Pirates Starting Pitching Continues to Take Steps Forward

Photo credit: Gregory Bull/AP Photo

The 2022 Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation seemed like an issue for the team.  However, several events have swung it in the opposite direction.

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Despite appearing to be the Achilles heel of the 2022 Pittsburgh Pirates earlier this season, the starting pitching staff has suddenly came alive as their greatest strength.  Not only that, but aside from Jerad Eickhoff’s horrific start on Wednesday, they have been one of the best units in baseball.  For all intents and purposes of this blog, we will forget that Eickhoff start ever happened, as I have been trying to since Thursday morning.

Two major events have led to this sudden success.  The first event took place on May 18th.  For the first time in his major league career, Mitch Keller threw a sinker.  It happened in a relief appearance after he had been given a few starts off to try and find some sort of success.  It worked.

After one more relief appearance, that featured even more sinkers, Keller was put back into the rotation.  Since then, his sinker usage has increased and so has his success on the mound.  In his seven starts before his short stint in the bullpen, Keller had 6.61 ERA.  He appeared lost out there, and hadn’t really had a period of sustained success in his major league career.

Since returning to the rotation, he has a 2.96 ERA, and looks much more confident on the mound.  In his last six games, Keller has a 2.54 ERA and has only given up one homerun.  In that span, he has the 10th lowest ERA in the NL and the 4th lowest HR/9.

Last night was his worst start since returning to the rotation, while only giving up three earned runs in five innings.  All of these runs came in the 2nd inning.  Aside from that inning, Keller looked great, as he has since adopting the sinker.  This pitch has truly revolutionized his career so far.  Typically, a bad start from Keller led to 5, 6 or even 7 earned runs.  A “bad” start from Keller being only three earned runs is new and welcomed. 

The second event, which occurred almost exactly a month ago today, was the recall of Roansy Contreras.  One of the Pirates top prospects made bullpen appearances earlier in the season, but Contreras made his first start of the season on May 24th. 

Contreras has been good.  In his six starts he has a 2.73 ERA with 28 strikeouts.  The problem so far has been the inability to work deep into games.  This is partly because the Pirates are being extra careful with his pitch count, but Contreras also has the tendency to let at-bats get too long.  Instead of pitching to contact when up 0-2 or 1-2, he will often waste a few pitches in a row trying to elicit swing and misses.  This has led to high pitch counts, 11 walks in 30 innings, and a 1.40 WHIP.

However, overall Contreras’ body of work has been very impressive for a rookie.  He should be a staple in the Pirates rotation for many years to come.  There’s nothing wrong with being raw at this point in his career.

While no callup nor new pitch was deployed for JT Brubaker, he too has pitched well as of late.  There is no explanation for it from what I can tell, but I’m sure deeper analytics or pitching coach Oscar Marin could tell you what Brubaker is doing different.  From what I can tell, his pitch distribution is relatively the same.  All I know is that he has pitched very well.

In his last six starts, Brubaker has a 2.65 ERA.  Aside from a rough start against Arizona where he gave up five earned runs on three homeruns, he hasn’t given up more than three earned runs in a start since May 17th.  His last start was overshadowed by the callup of Oneil Cruz, and the game Cruz and Bligh Madris had that night.  However, Brubaker pitched 6 shutout innings in what could be considered his best start of the season. 

All of these guys, along with Jose Quintana’s resurgence has led to some great starts from the Pittsburgh Pirates as of late.  Quintana has taken a step back recently, but he still hasn’t allowed more than four earned runs in fourteen starts this season, and he’s only done that twice. 

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