was eventually shut down with a minor shoulder injury.  His BABIP during that stretch was .382, which was to the other extreme of the luck scale.

Charlie Morton wasn’t really posting unsustainable numbers in mid-July, although that was due to a regression in June.  On June 4th, Morton had an ERA of 2.52.  The big thing with Morton was that his home run per fly ball ratio was low, around the 5% mark, when the league average is around 10% for starters.  Morton struggled in June, with an 8.50 ERA in four starts.  He got an extended period of rest, then bounced back with a 2.85 ERA through mid-August.  From that point forward he imploded, with a 5.63 ERA from August 25th to the end of the season.  Morton’s overall 3.83 ERA is about what you could expect from him going forward.  He also underwent hip surgery recently, and you have to wonder how much that played a role in his inconsistencies, especially when, as Wilbur pointed out a few weeks ago, his results improved considerably based on the amount of rest he saw between starts.

Kevin Correia was like Morton, in that he saw a regression before mid-July.  Correia held a 4.04 ERA through his start on July 17th, but was hit hard after that, with a 7.76 ERA in his final six starts, before being placed on the disabled list for the remainder of the year.  Around early July, Correia was seeing a lucky BABIP rate, which regressed to a .346 mark in his final six starts.  Overall he provided value for a $4 M a year free agent pitcher.  To get a guy who can post an ERA in the 4.00 range through mid-July, and just pay $4 M for him is a huge bargain.  There are those that doubt whether Correia can do this again.  There are some who discount his month of April, while putting a lot of emphasis on his struggles at the end of the year.  Correia’s xFIP this year was 4.38.  That’s where I see his skill level going forward, which makes him a strong number four starter, when you consider that the league average for number four starters in 2010 was a 4.62 ERA.

Finally there was James McDonald, who took a different approach than the other rotation members.  McDonald actually improved in the second half, going from an ERA in the 4.40 range in early July, to a 4.21 ERA at the end of the season.  McDonald suffered an injury in Spring Training, but was able to start the season in Pittsburgh, despite missing several starts and not getting fully stretched out for the season.    That could explain why he gave up 21 earned runs in 18.2 innings over his first four starts, followed by a 3.49 ERA in 152.1 innings the remainder of the season.  A big issue with McDonald was that he didn’t go deep in to games.  He only pitched beyond the 6th inning eight times in 31 starts, and only went in to the eighth inning once.  That’s mostly due to his strikeout numbers, and the fact that he uses more pitches than normal to get a strikeout.

The 2011 rotation stayed healthy for the first four months of the season, with Ross Ohlendorf being the only injury.  They started falling apart in August, with Maholm and Correia spending time on the disabled list.  That allowed other starters to step in, and the move to a six man rotation in September opened up an additional spot.

Getting the most starts was Ross Ohlendorf, who was disappointing this year, with an 8.15 ERA in 38.2 innings.  I wouldn’t count Ohlendorf out based on the numbers.  He had an ERA in the 4.00 range the previous two seasons, although his xFIP shows that he’s more of an average number four starter.  I would count him out based on his injury history, after seeing him combine for just 30 starts the past two seasons.  It wouldn’t be surprising if the Pirates non-tender him this off-season.

Brad Lincoln got a shot in the rotation, and put up some good numbers.  In eight starts he posted a 4.29 ERA, spanning 42 innings, with a 24:14 K/BB ratio.  His numbers were inflated by a 1.2 inning performance in September where he allowed six earned runs on eight hits.  His overall performance could be worthy of a rotation spot out of Spring Training in 2012.

Jeff Locke also got his first shot at the majors, but displayed some control issues, and put up a 6.48 ERA in four starts, showing that he might need to open the 2012 season in AAA before getting another shot at the majors.  Brian Burres got a few starts, and Aaron Thompson made one start, although neither really profiles as a future member of the rotation.

The 2012 Rotation

The 2011 season was split for pretty much every pitcher in the rotation.  Most of the pitchers put up strong performances for the first four months, and struggled in the final two months, either with poor performances, injuries, or both.  Some will want to focus on the final two months as legit, and write off the first four months of the season as a fluke, despite the fact that the “fluke” took place in a four month time span.  Some will point to the first four months as an indication of what each pitcher could do going forward.  I think the truth lies in the overall result.

The 2011 rotation saw a lot of their members over-perform in the first half, then under-perform in the second half.  Rather than giving credit to one individual half, we should look at the body of work.  My preference is to look at the xFIP numbers, which is a good indicator of future performance.

The 2011 starters, ranked in order based on xFIP, were Jeff Karstens (4.01), Paul Maholm (4.03), Charlie Morton (4.08), Kevin Correia (4.37), and James McDonald (4.46).  Brad Lincoln was also in there with a 4.09 xFIP in his time as a starter.  The only number there I don’t trust is McDonald, as I think his month of April inflated that number.  I think he’s closer to the 3.98 xFIP that we saw out of him in 2010.

Looking at the numbers, most of the starters profile as a number three or number four starter.  Last year, when I calculated the league average ERAs, I found that the league average for a number three starter was a 4.15 ERA.  The league average for a top 15 rotation was a 3.73 ERA.  A number two starter in a bottom 15 rotation was a 3.91 ERA.  The Pirates don’t have anyone who profiles as a league average number one or number two starter, but they’ve got a rotation full of guys who profile as number three starters.

Heading in to the 2012 season, the Pirates have Morton, Karstens, McDonald, and Correia under contract.  Morton, Karstens, and McDonald seem like locks for the rotation.  That leaves two open spots.  Brad Lincoln certainly did enough in the final two months to be deserving of one of those spots, which means one spot should be open heading in to the off-season.

We’ve heard a lot recently about how the Pirates don’t plan on bringing Paul Maholm back in 2012.  Maholm is a good pitcher, and in my opinion, is worth his $9.75 M option price, although that price is more on the high end of his value scale.  A big thing to consider is that, while Maholm is good, it might be easier to get his production at a cheaper price than $9.75 M.  The Pirates have a lot of options.  It’s not just “Maholm’s option or Kevin Correia”.  If they’re willing to spend $9 M on Maholm, then they’re opening the doors to plenty of other pitchers who can do what Maholm does.

Regardless of what the Pirates do, they have one position to fill in the rotation this off-season.  I expect Karstens, McDonald, and Morton to be around a 4.00 ERA.  I think it’s too soon to say that Lincoln will be at that level, but it’s also not out of the question, based on how he pitched in 2011.  If they add someone like Maholm, or bring Maholm back through free agency, they could have a staff full of guys working around a 4.00 ERA.  To put that in perspective, the top 15 rotations in 2010 averaged a 3.90 ERA.  A rotation full of #3 pitchers would put the Pirates in the 9-15 range in the majors.

As for depth, we probably won’t see the same fortune we saw in 2011, with a lack of injuries to the rotation members.  Keeping Kevin Correia, and using him out of the bullpen to start the year would be a good option, as he could step in as a number six starter when needed.  He could also fill in during the first few weeks of the season while Morton is rehabbing from his hip injury, which should keep him out until mid-April.

In the minors, the Pirates have the 2010 Altoona rotation, with Jeff Locke being the top candidate right now.  Locke needs more time in AAA, but might be ready by May, if needed.  I also wouldn’t count out a rebound season from Rudy Owens.  Kyle McPherson will be making the jump to the AAA level next year, after being named the organization’s pitcher of the year in 2011.  That should give the Pirates some depth in 2012, should they face injury issues early in the year.

The Future

The 2012 Pirates won’t see a number one, or even a number two starter in the rotation.  That’s not the case for future teams.  The minor league system has seen four guys added in the last year with top of the rotation potential.  The top two guys are Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, who should both start in high-A in 2012.  Cole and Taillon are very similar pitchers.  They both throw in the mid-to-upper 90s with their fastballs, and both have outstanding breaking pitches.  Taillon has an outstanding curveball, while Cole has a hard slider in the upper 80s/lower 90s.  They should both be free to use their full arsenal in 2012, which will could allow each to finish the season at the AA level, giving them a shot at AAA and the majors in 2013.

Lower in the system, the Pirates have two projects in Luis Heredia and Stetson Allie.  Heredia was the top pitching prospect out of Mexico in 2010, and signed with the Pirates for $2.6 M.  He’s got a long way to the majors, but has flashed a mid-90s fastball at the age of 16, and shows the makings of four plus pitches.  Allie is older than Heredia, but is also a project.  He didn’t start pitching until his senior year of high school, but has hit triple digits in the past.  The problem is that his control is poor, mostly due to his inexperience, which has led to a lack of a consistent delivery and release point.  The Pirates have been working on that, and Allie showed some improvements throughout the 2011 season, although he’s still a project.  He’s less of a safe bet than Cole/Taillon, but he’s got a lively fastball, and a plus slider, which means you can’t just write him off yet.

The Pirates have also added a lot of high school pitchers with projectable frames throughout the last few drafts.  We’ve seen some early success from a few of these pitchers, with two of the big success stories coming from Nick Kingham and Colton Cain.  The results won’t happen overnight with the high school pitchers, as the Pirates have a pretty steady development plan for each player.  In year one, the pitchers start in extended Spring Training, then move to State College, mostly focused on fastball command.  In year two they move up to full season ball in West Virginia, focusing on getting adjusted to a full season of pitching, and working on using their secondary pitches in favorable counts.

The 2012 season should give us a view of how the pitchers will progress from that point forward.  Most of the high school pitchers were taken in the 2009 draft class, and those pitchers are expected to make the jump to high-A Bradenton in 2012.  There’s a chance that they could move up to Altoona by the end of the year, although I think that would take some very solid results, sort of rivaling what guys like Kyle McPherson have done to get moved up from high-A to AA.

The system is largely built around the top arms, although there’s a lot of depth making their way up from the lower levels.  It’s rare for a farm system to have four arms of the quality of Cole, Taillon, Heredia, and Allie.  If just one of the prep pitchers from the 2009-2011 draft classes emerges as a top of the rotation starter, it will be a huge bonus for the system.

  • Morton, McDonald and Karstens all, basically, finished their first full year of pitching.  These guys have upside, and I expect them to improve in future years.

  • I disagree with the analysis of the Pirate starters.
    ERA is a popular stat when it comes to pitchers, but I think the Pirate pitchers showed more problems than their ERA’s would lead you to believe.
    I do number them 1-6, I do not use ERA’s as the total criteria for how good they are.
    4 and 5 starters are more like what the Pirate starters are IMO. They are 5-6 inning pitchers, which is what a 4 or 5 will do, they are not 8-9 inning pitchers. Yes, they can get you 7 or 8 innings on occasion, but that is not their talent level.These types of pitchers tend to use a lot of bullpen and not many bullpens can carry a team the whole year, in the process they will wear out, the bullpen will wear out and eventually the rest of the team will wear out, it is a trickle down affect.
    Their innings pitched is also misleading, they rarely got on a roll, always pitching with men on base, when they pitched 5 innings or more they labored far too much, true they may not have given up many runs in that 5 or 6 innings but the work load took it’s toll.
    Another point of interest with last years pitching! The first half of last year the Pirate defense was next to spectacular at times, keeping these pitchers in a lot of games, when that defense wore down, the pitching went down also.
    McDonald was the only one that improved on his ERA in the 2nd half, but in the first half he contributed to the wearing down of the bullpen more than any of them, it was not unusual for him to have 80- 90 pitches by the 5th inning, even celebrating going 7 in one game.

    • A big reason I did the study last year was because of comments like these.  You’ve got an unrealistic view of what a number one through five starter is.  For example, there are no 8-9 inning pitchers.  I think we all would agree that Tim Lincecum is a number one starter.  This year he averaged 6.6 innings per start.  Last year it was 6.4.  Felix Hernandez has averaged around 7 innings a start the last few years.  This past year the averages for the Pirates starters:

      Morton: 5.92 IP/Start
      McDonald: 5.52
      Maholm: 6.24
      Karstens: 5.95
      Correia: 5.88

      The difference between these guys and a number one starter is about half an inning to an inning per start.  Keep in mind that most teams only have one top of the rotation guy, which means you’re only adding the difference of one starter, not all five.

      Number four and five starters aren’t going 5-6 innings every time out.  That’s 160-192 innings in a 32 start season.  Those are the numbers for a number three starter.  Also, as shown, the projected ERAs for number four and five starters are closer to 5.00.  These guys are mostly 4.00 ERA pitchers.

      You’ve got a group of guys who are mostly putting up six innings per start, and an xFIP in the 4.00 range.  That’s not a group of number four or number five starters.

      • Tim, I understand what you are saying, I am not disagreeing with your stats, I am saying the workload per inning is much more for these guys than it is for pitchers that are 2’s and 3’s IMO.
        Because that workload is as tough as it is, they wore themselves out and the bullpen also, that is why the stats, although important are skewed somewhat to me.

        I will try to put it another way,
        If you put two pitchers side by side and they both pitch 5 innings and they both give up 1 run, with your stats (ERA) they are the same, that is not what I am talking about, I am saying if one of them gives up 2 hits and puts 2 runners on in 5 innings and the other pitcher gives up 2 hits and 1 run in 5 innings these pitchers are not same to me, despite the fact they both would have the same ERA. To me, the first pitcher is a Pirate starter the second pitcher is a 1 or a 2. IMO the first pitcher will wear down long before the second pitcher, thus his ERA will move him up into the 4’s and the other pitcher could maintain a 1-3 ranking IMO.
        I also mentioned that the Pirate defense had a lot to do with the stats for these Pirate pitchers, no matter what the stats say, IMO, I don’t think the Pirate starters are good enough to win for an entire year.
        The stats actually do reflect “wear” on these pitchers and “wear” is why I will not grade them out any higher than I am grading them out.

        • I don’t really follow your argument for the pitchers. You’ve lost me with the “they go the same amount of innings, and give up the same amount of runs” line. How does this affect the bullpen? I would think that if the bullpen was pitching four innings, it wouldn’t matter how many hits were given up in the first five innings.

          As for the defense, the reason the Pirates pitchers rely on defense is because most of them are above average ground ball pitchers. They also don’t strike out a lot of batters. That puts more emphasis on the defense. So when the defense struggles, the pitching staff is more likely to struggle.