Lefties, especially the hard-throwing variety, get every chance to succeed in the majors. If they come as highly touted prospects, or show positive results early in their careers, they’ll get plenty of chances even after their original team gives up. The Pirates have experienced this twice in the past few years, with Oliver Perez and then Tom Gorzelanny. While they made the right call in the case of the former, it appears they gave up prematurely in the case of the latter.
Something happened to Oliver Perez when he went to Pittsburgh in the Brian Giles trade. Almost immediately upon arrival he added a few ticks to his fastball and his slider. That might have been skewed due to a small sample, but he repeated those results again in 2004, when his fastball averaged 93 mph. At age 22, he ranked among the league’s best starters. His 2.98 ERA went nicely with a 3.45 FIP, and his 10.97 strikeouts per nine lead the league. The Pirates looked to have absolutely robbed the Padres, having also acquired Jason Bay, who posted a .378 wOBA in 2004, in the trade.
The following years would not be so kind to Perez. His fastball velocity dropped down to 91 mph, where it had been previously in his career. He also lost command of it and started walking hitters like crazy, 6.12 per nine in 2005. After another poor showing in 2006, the Pirates had apparently seen enough. After 15 horrendous starts they traded him to the Mets, though they received only Xavier Nady in return. They did, however, trade Nady two years later in a trade that got them Jose Tabata and a slew of pitchers, so that can be considered a win. It’s not like the Pirates had much of a chance to contend in the years between anyway.
The move appears to have worked out. Perez did have a good year for the Mets in 2007, but he has steadily declined since. Why the Mets signed him to a multi-year contract, never mind one for $36 million, defies comprehension. They have paid for it, though, as Perez pitched 66 horrible innings last year and managed just 38.2 this year before hitting the DL. While the Pirates might have gotten more for Perez had they hung onto him and experienced his quality 2007 season, there is no guarantee that things would work out that way. By all appearances they got rid of him perhaps not at the right time, but at time when they could still get something useful in return.
Last year, Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington apparently took a cue from his predecessor. Littlefield was the man behind the Perez move, and in similar fashion Huntington cut his losses on Gorzelanny, trading him to the Cubs at the deadline. Like Perez, Gorzelanny showed potential at a young age, a 3.88 ERA against a 4.24 FIP at age 24. Also like Perez he lost his control in the following years and produced terrible results. Perez had his excellent season in 2004 and was traded at the deadline a year and a half later. Gorzelanny had his good season in 2007 and was traded at the deadline a year and a half later.
The similarities continue. Upon joining their new teams, both Perez and Gorzelanny raised their strikeout rates and cut their walk rates. Both made seven starts, though Gorzelanny also pitched six times in relief. In their second years both realized further improvement. Perez kept his strikeout rate high and got his walks somewhat under control. In 177 innings he had a 3.56 ERA, 4.35 FIP, and 4.65 xFIP. It’s not ace material, but it’s serviceable for a middle of the rotation pitcher. Gorzelanny has proven even better during his first season with a new team, a 3.31 ERA with a 3.46 FIP and 3.98 xFIP.
Despite the similarities, Perez and Gorzelanny are different pitchers and so we cannot expect the parallel paths to continue. In fact, Gorzelanny has enough going for him that he can be expected to continue pitching well. I’m not even sure exactly why Pittsburgh, a team desperate for pitching, traded him in the first place. He was quite excellent in the high minors prior to his full-time MLB promotion, and even when the Pirates demoted him in 2008 and 2009 he pitched very well in the minors. Perez, on the other hand, struggled with his control even against lesser hitters.
Control seems like the biggest issue going forward with Gorzelanny. His walk rate, 4.63 per nine, can continue to hold him back, though he does make up for it by striking out a ton of hitters, 9.13 per nine this year, and keeping the ball inside the park, partly the effect of his 43.8 percent groundball rate. That’s not stellar, but it’s very good for a pitcher who strikes out more than a batter per inning. His walk rate is a bit better when looking at him only as a starter, 4.23 per nine, but even that will have to improve if he’s going to fulfill his promise as a No. 2 starter.
Performances like the one he turned in against the Diamondbacks don’t help his case. He lasted just five innings and needed 104 pitches along the way, only 61 of which were strikes. That led to six walks, his highest total of the season. Yet because he stranded eight of 11 baserunners he held Arizona to three runs and eventually earned the win. Strangely, it was only the 159th time since 1920 that a pitcher went five innings, walked six, and still got the win. Even more strangely, both Jorge de la Rosa and Kyle Davies accomplished it last year, on back-to-back days no less.
Like Perez, Gorzelanny’s resurgence could be a temporary thing. His control still isn’t where it needs to be, and that will be an important component of his game going forward. Yet Gorzelanny’s peripherals, both in the minors and the majors, make him look like a better case for permanent recovery. The Cubs, to their benefit, have three more years of team control, so they’ll get a long look at what Gorzelanny can do in the long run. Considering the state of the Pirates’ pitching, I’m sure Hungtington would love to get backsies on this one.