Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Shutout-slinging Pirates overpowering opponents with depth

By Christina Kahrl
June 17, 2015
Gerrit Cole (10-2, 1.71 ERA) is one of three Pirates starters with an ERA under 2.00
The Pittsburgh Pirates, taking down the Chicago White Sox again? That might not seem all that remarkable by itself.
But Tuesday’s 3-0 victory marked the fifth time in six games that the Pirates pitched a shutout, and that, my friends, is nothing short of amazing. Not only because it's rare, but because it reflects that Pirates pitching could be a developing advantage that could carry them past any opponent. The depth and talent it takes to do that, especially in today's game, can make any series winnable, making the Pirates scary-fun this season in a way they haven’t been since ... well, let's get into that.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this marked the first time a team had thrown five shutouts in six games since 1995, when the Orioles did it. It has now been done only five times: by the ’95 and ’74 Orioles, the ’86 Astros (yes, Mike Scott and his splitter really were all that, but any rotation that had Nolan Ryan as its No. 3 had something going for it) and the first time around by the 1903 Pirates. This was also the first time a team had done it before Sept. 1 in a season since those 1903 Buccos. Heck, stretch it back three games and the Pirates have thrown six shutouts in their past nine games; the last time that was done was by those same ’86 Astros.
So before we get into the Pirates and what's awesome about them this season, keep in mind what this also means. No team managed to do this during the low-scoring, high-mound '60s. And it never happened in 1968, the season famously known as the "Year of the Pitcher." So Bob Gibson and friends never did that, nor did Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. You have to have top-shelf talent and depth.
And that's what this year's Pirates have in the rotation. Consider the most amusing factoid from this run of team-wide mound dominance: The one Pirates starter who let anyone score during the last week's action was breakout ace Gerrit Cole, giving up two runs (one earned) in six innings in his 10th win of the season on Saturday. What a slacker, because that and a meaningless run later scored in that same game is all the scoring Pirates' opponents managed for the week.
Sure, it helps that the Pirates have faced the Brewers, Phillies and White Sox during this stretch -- those three teams are 27th, 30th and 28th, respectively, in the majors in scoring. Since the equally awful Mariners aren't going to be on Pittsburgh's schedule this season, that's as good as it gets as far as matchups go.
It seems appropriate that Charlie Morton kept this cycle of dominance rolling, because he’s the guy who got it started last Wednesday when he beat the Brewers 2-0. Morton is on the comeback trail from a second surgery on his left hip, having undergone procedures in 2011 and 2014 to bracket his 2012-13 interruption of having to endure and come back from Tommy John surgery. Through all of this he’s been working with pitching coach Ray Searage and others to fine-tune his mechanics and get back to what works for him, having seemingly gotten carried away trying to imitate Roy Halladay at one point.
The results have been unusual and effective: Not only has he won all five of his starts since coming back from the DL, his walk and strikeout rates have both dropped dramatically. He's generating more than twice as many grounders and fly balls with an especially nasty sinker that he throws more than 70 percent of the time, mixing in a knuckle-curve and the rare four-seam fastball to keep batters honest and his infielders busy. Perhaps even more extraordinary is that he hasn't hit a batter yet this season after having led the NL in HBPs in both of the past two campaigns despite not pitching a full season either year. He’s allowing fewer than 2.2 runs per nine, with an ERA that is now down to 1.62.
And he's also clearly the Pirates fourth-best starting pitcher, because he isn’t better than Cole or A.J. Burnett or Francisco Liriano. It’s an embarrassment of riches that lets them pick between former All-Star Jeff Locke and Vance Worley(2.85 ERA last year) for their fifth starter. And that's without anticipating a potential return to action from Jameson Taillon in a role to be determined at the tail end of the season when the former top prospect comes back from his own TJ surgery.
That's scary-good depth, the sort of thing that lets them let it ride with Morton to see if he can hold up over the coming months, and creates matchup fits: Burnett and Morton pounding people with a steady diet of sinkers; Liriano with a three-pitch spread generating a team-leading 30.5-percent strikeout rate; and Cole dealing the best pure stuff of any of them, starting with a 97 mph fastball and an 87 mph slider. All those sinkers -- all that stuff -- is murder on bats, and it's part of the reason why the Pirates have allowed an MLB-low 38 homers and an MLB-best ratio of more than 1.6 ground ball outs to caught flies.
The other fun thing to think about? The last time the Pirates did this, back in 1903, was the year of the first World Series. The Pirates were in that series ... and lost. That predicts nothing for the present, reflecting only that some combinations of events, some echoes of the past, are particularly sweet to pick up on. Others, not so much.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

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