By: Noah Wright
Right now, the Pirates are as middle of the road as you can get. They’re not a last place team, but they aren’t a direct contender either. However, there are a ton of simple things the Pirates are messing up that could be very impactful to their performance throughout the season, and to player development as a whole. The Pirates still use a pitch to contact strategy for some of their pitchers, and it’s not working.
Now sure, you’re going to have players that are strikeout pitchers. It would be absolutely stupid to try to make Felipe Vazquez, who has the skill set to be a strikeout pitcher, a ground ball pitcher, and vice versa with a pitcher like Trevor Williams. But occasionally, the Pirates experiment with players, changing stuff with their approach, their pitching repertoire and so on, to fit a mold they see fit, even if it was working the previous year. An example of this was Josh Bell in 2018. After coming off a rookie season where Bell hit 26 home runs, and finished with a solid .800 OPS and 108 wRC+, the Pirates made Bell more of a line drive hitter than a power hitter. Bell’s line drive rate increased, but his overall power numbers decreased. For a first baseman, you look for power, something he lacked in 2018. In 2019, it seems the Pirates have realized that they could probably find more value in a power hitter than a line drive hitter.
However, it seems they haven’t learned anything with pitchers. Personally, I blame their “pitch to contact” strategy as part of Charlie Morton’s downfall in Pittsburgh, but rise to All-Star caliber in Houston. Once they changed his repertoire to a strikeout pitcher rather than a ground ball pitcher, Morton started to become way more successful. In 2019, we might see them trying to force their pitch to contact strategy on pitchers who are strikeout, and not soft contact pitchers.
I have 3 examples I want to point out. The first I want to present is RHP Kyle Crick. In 2018, Crick looked like a top set-up option for the Pirates. He recorded a 2.39 ERA, 3.14 FIP, and 1.127 WHIP in 60 and a third innings. He let up just 3 home runs, walked batters at a 3.4 per 9 rate, and struck them out at a 9.7 per 9 rate. This year, while all of Crick’s runs have come out of one outing, he’s throwing his fastball less, and getting less strikeouts. Currently, Crick has a K/9 of just 8.2. This is impart of his use of the fastball. Last year, Crick used his mid-to-high 90’s fastball 56.7% of the time. This year, he has only used it 32.3% of the time. However, both his sinker and slider usage has risen a significant amount. His most valuable pitch last year was the fastball. He had 5.2 fastball runs above average according to Fangraphs, so it’s strange to see his most valuable pitch being used less.
The next example is Richard Rodriguez. Last year, Rich-Rod was tied with Felipe Vazquez for the highest K/9 last year at 11.4. Along with an elite K/9, he had a 2.47 ERA, 2.60 FIP, and 1.067 WHIP. Rodriguez had given up just 19 walks in 69 and a third innings of work, and 5 long balls as well. He was quite possibly the most underrated relief pitcher in 2018. Entering 2019, Rodriguez was another top quality set-up option for the Pirates, but like Crick, he has seen his K rate plummet. As of now, it is currently at 7.9. He has given up long balls at a 3.4 per 9 rate, and walks at a 4.5 per 9 rate as well. This could be impart of his use of the curveball. Last year, he used it 24.9% of the time, but this year he has only used it 14.9% of the time. Plus, his fastball usage has jumped from 75.1% to 83.5%. If Rodriguez’s curveball is what got him the strikeouts most often, it is probably the reason for the lack of its use.
The last example is Keone Kela. Kela, who the Pirates acquired at the deadline last season, did well with the Bucs in his limited time on the East Coast in 2018. Kela has been a strikeout pitcher for his entire career. Dating back to 2015, Kela’s K/9 never dipped below 10, until this year. However, even though his fastball velo is still right around his career average, he’s been using it a lot less. Right now, Kela has used it 56.6% of the time. That represents a career low. But he has been using his secondary pitch, a curve ball, a lot more often at a 42% clip. Last season, Kela’s fastball was worth 1.2 runs above average. Although you could blame his poor performance to injuries, as he is on the 10-day IL right now, it’s not like any of his pitches have seen a significant reduction in velocity. Plus, his drastic change in pitch usage strangely matches with his early season struggles.
It makes no sense why the Pirates are doing this to their players. Why fix something that isn’t broken? Kela and Crick are still fairly young. While Rodriguez is 29, this is his second full year in the bigs. It could seriously mess up the development of these young pitchers who the Pirates would like to rely on for years to come. However, changing their pitching repertoire, and changing their approach can lead to performance issues, and possibly even injury if they start throwing a pitch/pitches they’re not comfortable throwing.