2016 Season: What Went Wrong—Starting Rotation

Ten days have passed since the end of the Pirates season and now that I’ve allowed the season to digest, I’m ready to write about what went wrong in this 2016 season. A season that left us with no postseason for the first time since 2012 and a record of 78 wins, 83 losses and one silly tie. A season that left us in third place behind the Cardinals and 25 games behind the surging Cubs, who won the most games in the Majors with 103. And a season that can be summed up in one word—inconsistent.

After winning 98 games in 2015, the Pirates reverted back to an under .500 season with a shocking 20-game difference in wins to 78. Even the most pessimistic of preseason predictions didn’t have them at below 80 wins. For a team that finished 78-83, you’d probably be surprised that they only finished under .500 in two months. They were 13 games above .500 total in April, May, July and August, but a putrid 9-19 month of June hurt and then an 11-19 finish in September/October did this team in.

Month by Month
Split W L RS RA WP
April 15 9 128 109 .625
May 14 13 130 115 .519
June 9 19 106 154 .321
July 14 10 107 96 .583
August 15 13 122 111 .536
Sept./Oct. 11 19 136 173 .367

So where did the inconsistency start for this team? The main culprit was pitching and most importantly, the starting pitching. The line is “you’re only as good as your the next day’s starting pitcher.” And well most of the rotation that the Pirates were banking on coming into the season failed miserably.

Overall, the Pirates starting pitching gave up 4.68 runs per start, which was 11th in the National League and well below the league average. They also were dead last in the NL with just 5.3 innings per start as the starters could not consistently go deep into games to help out the team and bullpen. The team also saw injuries and poor performances lead to a complete turning over of the rotation from Opening Day to October 2. The result was Jeff Locke leading the team in innings with just 127.1 IP, which is the lowest amount of innings thrown by a team leader in Pirates history. And just the second time every in Major League history that has ever happened going all the way back to 1891. Yes, 1891. That’s an incredible stat that shows you how bad things went for this rotation.

So who’s to blame? Well after three seasons of Francisco Liriano (5.46 ERA/5.28 FIP) giving the Pirates 86 starts of a 3.26 ERA, the wheels fell off for Frankie this season. On Opening Day, Liriano blanked the Cardinals at PNC Park through six innings with a fantastic 10 strikeouts for the win. It was his only start out of 21 with the Pirates that he did not allowed a run. He also walked five in that game and that was to be a major concern because turned south for Liriano. His starts became more erratic, increasing walks, less innings and a crooked line score when he exited. He finished April with a 3.86 ERA (his best mark of the season) and started to regress. He posted a 5.34 in five starts in May and followed it up with an even worse 7.03 ERA in June and then a 5.81 ERA in six starts in July before being shipped off to Toronto at the trade deadline as a salary/poor performance dump that cost the Bucs two top 10 prospects. He finished with a 5.46 ERA (5.28 FIP) with an alarming 5.5 BB/9 in 21 starts with Pittsburgh. Liriano resembled nothing like the man who had found a resurgence to his career in Pittsburgh as I think he saw a league-wide adjustment to lay off his slider that Frankie threw out of the zone most of the time.

It wasn’t all Liriano. The Pirates dealt Neil Walker to the Mets last offseason in return for LHP Jon Niese (4.91 ERA/5.37 FIP). From 2012-2015, Niese provided the Mets with quality innings and a 3.65 ERA in 113 starts in those years. The Pirates were banking on more of the same, if not better from Niese in hopes he could get some more groundballs that the Pirates covet from their starters. It was a solid strategy that just did not work. Instead, Niese was giving up home runs at double the rate, giving up 10.8 hits per nine innings and finished with a 5.13 ERA through 18 starts before being moved to the bullpen and then shipped back to New York for reliever Antonio Bastardo. Fans can whine about the Pirates overrating their rotation coming into the season, but there was nothing from the past three seasons that could have predicted this kind of shoddy performance coming from Niese, especially with the Pirates solid track record of getting the most out of their starting pitchers.

It’s never a good sign when two of your starters coming into the season end up with 5+ ERAs and end up on another team by August.

Then there was RHP Juan Nicasio (4.50 ERA/3.78 FIP), who was the talk of spring training as he dazzled start after start with high strikeout totals and zeros in the runs column. Did the Pirates figure out another project with a pitcher that was tossed away from other organizations? That looked to be the case until the season hit when Nicasio reverted back to not being able to put people away, struggle a second and third time through a lineup and finished with a 5.05 ERA as a starter. He was also moved to the bullpen where he pitched more effectively (3.88 ERA) down the stretch.

Jeff Locke (5.44 ERA/4.84 FIP) was another pitcher that took a step back as he made 19 starts for the Pirates in 2016 to the ugly tune of a 5.86 ERA and that’s including a complete shutout as well. Locke was moved to the pen as well before it was all said and done. Locke was never supposed to be a top 1 or 2 starter in the rotation, but even their 5th starter took a major step back in 2016. Four starters locked into the rotation finished with ERAs above 5.00 for the Pirates. I often wonder just how bad it would have been had Jameson Taillon (3.38 ERA/3.71 FIP) and Ivan Nova (3.06 ERA/2.62 FIP) not show up and pitch great down the stretch for this team.

And then there’s Gerrit Cole (3.88 ERA/3.33 FIP), who was the one guy in the rotation that the Pirates could rely on every fifth day. Cole had a rib issue in spring training and got a late start to the season. He was pitching well with a 2.77 ERA when he left a start in June with right elbow inflammation. Cole missed a month, came back in July and had a 2.73 ERA after a solid start in Atlanta on August 2. He then was lit up in the next four starts, blowing his ERA to hell and included a two-start performance that saw Cole give up an abnormal 24 hits in 11 innings. He hit the DL again, came back on September 12, gave up five runs and was shut down for the rest of the season. It was an injury filled season for Cole. Let’s hope that he’ll be 100 percent healthy in spring and can continue the season he was having before August hit.

With four members of your starting rotation puts up 5+ ERAs and your ace hits the DL three times in a season and only makes 116 innings, it’s a recipe for disaster. Nothing went right for this rotation the Pirates rolled with to start the year. Looking at how the rotation did, it’s almost shocking that the Pirates managed to win 78 games with the lack of consistency from the rotation.

Like I mentioned above, Taillon and Nova pitched great for the Bucs down the stretch and it was another top prospect Tyler Glasnow (4.24 ERA/4.26 FIP) that the Pirates were banking on would have a start to his career like Taillon did. Both Taillon and Glasnow dominated at Triple-A this season. Taillon was called up on June 8 and looked like he belonged right from day one. Meanwhile Glasnow stayed in Indianapolis due to control issues despite a sparkling low ERA and strikeout totals. Glasnow got his shot a month later on July 7 and struggled as he continued to show control problems. He hit the DL and went back to the minors before returning late in the year. He finished with just 23.1 major league innings and was not what the Pirates were hoping they’d get from him out of spring training. Glasnow is close to breaking out, but it wasn’t to be this season in the Majors. If he comes up and has a season like Taillon did and provide stability to the rotation, the Pirates may have earned that wildcard berth this year as well.

I’ll take a look at what else went wrong in 2016 in our next post.

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