Pirates' pitching fuels run; will it sustain?

June, 7, 2012
6/07/12
1:33
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The Pirates have won eight of their past 11 overall and sit just three games out of first place in the National League Central. While it was just last year that we were talking about the "surprising" Pirates before a remarkable second-half collapse, 2012 might be different. Below is a look at what’s fueling the Pirates' run this season, how we got to this point and how much of it we can expect to last.

Pitching fueling the Pirates

The Pirates are posting one of their best pitching seasons in the last 30 years. In fact, it’s the best since 1984 and eerily similar to 1992 -- the last season they had a winning record.

Pirates' lowest team ERA since 1980:

1984: 3.11
2012: 3.30
1971: 3.31
1992: 3.35
1976: 3.36

The Pirates have seen their overall ERA drop each season since 2010, which is also true for the team’s starting pitching ERA. However, the relief pitching has experienced an improvement going all the way back to 2008. In fact, the Pirates' bullpen ERA is its lowest since 1975.

2012: 2.58 (third in the majors)
2011: 3.73
2010: 4.55
2009: 4.59
2008: 4.66

How did we get here?

What makes the Pirates' pitching success even more remarkable is how these pitchers were acquired -- largely, off the scrap heap. Here’s a look at how general manager Neal Huntington and his team procured the notable top-performing pitchers on his roster.

Brad Lincoln (2.40 ERA in 30 IP) -- Drafted by Pirates in first round of 2006 MLB draft.
Jason Grilli (1.71 ERA in 21 IP, 35 SO) -- Signed as free agent, July 21, 2011.
James McDonald (5-2, 2.14 ERA, 71 K in 71.1 IP) -- Acquired from Dodgers for Octavio Dotel, July 31, 2010.
Juan Cruz (2.18 ERA, 20 K in 20.2 IP) -- Signed as free agent, Feb. 1, 2012.
Joel Hanrahan (15 saves, 2.57 ERA -- Acquired from Nationals for Sean Burnett and Nyjer Morgan, July 30, 2009.
Erik Bedard (3.72 ERA, 56 K in 55.2 IP) -- Signed as free agent, Dec. 7, 2011.
A.J. Burnett (5-2, 3.76 ERA) -- Acquired from Yankees for two minor leaguers, Feb. 19, 2012.
Kevin Correia (4.19 ERA in 58 IP) -- Signed as free agent, Dec. 17, 2010.

As you can see, most of the rotation members were acquired for very little cost; Burnett is making $5 million this season, Bedard $4.5 million, Correia $3 million and McDonald a crisp $502,500. This entire group is making less than $20 million. That’s for 80 percent of a rotation and three key bullpen arms.

Can this be sustained?

Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, looks at the things a pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches and home runs allowed. FIP is an effective statistic at predicting future performance -- i.e., a pitcher’s FIP number is usually a better indication of his true skill, good or bad, than his present-day ERA. So while the Pirates starters can expect some regression (do we really think McDonald will keep his ERA barely above 2.00 all season?), FIP provides a great deal of optimism regarding the ability to sustain solid performance.


As you can see, 60 percent of the team’s starting rotation (though Charlie Morton is currently on the disabled list) can actually be expected to improve moving forward based on their FIP. The only pitcher "predicted" for a significant dropoff is Correia.

Improvements worth noting

What has been the key to Burnett’s turnaround this season? While some of it can anecdotally be attributed to the move to the National League, it’s much more about increased effectiveness with his fastball.


McDonald’s breaking stuff, meanwhile, has been outstanding, among the most effective in all of baseball. Here's a list of highest strikeout rates with curveballs and/or sliders among starting pitchers:

Edwin Jackson, Washington -- 53.6%
Chris Sale, White Sox -- 53.0%
Stephen Strasburg, Washington -- 51.7%
A.J. Burnett, Pittsburgh -- 50.8%
James McDonald, Pittsburgh -- 48.5%<< >>44.1% strikeout rate last season
(Minimum 200 curveballs/sliders thrown)

Specifically, McDonald has become much better at using his breaking pitches against left-handed batters:


Bedard’s out pitch has always been his curve, and that is no exception once again. However, he’s been markedly more effective with the pitch.

Justin Havens is a researcher for "Baseball Tonight." Follow him on Twitter @jayhaykid.

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