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Pirates Getting it Done with Pitching

The Pittsburgh Pirates are in a great position to end their 20-year playoff drought. The club showed a willingness to go all-in Tuesday, acquiring both Marlon Byrd and John Buck. There’s also some talk that team could also make a play for Twins first baseman Justin Morneau. The focus on offense shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the team has been led by strong pitching all year. Overall, Pirates pitchers rank fifth with a 3.49 FIP. Aside from Gerrit Cole, the team hasn’t seen major contributions from their young prospects yet. Instead, the team has seen huge payoffs from the most unlikely sources.

The teams top four pitchers according to WAR are A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon. All four pitchers have shown an ability to perform well in the past, but none could be counted on as consistent performers. For years, both Burnett and Liriano have been two of the most frustrating pitchers to their respective fan-bases. Grilli had one good year prior to joining Pittsburgh. And Melancon was coming off a disaster season with the Red Sox. All of their acquisitions were met with tepid reviews. But the front office, and coaching staff, has done a great job of targeting cheap, high-upside players they could fix with easy tweaks.

While Grilli’s performance with the club has been the biggest surprise, he’s the player they tinkered with the least. After sitting out 2010 with a knee injury, Grilli came back throwing harder than before. He actually pitched 32.2 great innings in the Phillies’ minor-league system before he was released. Pittsburgh rightly recognized Grilli was a different guy, and brought him in. The only change to Grilli’s repertoire since joining the Pirates is that he’s stopped throwing his changeup, and has become a fastball/slider guy. But he only used the changeup four percent of the time pre-Pirates, so it wasn’t a major chance. This was just a good piece of scouting by the club.

With Liriano, Burnett and Melancon, it’s easier to see the Pirates’ impact. Both Liriano and Burnett have relied strongly on their sinkers since joining the Pirates. Burnett’s four-seam fastball has become a big problem in New York, and was responsible for his terrible home run rates with the Yankees. I covered Burnett’s issues more in-depth in July. Liriano had also seen his four-seamer lose effectiveness once he started throwing with a slightly reduced velocity in 2011. He’s seen an extreme shift in his sinker usage in 2013.

A.J. Burnett K% BB% BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP Four-seam Sinker
Before 21.4 9.9 0.290 71.40% 48.90% 11.30% 4.10 4.01 3.78 45.97 18.04
After 23.1 7.9 0.299 73.50% 56.80% 11.30% 3.37 3.25 3.22 24.03 36.25
Francisco Liriano K% BB% BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP Four-seam Sinker
Before 23.2 10.0 0.301 69.80% 47.50% 10.80% 4.37 3.80 3.72 26.23 24.97
After 24.9 9.5 0.299 78.90% 52.90% 6.40% 2.74 2.66 3.01 0.58 41.08

Outside of a terrible first month, Melancon was actually fairly solid through the rest of 2012. So, in that case, it was easy to see him as a bounce-back candidate. And while the club should be applauded for realizing this, Melancon has also seen some changes to his repertoire. His cutter usage has exploded to a staggering 77.53% this year. Melancon threw his cutter just 29.99% in 2012. He’s also shown a much bigger focus on two pitches, opting for a cutter/curveball approach. He’s posting the best strikeout and walk rates of his career, and has already surpassed his season-high with 1.9 WAR.

In each case, the Pirates identified players with high upsides, who needed to make minor adjustments in order to succeed. Much credit is due to both the team’s scouting department and the coaching staff, particularly pitching coach Ray Searage, who has conveniently been around during the period each of these players were acquired. These low-risk, high-reward moves are the main reason the team is about to break one of the longest playoff droughts in baseball.