Pitching, The Pirates, and Why We Just Can’t Get on the Same Page

9-30-21 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

Man, I’ll tell you something that has constantly been a theme this entire season is the pitching usage. Between the Pirates aggressive limitations placed on some arms to the overt lack of good options, we really need to just sit here and understand what we’re seeing.

If you want to start thinking about the Pirates pitching this season and come out of it with a scapegoat, it’s gonna be a tough conversation because the truth is, it’s pretty evenly spread around.

I’m going to first outline the plan, who formulated it, why it’s been done and then we’ll dig in on some individual arguments.

The Plan

If I told you there is buried treasure next to the north facing wall of Fort Pitt with a giant Gold X on it and everyone chose to ignore it, it’s kinda not on me nobody found the treasure is it?

Well, when Steve Sanders, Ben Cherington, Derek Shelton and Oscar Marin all told us in Spring the team planned to use upwards of 30 pitchers to get through 2021 following the shortened and or non existent 2020 most arms went through, I’m guessing most of you took it as hyperbole.

Turns out, they were serious. Very in fact. They’ve used 34 and that’s if you don’t count the position players who’ve toed the rubber.

The Pirates set aggressive pitch counts and innings caps for every arm on the roster, even did it for guys they brought in after Spring.

Of course it has flexibility, but not much. For instance, the club let JT Brubaker blow through his preordained cap before he landed on the IL. Why? Well, when they laid the plan out, Steven Brault was supposed to handle X amount of innings, Trevor Cahill was expected to deliver X amount. So on and so forth.

Now, I don’t think this plan really helped as much as they hoped, worse I think it prevented some players from truly growing too, but we’ll get into all that as we go through this.

Point is, what we’re seeing is the plan, and the scrap at the end here is due to trying to maintain those limits the team self imposed. It’s not Derek Shelton being afraid, it’s not pitchers collectively not being capable, it’s not Ben Cherington calling in the 5th screaming to get a guy out of there or that he wants to see so and so in this situation, it’s a long term plan that the team from trainers on up thought would keep guys healthy and set them up for healthy off seasons and strong 2022.

Problem is, I think it prevented us and the organization from getting answers on guys. Some of those guys like Wil Crowe probably wouldn’t see the over on five innings regardless of organizational limitations, others certainly would have, so please don’t mistake this for a defense that every pitcher here could or even would do more, we simply didn’t get to see in most cases.

If They Were Trying to Prevent Injury, it Sure Hasn’t Worked

Well, sort of. See the first thing we need to do is acknowledge, many of these “injuries” are simply not injuries. Many of these guys have hit their cap and the team wants to keep them right there so you get “arm fatigue” or “lower back soreness” which translates to We don’t want or need to see them throw one more pitch this season.

I hate to keep going back to the same example, but JT Brubaker is a great example again, he exceeded his cap this season, and blew his personal top line for innings pitched out of the water in 2021. Fatigue set in right around the All Star Break, and it was evidenced by his drop in velocity and spin rate. And no, he’s not a sticky stuff guy, he’s just a guy who’s had injuries, and has thrown far more than he ever has. It’s dead arm.

Mitch Keller on the other hand has handled a load like that before and his limit is set higher, so even though he hasn’t performed well (or perhaps because of it, meaning he didn’t use as many innings as prescribed) he still has innings to give.

There is no sure fire method to prevent injuries, and if anyone finds one it’ll spread like COVID did across the league. Until then, this is largely the process every team engages in to some degree, the Pirates were just more aggressive with it.

For instance, when they had Tyler Anderson the Pirates set a cap for him, but knew beyond a shadow of doubt he’d only be a Pirate until the trade deadline, so if they turned him over to Seattle with like 30 left, so be it. If Seattle thought their limit was BS and used him far beyond that, again, that’s on them.

Believe it or not, players want this kind of protection, despite your Nolan Ryan quotes at the ready. Protecting arms, or even just the mere appearance of trying to can make a team more desirable to free agents. Clay Holmes made this very point in the off season, after being non tendered he decided to resign with the Bucs because he liked the instruction he was receiving and believed in the process, he also directly mentioned the protection of his health as a selling point.

Look I get it, Holmes isn’t exactly Kershaw, but those things matter, so while I personally think they took it too far, it’s not that uncommon league wide.

It’s Kinda Like a Household Budget

At the beginning of the season every team knows roughly how many innings they have to absorb on the mound. 1,458, now this is rough because sometimes the road team doesn’t have to throw the bottom of the ninth, sometimes there are extra innings, we have the 7 inning double headers to contend with as well, but that number will be in the ballpark.

If that’s your budget you have to figure out how you’ll spend them and again the Pirates planned on it taking about 30 arms which they weren’t all that far off from. Just like you when your Dryer breaks down, you have to scramble to find the budget to fix it, so the Pirates (also having no savings account in AAA really) go and get Kyle Keller types and Conner Overton’s to fit the bill.

If they are in striking distance of a playoff perhaps they try to go get a Maytag, but in a season like this, they go to a yard sale and get a 1987 Whirlpool.

Why Aren’t Any of Them Getting Better?

How do I say this delicately?

Eh, why bother, I’m just not sold on Oscar Marin or his pitching plan. I see far too many guys quickly get to 0-2 and then nibble their way into loading the bases. Yes, that’s on the pitcher, but it’s also on the staff. When you have a entire stable of pitchers who simply don’t trust they have a pitch that can turn that 0-2 into an out without convincing a guy to chase you have a problem.

Watch where the catcher sets up and watch how much differently they pitch once they get the count in their advantage. This would be like negotiating with the car dealer to knock five grand off the price of the car you’re looking at then begging them to let you pay 4 grand more. It’s silly and needless.

Far too often they let this situation play out until the inevitable happens and at some point that’s not on the pitcher, that’s on the coaching. Doesn’t have to be a strikeout there, but 0-2 more often than not needs to equal an out. You have earned the advantage of throwing something too close to take, but not something that the hitter can put a good swing on, so don’t piss it away nibbling yourself into having to go back over the heart.

Some of that’s youth, most of it is teaching kids to hunt the strikeout when soft contact would do the job. They stressed defense this year and to much acclaim as they have the 6th best defense in the league, so teach the pitchers to use it to their advantage.

The limits have created an environment where getting through innings economically doesn’t matter. If I can nibble my way through a scoreless inning throwing 33 pitches, well it only matters if you expected to see 6 out of me. If I knew 4 or 5 was my cap, who cares, scoreless is scoreless right?

Point is, we just don’t know what some of these guys have because they simply aren’t asked to show us.

Tyler Anderson was a great example of this, say a guy got to third with one out, well he pitched to the play, knowing the batter was trying to hit a fly ball, sometimes he’d send his low 90’s fastball up in the zone knowing he’d get a swing, if the hitter did his job it’s a sac fly, if he didn’t it’ was a pop up or maybe even a swing and miss.

Now look at most of the other pitchers, runner at third with less than 2 outs and they exclusively hunt a strikeout, which more often than not turns into a walk and an even messier situation. The value of 1 run being less than 2 or 3 has simply not reached many of these kids. Again, that’s on coaching.

How Can They Preach Saving Arms Then Use 7 in a Game?

Again, go back to the budget concept, it’s not about how many it takes, it’s about how many they go. The Pirates have also done something I personally dislike on this front, not every bullpen arm is capable of giving you 2 innings, but the Pirates desperately want all of them to show the capability.

Sam Howard has no business seeing two innings, and it’s so apparent just from the evidence we’ve seen this year I’m dumbfounded they keep trying it. He’s deceptive, but not if you’ve seen him twice. He’s capable of getting guys out, but not if he ramps back to try for 2 innings. After 35 pitches he’s gassed, and visibly so, yet for the best part of the year, the Pirates just keep trying to make it so.

I say this loud for those in the back refusing to hear it, just because I understand the plan, doesn’t mean I endorse it.

This method works fine for plenty of teams, none better than the Brewers and Rays but the Pirates are trying to win a horse race with a donkey here and what an appropriate animal reference that is especially when you factor in the stubbornness with which they employ it.

Will This Still be Happening in 2022?

To some degree yes, but the limits should increase now that almost everyone has more under their belt in recent history. The overriding theory is that going from 0-60 was a bad idea, so instead they used 2021 (knowing full well they weren’t competing) to go 0-30.

In theory I get it, in practice I feel like now we have to spend time learning things in 2022 they should have learned in 2021. Not a blanket statement, for instance, I think we’ve learned that in my opinion Wil Crowe isn’t a starter, at least not without pinpoint fastball command. They haven’t really held him back because again he’s reaching pitch limits in the 4th, and universal limits, not just Pirates self imposed suggested caps.

Someone like Bryse Wilson has a bulldog mentality (most of the ones cultivated elsewhere seem to) and I’d like to think he can handle giving you 7 a decent amount of the time, but we’ll never know because only Atlanta let him.

In short, I believe it will be less restrictive and pitchers won’t be as interchangeable but I don’t see them completely getting away from this train of thought which in my humble opinion will also make 2022 Oscar Marin’s last in a Pirates uniform.

In Conclusion

I really hope everyone understands the difference between getting what they’re doing and supporting it. I cover this team with an eye toward explaining what’s happening and give my thoughts on how it could be improved on. So when you complain that Derek Shelton needs to grow a pair because he pulled a guy after 4 scoreless and 74 pitches, I’m here to tell you you’re aiming at the wrong target in most cases. Doesn’t mean I think Shelton is doing everything right or that I even believe he’s the right guy for the job, but he’s executing a plan that was largely built and presented to him.

I’m not sure ‘better’ will be enough next year, so I truly hope they see this too and prepare to adjust, if they don’t they run the risk of wasting some of the talent they worked so hard to acquire, and quite simply the Pittsburgh Pirates can’t afford it.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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