Williams: The Pirates Still Have the Makings of a Good Pitching Staff in 2020

The Pirates have the makings of a good rotation in 2020.

I know that sounds crazy, considering how horrible the current season has been. The Pirates rank in the bottom third of the league in ERA and xFIP. They’ve seen their best pitchers struggle, get injured, or both, all throughout the season. Their hopes at the top of the rotation rely on Chris Archer and Mitch Keller, who both have question marks of their own.

They will need more than just Archer and Keller. They could use an outside addition this offseason, either by adding someone who is a strong bet to make an impact, or going the old high upside reclamation project route. But I do see promise in Archer and Keller.

I’m trying to push my own personal biases aside here. Most of my non-work-related baseball watching over the last few years has been Chris Archer with the Rays, when he was performing like one of the best young pitchers in the league. And most of my work-related baseball watching during that same time has followed Mitch Keller, who I see as a future top of the rotation starter. Looking at the numbers, I don’t think it’s just a bias at play here.

Let’s start with Archer, because he’s going to be a key for the 2020 Pirates, whether you’re comfortable with that or not. Consider him a built-in reclamation project, and let’s view him in that frame.

With most reclamation projects, you want to see that their advanced numbers are better than the ERA. Archer’s ERA is 5.19 and his xFIP is 4.37. The latter isn’t going to be enough to lead the rotation, but there have been some more positive signs of late.

Since the start of June, Archer has ditched his two-seam fastball. His pitch breakdown, before and after June 11th, are as follows.

Four-Seam: 32.7% before / 51.4% after

Two-Seam: 16.2% / 0.2% (last used on June 11th)

Changeup: 13.7% / 10.6%

Slider: 35.4% / 35.6%

Curve: 1.9% / 2.2%

The drastic change is that he removed his two-seamer, and cut down slightly on the changeup, putting more emphasis on the four-seam fastball.

That’s a good move. The sinker had a 1.300 OPS this season. The pitch was getting crushed. The four-seam hasn’t been great, with an .839 OPS, but that’s definitely a preferred alternative.

Archer has a similar ERA during this stretch at 5.18, but has a 3.81 xFIP to go with it, which is an improvement on the overall season results. He also had a 3.00 ERA and a 1.91 xFIP in his four August starts before going down with shoulder inflammation. That’s a small sample size, but you’ll take any encouraging sign you can get.

So what is leading to the inflated ERA? A higher BABIP (.325) and a HR/FB rate of 21.5% (higher than the league average of 15.4%). Archer has been otherwise dominant, with a 31.3% strikeout rate since dropping the two-seamer, and a 9.4% walk rate. That’s improved over 22.3% and 11.8%.

Keller has also been adjusting his pitch usage lately. In his last five starts, he has thrown the fastball 58% of the time, while essentially dropping the changeup, and using the slider and curveball a combined 40.6% of the time. Those numbers are inflated by his last start, where he used the fastball 68% of the time and the slider less than 10%.

I’ve been focusing on the pitch usage for Keller, but credit to NMR for pointing out in the comments yesterday the massive difference between Keller’s ERA and advanced metrics. During this five game stretch, his ERA is 8.57, while his xFIP is 2.54. This is due to a BABIP of .500, a strand rate of 56.7%, and a HR/FB rate of 26.3%.

Keller is obviously a more extreme version of a “reclamation” type guy than Archer. But they’re both dominant — Keller has a 33% strikeout rate and a 4.1% walk rate during this stretch — raising the question as to why they are both getting hit so hard.

I’ve been a strong proponent of throwing your best pitch more often, and getting rid of the worst pitches. This has happened with both players. Archer dropped the two-seamer and Keller dropped the changeup, while both have used their best pitches over 35% of the time. But it has never been as simple as just throwing one pitch more and one pitch less.

I think we’re seeing that right now. Archer and Keller have both made good adjustments to their pitch usage, but there are other factors that need to happen. You need to focus on sequencing of pitches. You need to focus on tunneling your pitches — making them all look the same out of the hand and for as long as possible as they reach the plate. This involves slight adjustments to the way you throw those pitches and how you game plan, with the end result being that you keep the batters guessing more often.

The question is whether the Pirates can make that adjustment for these pitchers, and the results from other players recently doesn’t lead to much confidence for the answer to that question. But if they can find a way to make the adjustments necessary, then they’ve got two pitchers with the stuff to be top of the rotation guys for the entire 2020 season.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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