Player Profiles 2020: Pittsburgh Pirates Starting Pitchers

Nick Pollack analyzes the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation for 2020 with in-depth player profiles.

Throughout the winter months of the offseason, the Pitcher List staff will be creating profiles for every fantasy-relevant player for 2020. Players will be broken up by team and role through starting pitchers, bullpen, lineup, and prospects. You can access every article as it comes out in our Player Profiles 2020 hub here.

 

Pirates At A Glance

You can look at the Pirates in two different ways. There’s plenty of promise on the horizon with the Pirates cleaning house and possibly implementing different pitching approaches throughout the system, a welcome change that could move them from a two-seamer-heavy approach to an emphasis on breaking balls and four-seamers. Joe Musgrove, Mitch Kellerand a healing Jameson Taillon have each hinted stardom on their own and could make impacts soon.

Then you have the back end of the staff. Chris Archer appears to be on the wrong side of his career. Trevor Williams and Steven Brault are currently slotted as the final two arms in the rotation.

 

 

Chris ArcherLocked Starter

Nickname: CA Dreamin’

 

2019 In Review

A full season with the Pirates brought few positive outlooks in March, and Archer’s 23 starts likely exceeded the worst expectations, with a horrid 5.19 ERA and 1.41 WHIP, concluding with a shoulder injury for owners to easily part ways with their disappointing pick.

Walk rates rose, command lessened, but at least his strikeout rate rose after a dampened 2018 campaign. Maybe there’s hope for a healthy Archer to impress for a comeback in Pittsburgh?

 

Fastball (50% usage)

Even after getting shipped to Pittsburgh – notorious for its (former) emphasis on sinkers – Archer still limited his sinker usage to under 10%, heavily featuring four-seamers. The heater is far from what it used to be, sitting a full two ticks lower than its 2015 prime, and has never truly been an asset in Archer’s favor. He struggles to place it where he wants around the zone (if even in the zone in the first place given its affinity to hover a 50% zone rate), and while it’s impressively better than his sinker (.261 BAA vs. a ghastly .370 clip), there’s still a whole lot more needed out of the pitch to suggest promise.

And it really is a pity. Archer’s slider pleads for a proper heater to play with, but it doesn’t seem as though it will ever get a true companion. If we enter May and Archer is surprising the baseball world with success, without a doubt a miraculous revitalization of his four-seamer will be the culprit.

 

Slider (38% usage)

Let’s talk about this breaker. It’s still really really good. 2019 featured its highest SwStr rate of Archer’s career – 23.4%! – second-highest O-Swing at nearly 47%, and still found the zone over 40% of the time. Yes, that’s a money pitch, and it is a bit shocking to see Archer lower its usage from a steady 40%+ across the last four seasons.

That being said, the offering didn’t subdue batters as you’d expect with those plate discipline numbers. Other comparable secondary pitches would come paired with a sub-.200 BAA or an wRC+ of 50 or lower, but Archer’s slider has returned a .200+ BAA for three straight seasons, and last year’s 92 wRC+ is shockingly high and set a career mark.

It could be his lack of supplement options in his repertoire holding back to the pitch from its full potential, but at the very least, the strikeouts will continue to flow with this deadly weapon at his side.

Note: I grouped in Archer’s curveball into his slider usage. He features the hook nearly exclusively as a first-pitch mix-up offering 2% of the time and it’s not worth your focus in the slightest.

 

Changeup (12% usage)

It seems like clockwork that we hear about Archer’s changeup development in the spring, suggesting it’s the final piece of the puzzle. The third pitch he needs! I’m not one who believes heavily in that statement as Archer is more or less a one-pitch pitcher given the mediocre state of his heater, but it wouldn’t hurt for Archer to grow comfortable with this slow ball.

Sadly, it wouldn’t be wise to believe he will. Archer’s changeup usage hit a peak last year with a 12% mark (3.5 points higher than his career rate), yet it didn’t come with the desired results. A 11.2% SwStr rate is not going to be anyone’s answer to their problems, amplified by a 28% O-Swing that suggests a lack of polish and deception.

There’s always a chance he can tinker and refine with a healthy spring, but don’t expect a whole lot.

 

2020 Outlook

Despite the harrowing description of Archer’s repertoire, there’s still hope for a productive season in 15-teamers, if not shallower. Strikeouts will continue, and a low-4.00 ERA with a mediocre WHIP may earn its bread on a variety of squads. Archer will make you question how much strikeouts are truly worth – just one headache among the multiple he’ll induce.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.80 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 24% K rate in 140 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 4.00 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 27% K rate in 190 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Chris Archer 2020 projection:

4.50 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 26% K rate in 180 IP

 

Joe Musgrove – Locked Starter

Nickname: Joe Dirty

 

2019 In Review

Was 2019 a disappointment or a cause for excitement? Musgrove’s 4.44 ERA was a clear step back from his near sub-4.00 campaign in 2018, though we saw signs of better days ahead. A career-best SwStr rate, fewer sinkers, and a heavier lean on curveballs and sliders suggest his 22% strikeout rate can climb further. His fastball velocity peaked in the 94 mph range in September, climbing steadily through the season. These are great signs, and with a low 1.22 WHIP backed by a minuscule 5.4% walk rate, there’s hope for a legitimate breakout.

 

Fastball (49% usage)

Musgrove shifted from a 2:1 mix of four-seamers and sinkers to a near 4:1 ratio last season, and hopefully the trend continues in 2020. His four-seamer velocity rose significantly in September to a consistent 94 mph from the 90-93 range through the first five months, and with a possible emphasis on elevation, there is hope for Musgrove to turn the pitch into a beneficial offering instead of the negative impact it made last season.

Its control will likely still be good, though. There could be room for Musgrove’s command to allow him to throw more pitches out of the zone (57%+ every season), adding more walks, but fewer hittable pitches. It’s what Bieber did, and Musgrove could follow suit.

 

Sider (23% usage)

We saw an increase in Mugrove’s slider usage last season, and it did all it could to remedy Musgrove’s turmoil. A 20% SwStr rate mixed with a .182 BAA works wonders as a #2 pitch, and it’s hard not to get a little excited at the possibilities if Musgrove elects to rely on the sweeper more often. A 25-30% usage rate could push Musgrove’s strikeout up to 25%, especially if he pulls back on the “pitch to contact” heaters as well.

 

Changeup (11% usage)

It may surprise you that Musgrove’s changeup was well over the thresholds of a money pitch – 48% O-Swing, 46% Zone rate, and 19% SwStr. Yet it returned just a 1.0 pVal due to its limited use and 11 extra-base hits allowed on just 282 thrown. In another word, inconsistency. There’s a ton of potential here, and paired with two breaking balls, it makes you wonder why Musgrove turns so heavily to his heater in the zone to get the job done. He has all the tools here.

 

Curveball (9% usage)

Just like his slider, Musgrove’s curveball gets the job done, featuring nearly identical numbers with a 17% SwStr rate and .180 BAA. You should like Musgrove’s breaking balls, a lot, and if his slider isn’t utilized more frequently, at the very least it should be paired with an uptick of curveballs. If their combined usage hints at 40%, good days are coming.

 

Cutter (8% usage)

Musgrove features a mix-up cutter among his repertoire when he needs a strike but wants a different look from his regular four-seamer/sinker approach. It’s understandable, though unnecessary. He dropped its usage in half in 2019, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see its half-life to sit at one.

 

2020 Outlook

Musgrove has the tools to make an impact in 2020, though his approach hasn’t allowed him to take the leap we’ve been anxiously waiting for. There’s a large range of outcomes here, but with his stuff and hint of increased fastball velocity, we have a wide-awake sleeper in front of us.

 

Realistic worst case projection: 4.30 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 20% K rate in 150 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.60 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 25% K rate in 190 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Joe Musgrove 2020 projection:

3.90 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 24% K rate in 180 IP

 

Trevor WilliamsLocked Starter

Nickname: T-Ells

 

2019 In Review

2018 seemed too good to be true, but to start 2019, Williams’s magic lasted for five starts, returning a 2.59 ERA and confounding us all once again. However, it came crashing down quickly with a rough two starts, then an IL stint shortly after that gave us a battered and ineffective Williams on the other side via a 6.58 ERA and 1.58 WHIP. Williams likely isn’t a 3.11 ERA pitcher again, but he’s surely not a 5.38 ERA arm either. Where in the middle does he land?

 

Fastball (67% usage)

Everything comes down to Williams’ four-seamer, which was able to deftly avoid punishment early in his career, returning a combined 26.3 pVal across 2017 and 2018. The pitch did Williams few favors last year, though, with is BAA ballooning to .273 with a 125 wRC+ at a seemingly acceptable .315 BABIP.

It seemed mystical for its results in previous years. Williams wasn’t particularly skilled at its placement around the zone, at least not moreso than your average heater, and its 2019 numbers appear more in line with expectation for a 92 mph four-seamer.

There could be an extra element of deception or a touch of movement lost from his side strain that sidelined him for a month last season, though I’m more inclined to believe in regression finally applying over a large enough sample.

Now, Williams’ sinker, however, is a different story. Despite making up about a fourth of his heaters, it’s a more understandably effective offering. The pitch has returned 35%+ O-Swing rates in each lengthy season on the hill, and save for a few mistakes last year with the pitch, it continued doing exactly what Williams wants: weak contact in play.

In one of the rare cases out there, I’d expect more sinkers to be thrown by Williams next season. It’s not a recipe for elite production, but a sinker-heavy approach that continues to induce swings on pitches off the plate can still return surprising evenings.

 

Slider (20% usage)

As Williams’ main secondary offering, this slider doesn’t quite do enough. It has never held a Zone rate above 30%, nor an O-Swing above 40%, resulting in fewer strikes than needed and a hesitation to toss it in crucial situations. Its results did him no favors, either, tallying a .311 BAA and .848 OPS across 466 thrown – not ideal for a pitch that you’re hoping to trust.

Williams is sure to continue tossing it, though, as he doesn’t have much else to turn to. Maybe its recent trend of increased SwStr (2.5-point increase to 14.2% since 2017) can continue into 2020 and at least become an average option.

 

Changeup (12% usage)

Following that questionable review of William’s slider, you can imagine my lack of enthusiasm for Williams’ third pitch, which produce similar numbers outside of half the swinging-strike rate. A 7.4% SwStr clip on a changeup will do little to suggest upside, let alone a pitch to turn to in any time of need.

We’ll see this pitch away against lefties and not a whole lot otherwise.

 

2020 Outlook

Expect a lot of meh. Williams’ four-seamer took a step back last season, and without a solid option in his back pocket, Williams’ sinker was the only pitch that allowed him to survive the hot summer evenings.

There’s a glimmer of hope that a clean bill of health will help reclaim the magic of 2018, but don’t invest in that return. Even if it does, you’ll feel skeptical of Williams after every start.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.90 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 18% K rate in 110 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 4.10 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 22% K rate in 190 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Trevor Williams 2020 projection:

4.50 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 20% K rate in 170 IP

 

Mitch KellerLikely Starter

Nickname: The Agreeable

 

2019 In Review

It was a polarizing season for Keller, even inside of individual games as he’d have horrific early innings, only to settle in for pure dominance to end his evenings. His 7.13 ERA came with a 3.19 FIP as he carried a rarely seen .475 BABIP and sub-60% LOB rate across 48 innings.

Don’t let that small sample of volatility and misfortune steer you away from his showcased skill set. His fastball clocked in at 95+ mph routinely, and his slider and curveball each present opportunities for both called and swinging strikes. The blueprint is there for success – will it come for Keller in 2020 or does he need more time to develop?

 

Fastball (60% usage)

No sinkers can be found here as Keller features four-seamers all the time with his heater. Despite its -10.4 pVal, there’s plenty of promise in the pitch. He elected to feature it as a strikeout offering, elevating effectively with two strikes, but getting deep in counts was the issue. Those who made contact did damage, earning a .461 BAA and an astonishing .591 BABIP across the 65 balls in play.

Those numbers are scary, but with under 500 pitches thrown and 95+ mph velocity that touches 98, there’s expected improvement on the horizon. Keller could benefit in the same way as Musgrove, pulling back his fastball zone rate (60%) in favor of nibbling along the edges more often and trusting his breakers to pull him back into counts if he falls behind.

 

Slider (19% usage)

Leading the way for Keller’s secondary pitches is a phenomenal slider that featured an incredible 50.5% O-Swing and 27% SwStr rate in 157 thrown. Its 47% whiff rate is everything you want from a slide piece, and a solid 37% Zone rate doesn’t hurt either.

Just 19% thrown is a bit shocking given the shellacking endured by his heater. Expect the number to rise next year, especially as the Pirates likely shift from a fastball-focused philosophy to embracing the league’s view of emphasizing breaking balls.

 

Curveball (17% usage)

Along with his slider, Keller has a strong curveball that he can mix in just as effectively as his sweeper. The pitch took more of a spotlight when Keller didn’t have as good of a feel for his slider on a given day, though the results weren’t as pretty. A 40% O-Swing is still great – it’s simply not the elite 50% mark we saw with his slider.

Still, having both these pitches in Keller’s repertoire allows him to hold off on his changeup as much as possible, while possibly inching his heater usage to the 50% mark. I would be shocked to see this deuce utilized more often in 2020, but as long as his slider takes center stage, this curveball will be a welcome companion.

 

Changeup (4% usage)

With two strong breakers in his pocket, I’d imagine Keller continues to use this pitch sparingly. He doesn’t have a solid feel for the slow ball quite yet, and Keller’s success doesn’t rely on its development. It’ll show its face during at-bats against left-handers when breakers aren’t working, and it’s best to hope we don’t see it much, if at all.

 

2020 Outlook

Along with Musgrove, there’s plenty to like in Keller’s blueprint…if the Pirates give him a proper chance in the rotation. He has excellent four-seamer velocity, a deadly slider, and a strong third option to turn to in his curveball. The question is if Keller will undergo a significant change in approach to reinforce his strengths. A season filled with breaking balls and fewer fastballs in the heart of the zone could return SP #3/4 numbers, even if it does come with a slightly increased walk rate.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.50 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 22% K rate in 80 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.70 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 26% K rate in 180 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Mitch Keller 2020 projection:

3.90 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 25% K rate in 160 IP

 

Steven BraultFringe

Nickname: Steve Brault!

 

2020 Outlook

The Pirates have yet to sign a new arm to their rotation, allowing Brault to be listed as the current fifth starter. While he’s sure to get a fair share of opportunities this year, I’d be shocked if he found 25 starts. And even if he did, well, the Pirates allowed Brault to throw 113 frames of 5.16 ERA and 1.50 WHIP last year – why would they pull the plug during a season they’re expected to miss the playoffs?

 

 

Jameson TaillonFringe

Nickname: Whiffsky

 

2020 Outlook

It’s unclear how much we’ll see of Taillon in 2020 – if at all – and were he to return, expect heavy limitations. There is a lot going for Taillon in his command and repertoire, and 2021 could be the best of his career, but 2020 will be just a small dose.

 

Chad KuhlFringe

Nickname: The Storyteller

 

2020 Outlook

Like Taillon, Kuhl is returning from TJS, though Kuhl is expected to be ready for spring training after an extra year of recovery time. There was a glimmer of hope for his escape from irrelevancy in 2018 as he began utilizing his slider more often, but it remains to be seen if his 95+ heat and wipeout slider will return with health, let alone proper application to return legitimate production.

 

Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Nick Pollack

Founder of Pitcher List. Rotographs contributor. Worked with CBS Sports, Grantland, Washington Post, and SB Nation. Former pitching coach and Brandeis alum.

  • Avatar Dave says:

    Thanks Nick, good stuff. Do you think Keller has ace long-term potential, or just #3/4 (or maybe somewhere in between)?

  • Avatar Johnnie LeMaster says:

    Would you rather have Mitch Keller or Dylan Cease?

  • Avatar McDowellSTL says:

    Fantastic stuff, Nick. Articles like this are what keep me coming back, and what makes PL one of the best resources around.

    I have a lot of hope for Musgrove in the upcoming campaign. What do you think his main issue was last year? Just inconsistency start to start?

    • Nick Pollack Nick Pollack says:

      I think his approach wasn’t refined. A lot of “pitch to contact” and less reliant on his secondary stuff.

      Like Bieber, a raise in walk rate could do him well.

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