Bob Smizik: Starting pitching killing Pirates

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In 2013, the Pirates shocked the world by not only ending a 20-year losing streak, but by winning 94 games and qualifying for the playoffs. They were successful for many reasons but mostly for the quality of their pitching.

The decline of their can’t-hold-a-lead bullpen has been well documented. But despite the outbreak of blown saves, the relief corps is clearly the strength of the Pirates pitching staff. Which doesn't say much for the starters.

Here are several stats to savor:

■ In 2013, the starters had an earned run average of 3.50, which was fourth best in the National League. This season, following a 7-1 loss to the New York Yankees Saturday in which Edinson Volquez gave up five runs, the starters’ ERA is 4.45, which is 14th in the National League.

■ In 2013, 162 games, Pirates starters allowed 65 home runs. In 41 games this season, starters have allowed 32, which includes four by Volquez on Saturday. They are on pace to almost double the number of home runs they gave up last year.

■ In 2013, opponents’ OPS against Pirates starting pitching was .667, No. 1 in the NL. This season, before Saturday’s home run onslaught, it was .737, 11th in the league.

A team cannot expect to win a championship -- or even contend for a championship -- with that kind of starting pitching.

Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole start against the Yankees in a doubleheader this afternoon. Morton is 0-5 but with a more-than-respectable 3.22 ERA. In his past two starts, he has allowed one earned run in 14 innings. Cole is 3-3 with a 3.76 ERA. After his two best starts of the season on April 20 and 25, he has allowed 10 earned runs in 18 2/3 innings.

The only addition the Pirates made to the starting rotation in the offseason was Volquez, who they aggressively signed to a $5 million contract on Dec. 13. The money seemed high for a pitcher who had a whopping 5.71 ERA last season and was released by San Diego in August and granted free agency by the Dodgers in October.

But the Pirates thought he had skills that could be developed. He was another reclamation project for pitching coach Ray Searage. In his first five appearances, four starts, Volquez posted a 1.93 ERA and Searage again was being praised by fans of the team. In his past four, it has been 8.31. Because he pitched well in April and because he is making $5 million, there will not likely be a quick removal from the rotation of Volquez, although there appear to be better options at Indianapolis.

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