The Pirates season died a death of a thousand cuts this year, but the deepest gash was the dropoff in pitching. The team ERA jumped up by a run per game and the WAR collapsed (stats from Fangraphs unless otherwise noted)
Pitching: 2016 – 4.22 ERA (MLB rank 18th); 8.3 WAR (MLB rank 27th)
2015 – 3.23 ERA (MLB rank 2nd); 21.6 WAR (MLB rank 4th)
How much difference did that run make? In 2016, when the Pirates gave up four runs or less, they were 61-19; when they gave up five runs or more, their record was 17-64 per Baseball Reference.
|The 1-2 punch never landed in 2016 (2013 Topps)|
ROTATION: First and foremost the starting pitching just didn't hack it. The staff was in a transitional period with AJ Burnett, JA Happ and Charlie Morton gone and Indy bursting with simmering but not-quite-ready arms. But the FO plan to lowball back-end arms and count on Gerrit Cole, Frankie Liriano and Jon Niese to carry the load until reinforcements arrived backfired. Cole pitched off-and-on through nagging injuries from camp forward, Liriano lost the strike zone (although he seems to have rediscovered it at Toronto) and Niese was a disaster. Jeff Locke, Juan Nicasio and Ryan Vogelsong didn't deliver at the back end.
The team was pushing its luck by being short a pitcher at least in reserve (Kyle Lobstein was next man up when Trevor Williams was hurt early the season) until the young guns – assumed to be Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow – would arrive to fill in sometime before the All Star break. That part, at least, worked out, with Jamo and Chad Kuhl rather than Glasnow claiming a couple of spots. The plan was designed both by budget and circumstance and quickly proved short of wiggle room. Ivan Nova gave the rotation a veteran if streaky presence at the deadline, but he was all the late season help that the Pirates mustered, and his future as a Pirate is murky with free agency singing its siren song.
It did allow the Pirates to audition Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault and Trevor Williams; Glasnow was the only one who showed in 2016 that his MiLB pedigree may translate in the show into a starting role.
It may have been a stretch to assume the 2016 rotation would be as strong as 2015's, but the 10-game difference in WAR is the gap between 78 wins and 88 wins – a wild card berth.
Starters: 2016 – 4.67 ERA (MLB rank 24th); WAR – 7.1 (MLB rank – 24th)
2015 – 3.53 ERA (MLB rank 5th); WAR – 16.9 (MLB rank 6th)
|Felipe Rivero has the look of a back ender, but the bridge collapsed (photo Pgh Pirates)|
RELIEF CORPS: Some regression was expected from the dazzling 2015 numbers. The bullpen was solid at the back end, even with the inevitable deadline loss of The Shark, but the team struggled to find mid-inning guys, a particularly sore spot given the inability of the rotation to carry a game into the seventh frame. The Bucs didn't address that problem until late in the year when Nicasio rejoined the relief corps, Antonio Bastardo came over and Felipe Rivero showed potential closer stuff.
Neftali Feliz and AJ Schugel were down in September, forcing the Bucs to finish up the campaign with Wade LeBlanc, Zach Phillips and Phil Coke. Adding to the challenge was the inning/pitch monitoring of the young guys, leading to even more short starts and earlier bullpen participation. The relievers worked 585 IP this season after tossing 500 last year, and those extra frames were absorbed by the mid-inning guys, not the stronger back end.
Bullpen: 2016 – 3.57 ERA (MLB rank 11th); 1.2 WAR (MLB rank 25th)
2015 – 2.67 ERA (MLB rank 1st); 4.7 WAR (MLB rank 7th)
2016: The transient nature of the staff (31 different guys pitched for the Bucs) didn't help matters. Poor performance and injuries took their toll, and the Pirates were in cattle call mode during the dog days to evaluate their young guys. The five men that made up the rotation at the end of the year were an entirely different set of arms from April as Cole, Liriano, Niese, Nicasio and Locke morphed into Taillon, Kuhl, Nova, Vogelsong and a Chinese menu fifth spot. The area of roster construction is where the FO was most derelict; it built no depth for the staff to cover injuries and performance.
It's also hard to quantify what, if any, effect the losses of AJ as a mound leader and Jim Benedict as an evaluator/teacher may have had; ditto with the umps not giving up the very bottom of the strike zone and the way-wide edge this season. That tightening up of the box not only impacted pitch counts, but also the defensive scheming which the Pirates employ at an almost NFL level. All in all, a perfect storm swept the Bucco pitching staff in 2016.