Pirates midseason report: Finally, the mix may be magical
July 14, 2013 8:00 AM
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
The Francisco Liriano gamble has so far paid off handsomely for the Pirates. He will at the very least be tied for the team lead in wins going into the All-Star break despite not making his first start until mid-May.
Gerrit Cole gave the team -- pardon the pun -- a shot in the arm by coming up in June and winning his first four starts, including an electrifying debut June 11.
J. Meric/Getty Images
Pitcher Jeff Locke
Is the mix - finally - just right?
By Bill Brink Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
They came from unlikely places. One was on his third organization and found himself sent off the 40-man roster in February. Another was the return when the Pirates traded Quincy Latimore, he of the .253 career average in 2,943 minor league plate appearances.
A third entered spring training with his non-pitching arm immobilized in a brace. Still another barely eked his way into the rotation.
The men who comprise the Pirates pitching staff coalesced into the unit that has spearheaded the team's charge toward its first playoff berth since 1992. Entering the final game today before the All-Star break, the Pirates are 56-36 and are even with St. Louis Cardinals atop the National League Central Division. This is not a drill.
"I feel like a proud father," said Mark Melancon, the Pirates' dominant set-up man. "It's really cool."
Neither the pitching staff nor the record can erase the events of the previous two seasons, when similar -- though less drastic -- stretches of good performance gave way to poor play in the second half that extended the franchise's stretch of consecutive losing seasons to 20. The players will tell you they don't care. Thinking about 2012 can't help them win this year, they say. Their manager agrees, to a point. Clint Hurdle believes it is important to remember what happened in the past to avoid similar results in the future.
Whatever their view, they're here now, poised to make a legitimate run at the playoffs. For the time being, they are no longer an anomaly, no longer a statistical quirk awaiting correction.
"You take the small victories and you try to enjoy the small steps along the way," general manager Neal Huntington said, "but we've still got some big steps in front of us."
Here's how they're doing it.
In 2009, with the Pirates on their way to a 62-99 record and a last-place finish in the NL Central, Huntington, then in his second season as GM, decided it was time to trade Nate McLouth.
When Huntington made the move, he chose a deal that netted a 21-year-old left-handed pitcher with clean mechanics and a good breaking ball. Now, Jeff Locke is an All-Star. His 2.15 ERA ranked second only to Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw entering the weekend's games. He doesn't strike many guys out (6.0 per nine innings) and walks a few too many (3.9 per nine), but in 18 starts this year, he has kept opposing batters from hitting the ball very hard.
"It's been fun to watch him develop into what our scouts said he could be," Huntington said.
Specifically, Locke has kept the ball in the park. The six home runs he allowed in 109 innings entering today's game matched his total in 341/3 innings in 2012. He has allowed more than three earned runs only twice and has finished six innings in 11 of his 18 starts.
"I think every once in a while there's a little reality check, but nothing you didn't know you could do," Locke said. "You just hadn't done it yet."
Locke and his counterparts have posted a 3.10 team ERA this season that ranks as the best mark in the majors. Their 3.37 runs allowed per game also leads the majors.
This season did not begin well for Francisco Liriano. A broken right humerus, which he said he suffered slamming his arm into a door to scare his children on Christmas Day, lowered what could have been a two-year, $12.75 million contract to a one-year deal with only $1 million guaranteed. A vesting option and bonuses allowed him to make more, but starting the season on time was out.
THE TRADE: June 3, 2009
The Pirates-Mets game had been rained out. It figured to be a slow night, and then the Pirates announced that they'd traded 2008 All-Star OF Nate McLouth to Atlanta for OF Gorkys Hernandez and pitchers Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke. Fans -- and players -- were quick to pan the deal. Club president Frank Coonelly responded: "I'm convinced we're a better organization now than 24 hours ago."
Four years later, we re-visit the deal. McLouth hit .229 with 21 HRs and 76 RBIs in two-plus seasons with the Braves and almost was out of baseball before resurrecting his career in Baltimore. Morton and Locke are now in the Pirates rotation, and Locke will appear in his first All-Star Game. Hernandez was traded to Miami in a trade for Gaby Sanchez.
And as a byproduct, the trade of McLouth also opened the door for the Pirates to promote Andrew McCutchen.
Once the arm healed, there were control problems to work through. Liriano walked five batters per nine innings in each of the previous two seasons. He was well removed from a solid season in 2010 and a spectacular sophomore campaign in 2006 that ended prematurely due to elbow surgery.
Liriano figured it out. He has walked 3.3 batters per nine innings and struck out 80 in 762/3 innings, winning nine games despite not starting for the Pirates until May 11.
"He made the comment to me, 'I found a way to settle down when I do get a runner on base,' " Hurdle said. "It used to be, 'When I'd get runners on base, I really kind of amped up. I overpitched, which became more problematic. I didn't have the fastball command that I have now in those situations. Probably wasn't as sharp with my breaking stuff or as effective with my changeup. I just overthrew.' He found a way to back off."
Liriano closed the first half well, allowing two runs in a complete game against the Chicago Cubs, and pitching seven scoreless innings to stop a four-game losing streak and beat the Oakland Athletics.
"He's been able to command his fastball and be aggressive in his zone with his fastball better, which is what really sets him up for success," Huntington said.
When Jeanmar Gomez found out he was traded from the Cleveland Indians to the Pirates, he got a trio of phone calls: Huntington, Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage.
"They said, 'Hey, welcome to the Pittsburgh Pirates,' " Gomez said. " 'Welcome aboard. We'll see you in spring training.' "
Gomez had a 5.18 ERA in 2062/3 innings with the Indians. He has helped the Pirates overcome numerous injuries to the rotation, amassing a 2.65 ERA in 51 innings split between starting and relief work. His moment: Seven scoreless innings May 28 on the road against the Detroit Tigers, before Neil Walker's 11th-inning home run to give the Pirates a win.
The pitching staff has done a good portion of its work without James McDonald, who suffered from ineffectiveness and a loss of velocity before shoulder pain sent him to the disabled list in early May. Forearm problems have sent Wandy Rodriguez to the DL, and Charlie Morton did not return until mid-June from his elbow surgery in 2012.
Outwardly, the pitchers don't acknowledge their stellar performance.
"Me, I don't pay attention," Gomez said. "I try to go game to game. Today we're facing Oakland. OK.
"We have the best record -- OK. It's a number. We play today's game. We focus on today. We have to make quality pitches."
The Pirates tried to acquire Vin Mazzaro when he began his career in the A's organization. They tried again when he went to Kansas City.
"When he became available, we thought it'd be an interesting get for us, a guy with some upside and a guy with a good arm that could fit in a multi-inning role out of the chute and maybe mature with something more than that," Huntington said.
Mazzaro's Pirates career could have been dead in the water. They outrighted him to Class AAA Indianapolis to make room for Liriano in February. The bullpen needed help in April, though, and up he came. He had allowed 13 earned runs in 401/3 innings entering the weekend for a bullpen that ranks second in the majors with a 2.86 ERA.
"I guess in the beginning, when I was in Indy, I kind of followed a little bit," Mazzaro said.
"The bullpen's doing an outstanding job. The starters are doing great. We're just coming in and pitching effective, pounding the zone, getting the job done."
Any discussion of the pitching staff must include A.J. Burnett, the don of the rotation, and Jason Grilli, who at 36 made his first All-Star team and leads the NL with 28 saves. Top prospect Gerrit Cole came up and reeled off four wins in a row.
With a league-leading ERA comes a league-leading batting average on balls in play. The Pirates' .264 BABIP is the lowest in the majors. Though good pitching mitigates that to some degree, a correction closer to the .290-.300 league average is likely.
That will make it harder for the Pirates pitching staff to compensate for the team's offense, which ranks 25th in the majors with 3.87 runs per game and 21st with a .310 on-base percentage. The July 31 trade deadline, by which point the Pirates could try to upgrade the offense, looms.
"We have room for improvement," Hurdle said. "We have people there that are capable of doing, I think, a little bit more than what they have. I don't think we have anybody here exceeding expectations and we've got a few who are probably underachieving a little bit what we believe they are able to do."
How do the pitchers continue their success?
"Not change anything," Liriano said. "Try to do the same thing we've been doing in the first half."
"Continuing to trust our defense, continue to believe this offense is going to get rolling, essentially keep doing what they've been doing to get here," Huntington said.
"Don't change anything," Mazzaro said.
That, it appears, is the formula: Don't deviate from the process in the first half so they can turn the tables on the results in the second.