Pirates Pitching Will Ultimately Decide How All This Works

5-19-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

Now, that’s probably a true statement for every team in baseball right? Can’t pitch, probably aren’t going to win a whole bunch. That being understood, we probably should look at how the franchise is handling this important facet of the game all throughout the minors and dig in on the methodology.

When fans complain about how this team uses the pitchers at the MLB level, specifically preventing them from going deep into games on the rare occasions they look capable, the common returned narrative is that this ethos will change when the Pirates get more “capable” starters up in Pittsburgh. I’m not so sure.

The Dewey Effect

First thing most fans point to is the Dewey Robinson hire to explain the Pirates seemingly sudden desire to have the roles of 90% of the pitching staff be undefined, but that’s simply not what was done in Tampa. Yes they had an overriding philosophy that most starters seeing a lineup 3 times through isn’t a great idea. It’s also true that the Rays like to sprinkle in an “opener” on occasion.

Last year the average Rays start was in the mid 70’s, the league average rested in the mid 80’s. That led to a typical start being over before or right at 5 innings.

The effectiveness of the starter doesn’t matter. The number of pitches doesn’t matter.

Now, Dewey is a pitching instructor, he didn’t come here with a secret sauce to make this all work, and he certainly didn’t come here with widely available information about what the Rays system looks like, point being, nobody needed Dewey to come here and describe what’s publicly out there already. He’s an older guy who has allowed himself to not only adopt some analytics based focus but lead on it, that’s why his hire was important, but as far as I’ve heard, there is no desire to mirror the Tampa system entirely, even if it sure feels and looks that way. Which certainly could mean, they absolutely plan to copy what they do, but don’t want to say it out loud or at least give you the expectation that the results will match too.

Don’t forget, Dewey himself during a Spring Training interview said “talent is the secret”.

Why Can Quintana or Anderson Go Deep Then?

See that’s the thing, we can talk about the Pirates implementing this strict system but the last two veteran arms they’ve brought in, Tyler Anderson and Jose Quintana, clearly get a longer leash.

So this leads one to ask, is it because they’re experienced? If the answer to that is yes, I’d have to follow that up with, well clearly you value that, how do you expect to ever cultivate more of that from your own system if you refuse to let them try to do so?

The other thought is, could it be as simple as not caring about their health as much because they aren’t in the long term plans? I mean, that’s a really crappy thing to think but they were clearly fine with Anderson and Quintana pushing more chips in the pile.

Now, to their credit, both of those pitchers, and it’s incredibly early to act like it’s a sure fire lasting thing with Q, have shown they were capable of it. They grew up being pitchers who probably felt they failed if they didn’t at least reach the 7th too, but man you just can’t sit here and tell me the Pirates are doing everything they do based on analytics yet continue to show me it only applies to guys not here on a 1 year show me contract.

What is the Opener or Piggyback Achieving?

I mean, I don’t really know.

The opener was something that when originally implemented caused the opposing manager to scramble and at times redo the lineup. Now, teams caught on rather quickly that it was preferable to just deal with less than optimal matchups for an inning or two than to wholesale change your own plan when a team chose to do this.

Today it’s seen as a way to simply never let a lineup settle in. You may reach the 5th or 6th inning before you as a hitter have seen the same pitcher twice if everything goes right.

Does it work? Well, sometimes, but I guess it depends on what your idea of ‘work’ is.

Last night the Pirates implemented an opener. Wil Crowe went 2 innings and gave up a run. Mitch Keller (the ‘starter’ supposedly benefitting from the opener) went only 2.2 innings and also gave up a run.

Duane Underwood went’ 2.1 innings you know, more than the opener did. And David Bednar closed out the game with 2 innings of work.

Like it or don’t, this is where many analytics wonks see baseball headed. I’m just not sure how this helps anyone. You’ve taken Crowe out of the mix for the bullpen where he’s really thrived. Diminished your supposed starter to little more than a middle relief guy, which ok, I can get behind if you choose that path with him. Forced a guy criminally overused last season to go 2.1 innings a week removed from returning from injury and finally continue to beat the hell out of your unquestioned best bullpen asset David Bednar.

I don’t see enough there to pretend it’s working, or helping. And I say that after it netted a 3-2 win.

What are Fans or Players to Think?

We spent the first month of the season crying and laughing that no Pirates starting pitcher had a win until recently, but it was hardly just poor performance that created it. The implementation of this near perpetual avoidance of seeing a lineup more than twice has created a system that rarely allows a starter to complete 5 innings.

When the game is over, fans still say ‘well, Thompson sucks he can’t even get through 5!’ and how can you argue? Fans don’t really by in large care that he only threw 67 pitches when he was pulled.

The Win stat means very little in modern baseball, and this methodology directly created it.

Part of the magic of going to a baseball game is knowing that every single night could be a no hitter, or a dominant shutout complete game. Well sincerely, do you feel that way when you go anymore? For either side too, not just the Pirates. You simply can’t expect it’s even plausible to think you’ll see something like that anymore.

Will you as a baseball fan trade that aspect of the game for winning more games if that’s how it shakes out when they have enough horses or will you always be at least a little disappointed that your starter simply isn’t going to rack up wins or innings? It’s a question the Pirates are forcing you to answer, and increasingly a question MLB fans in general will have to grapple with.

I guess MLB could examine how the Win stat is decided, or perhaps even eliminate it all together, but the history of baseball and how it ties to modern baseball makes that difficult. Let’s say Michael Burrows comes up here and is just everything you’d want in a starter, but the team does what it does and he rarely sees the 6th or 7th inning. He pitches for 10 years in Pittsburgh and never has more than 10 wins but aside from that, total stud. How does he ever compete with history? How is he ever “GOAT”? He can’t even eclipse Randy Tomlin’s win total so how can you sit there and tell me he’s better?

Make no mistake, this changes the game.

I bet it changes the salaries too folks. I mean how many 300 million dollar starting pitchers will there be? Adjust for inflation obviously but how many guys are going to get that kind of mega deal if they’re pitching 5 or 6 innings once a week? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have 7 Wil Crowe types at like 6 million a year? I wonder if the players will remain as passive about all this as they’ve been when it starts punching them in the pocket book.

Or will free agents gravitate to teams that don’t do this? Some openly thought it was reckless to allow Hunter Greene to throw 118 pitches in his no-hit bid the other day, but man if I’m a starting pitcher on the market, I’d rather know if I’m performing I can achieve than know I’m not going to get the chance regardless.

I’ve talked to veteran pitchers, to a man, they hate how this has all evolved, even if they understand it. I’ve also talked to young pitchers and almost universally they claim that getting deep into games is still on the table but they understand why they get yanked so early.

Maybe that’s just not speaking ill of your employer, maybe it’s just a generational thing too, but if the players don’t put up a stink, don’t expect the WIN to survive the decade, at least not in it’s current form.

I mean the first player who sits down at an arbitration table and hears “well, you only had 4 quality starts last year Jim” knowing they got yanked with like 58 pitches 5 or 6 times might just flip the table over.

One Thing is Abundantly Clear….

We should probably all look at how the Pirates (and the vast majority of the league for that matter) are handling starting pitching all through the system and realize this is the plan.

Not cultivating 18 game winners, or dominant starters who eat the majority of every contest they enter, instead a collection of long men where the time they show up in a contest is really just a suggestion.

Instead of looking for a 5 man rotation that just shoves, it’s more like a 7 or 8 man mix that together push most contests to the 6th where the back end guys take over.

All of this probably still means, if you win, we won’t care, if you don’t, we won’t care about you or worse we’ll just label you incompetent.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

One thought on “Pirates Pitching Will Ultimately Decide How All This Works

  1. With the rash of TJ surgeries throughout baseball there is a huge value if a way can be found to reduce those. Is it fewer pitches? I think teams are looking at that as much as anything else. All of your other thoughts are probably valid as well but I see this as being the driving force. I think that they are limiting the established guys on the prove it contracts as it would probably negatively impact their value for future deals.

    Liked by 1 person

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