If you remember back to March, the Pirates' rotation was my biggest concern for 2013. That wasn't because of a lack of talent, because AJ Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez and (to a lesser extent) James McDonald and Francisco Liriano provide the Pirates with as much starting pitching talent as they've had in a long time. It was because I was concerned about depth; even in spring training, McDonald seemed like a wild card and Jeff Locke's big league career was very uneven before this year and after that, the Pirates were looking at Jonathan Sanchez and Jeanmar Gomez until Gerrit Cole was ready.
May is ending soon, the Pirates are 12 games over .500, James McDonald was terrible before landing on the disabled list, Jonathan Sanchez was worse, and Gerrit Cole isn't any closer to Pittsburgh today than he was the day before the season started. And yet, the Pirates' are second in the NL in runs allowed and the rotation is fine because Locke and Gomez have the two lowest ERAs of anyone in the rotation save Liriano, who's only made three starts.
Therein lies the problem: the Pirates have collapsed late in the year two years in a row in large part because their unexpected rise was tied very closely to unsustainable pitching performances. To paraphrase Randall Munroe, the two Pirate seasons haven't been lessons about human limitations, they've been lessons about flying to close to the sun without understanding the limitations of wax as an adhesive. I think that that's less likely this year for a number of reasons (included but not limited to: Burnett and Rodriguez are not made of smoke and mirrors, Liriano missing the first month of the season could be a good thing in terms of durability, if Jeff Karstens comes back in decent shape the same would be true of an early-season injury for him vs. running out of gas late, it's not impossible that James McDonald did have a lingering injury that was affecting his bad mechanics and that could be cleared up with down time and rehab work, the universe owes the Pirates a Tommy John guy that comes back stronger and better than ever and maybe that guy is Charlie Morton, and Gerrit Cole is still absurdly talented even if he's been struggling in Triple-A), but the reality right now is that a big part of the Pirates 32-20 record is built on Locke and Gomez. Locke and Gomez have the lowest ERAs on the staff, and they also have the lowest K/BB ratios. If you are looking for sustainability, this is not a good place to start.
I've written quite a bit about Locke in the past. Before the season started, my take on Locke was that it seemed like he had all of the disparate parts needed to be an effective big league starter -- he has decent velocity for a lefty and a nice mix of stuff, his strikeout and walk numbers were good both in the high minors and in his bad stints with the Pirates, he gets a decent number of groundballs, etc. etc. -- but that it just seemed like something was missing. This year that's been flipped on its ear. He's barely striking anyone out (K% down from 23.4% to 16.5%) he's walking more hitters than he has since coming over from the Braves in 2009 (BB% is at 10.4% after hovering around 7-8% in the high minors), and his groundball rate is basically constant (49% last year, 49.4% this year). The only difference I can find is that if you go to his Brooks Baseball page, some of his fastballs are being counted as sinkers this year, but they look like pretty similar pitches. The only way his batted ball profile has shifted at all this year is to see his flyballs drop and his line drives increase, which should, if anything, portend a rise in hits per nine innings and not a dramatic drop.
When Charlie Morton went from being an extremely ineffective pitcher capable of racking up strikeouts to an effective pitcher that hardly ever struck anyone out, there were dramatic changes to his delivery and pitch selection and approach. For Locke this year, there's none of that that I can see. He's simply getting a ton of balls turned into outs behind him. His BABIP is .224, which is insanely low and would probably be unsustainable even with Brooks Robinson and Ozzie Smith and Bill Mazeroski behind him.
Gomez is getting more groundballs than Locke (57% to 49.4%) and he's doing a beter job of limiting hard contact (his line drive percentage is 15.6% compared to Locke's 22%), but he's striking out even fewer hitters (13.4%) and if Locke's BABIP is insanely low, Gomez's is criminally insanely low (.202). Gomez has, to this point, mostly dropped his cutter and cut way back on his changeup usage to go almost exclusively with two-seamers and sliders.
This has been a long post, so I'm going to put the key conclusion in bold: Jeanmar Gomez and Jeff Locke have, to this point, been the Pirates' best starting pitchers in terms of keeping runs off of the board and getting wins, but there is absolutely no reason to think that either of them can keep going at this rate. The only good news that exists is entirely dependent on how good you think the Pirates' defense is. Currently, the Pirates are 3rd in the NL (and 3rd in MLB) in Defensive Runs Saved and 6th in the NL (12th in MLB) in UZR, but these numbers fluctuate wildly (when Dejan Kovacevic wrote about the Pirates less than a week ago, they were 17th in MLB with a negative UZR, now they're 12th with +4.5) early in the season. Either way you cut it, though, Clint Barmes and Pedro Alvarez have been two of the Pirates defenders this year, which is good news for groundball pitchers (the Pirates' team UZR in general would be a lot higher if you just removed Garrett Jones and Jose Tabata's right field play from the equation; of course you can't do that, but certainly that sort of thing doesn't necessarily affect all pitchers equally).
What all of that means is this: the Pirates are built, from a defensive perspective, to give pitchers like Gomez and Locke as much help as they can. The old "water covers 2/3rds of the earth and [insert fast outfielder here]" saying can be literally applied to this Pirate team. Five of their eight regular position players (Marte, McCutchen, Alvarez, Barmes, and Martin) have been absolutely spectacular defensively and Travis Snider has been pretty good in right, while there's not a ton of reason to worry about Neil Walker at second. That means that it's not unreasonable to see pitcher with BABIPs below the league average of .300, because the Pirates are probably somewhere between "pretty good" and "flat-out excellent" defensively as a team. To see two guys sitting around .220 and .200 the way Locke and Gomez are, though, is just crazy. I'm not trying to denigrate their performances to this point, because they've been excellent and they're a huge part of this great start. Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, though. If this Pirate team is going to be different than the Pirates of 2011 and 2012, they need to start thinking about how they're succeeding now and what they need to do to keep succeeding as the year progresses.
wkk : or worse ! A Jimmy Barthmaier or Yoslan Herrera. With Honorable Mention going to Bryan Bullington.
Pat, agree with all your points and have a followup question:
Of the Pirate starting pitchers currently occupying triple A whether for reasons of injury or performance or both, who do you see as most likely to come back to the big club and make a positive impact? My money had been on Karstens until this latest setback; now I don't know. Charlie Morton scares me to death - I think a lot of his problems were mental and I don't think Tommy John surgery will change that. Plus I still can't get over his 12 losses and 7+ ERA from a few years ago. I don't think you see many pitchers change their numbers enough mid-career for him to ever be good enough to help.
Well, I think there's some good news here--even if Locke and Gomez start getting results in line with their FIP numbers/normal luck, those numbers would make them acceptable back-of-the-rotation options. You'd rather have a situation like the Giants of last year, where five guys made all but a handful of starts; you very rarely get that, so if you have to go to your Plan B options, it's more comforting to have those options as Locke and Gomez as opposed to the John Van Benschotens and Ty Taubenheims of the world.
@wkkortas While it is important to note that even with regression, the back of the rotation would only regress to league average at this rate, it's also important to note that the Pirates have been so good precisely because they've been above average. It's been because of the pitching and defense. They're slightly below average offensively, ranking 20th in wOBA, 18th in wRC+. They're middle of the pack in power, ranking 13th in ISO, 15th in home runs and 19th in SLG. And their hitters strike out the 8th most in baseball. So their record is definitely not offensively driven.
The reason the Pirates have been winning games is that their team ERA is second-best in the Majors, behind St. Louis. And it's that good because of the starts that Locke and Gomez have had. Their FIP is 24th in the Majors, and their xFIP is 23rd. They're striking out the 7th-most batters, but they're also walking the 8th-most. So regression to average back-of-the-rotation pitching from the 4 and 5 starters would have significant implications on where the team stands - they're below average offensively, and unless Locke and Gomez have made some kind of pact with the devil to enable them to keep posting these numbers all season, they'd regress to below average in pitching as well. That's a formula for another collapse, sad to say.
Now, there is one caveat here in that these stats are somewhat distorted by the terrible games we've seen from Jonathan Sanchez and James McDonald. Sanchez won't pitch in Pittsburgh again unless something goes horribly, terribly wrong, and I'd have to think McDonald is on a short leash and will have to either pitch well or be demoted to AAA or long relief. So those problems should work themselves out. But, that sample of badness is not big enough to distort the numbers enough that we can say "Well now that they're gone, we're fine." They've only pitched 42.4 innings between them out of the 473.1 innings the team has pitched - meaning that just ~9% of innings pitched were pitched by people we can reasonably assume we won't have to deal with anymore.
If the Pirates want to stay competitive, they need to either get better offensively, keep getting unsustainably good starts from the back of the rotation, or replace the back of the rotation with pitchers who CAN sustain good starts.
@NateRose @wkkortas: I wouldn't argue what you're saying at all--and, frankly, the notion of Jeanmar Gomez making 25-30 starts scares the living hell out of me. What I was attempting to stress was that, at some point, you're going to have to go to the sixth or seventh guy on the depth chart for starters, and if Locke and/or Gomez could sustain their xFIP numbers over the course of an entire season, you'd certainly take that from fill-ins.