There has been an incredible amount of debate swirling about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ options for a fifth starter. But does it really matter?

There are many names in the mix for the final spot in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ starting rotatoin.

While it is fun to think that Spring Training performances mean something, the club has likely already chosen a course of action for the early weeks of the season.

Because of the prevalence of rest days in the early schedule, they will not need a fifth starter very often.  Given the opposing teams they face in April, we can speculate how the Pirates might handle the pitching staff and why they will prefer to add a lefty to the rotation.

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April Schedule

The Pirates have four off-days in their April schedule.  If you do some quick math, this means they will only need a fifth pitcher in the rotation three or four times during the month.  In addition, Clint Hurdle has already given us a clue to his thinking by announcing not only his opening day starter, but two of the next three starting pitchers as well.

The announced starters for opening week:

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
April 3

@ BOS

Cole

April 4

 

 

April 5

@ BOS

Taillon

April 6

@ BOS

TBD

April 7

Vs ATL

Nova

April 8

as ATL

TBD

Gerrit Cole is the opening day starter followed by Jameson Taillon two days later.  Ivan Nova will take the mound for the home opener which leaves a “to-be-determined” gap in the starting rotation for game three of the Boston Red Sox series.

Ivan Nova Fenway Woes

Why isn’t Ivan Nova pitching game 3 of the Boston Series?  He has a small career home / away split that shows a .266 opponent batting average at home versus a .288 average away.  This is probably not that relevant as most of his home starts were in Yankee Stadium, not PNC Park.  What is driving this decision is likely Nova’s career numbers at Fenway Park, where he has allowed an opponent batting average of .307 and a slugging percentage of .490 over 170 batters faced.  Nova isn’t going to mind missing Fenway this time around.  Hurdle most likely announced him as the starter for the home opener to get him focused on the positives of that assignment versus the negatives associated with skipping out on pitching against the Red Sox.

Filling the Remaining Spots

Which leaves us with an opening week hole on April 6th against the Red Sox and April 8th against the Atlanta Braves.  One of these slots is most likely going to be filled by Chad Kuhl.  Pittsburgh Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington has intimated that Kuhl has the inside track on the 4th spot in the rotation.  Kuhl has done nothing but solidify that position during Spring training, allowing only 2 hits and 2 walks in 7 innings of work.  The only real question is does Kuhl pitch on April 6th or 8th?

Nova isn’t going to mind missing Fenway this time around. 

The answer to this question depends on how the Pittsburgh Pirates want to set up the rotation for the second and third weeks of the season.  The Pirates face the Cincinnati Reds and the St. louis Cardinals in addition to the Chicago Cubs.  The Cubs fared well against LHP, but the other three teams struggled.  Consider their team rankings from last season:

 

Team

2016

PA against LHP

2016

HR against LHP

2016

BA against LHP

2016 rank

(by BA, all MLB)

Chicago Cubs 1719 59 .267 7th
Atlanta Braves 1711 56 .253 21st
St. Louis Cardinals 1673 49 .250 22nd
Cincinnati Reds 1431 40 .242 27th
Median of MLB 50 .255

The Reds lineup will feature some changes but their first five hitters will likely be the same as last season.  Therefore, the Pirates have probably already decided to work in a left-hander as their 5th starter and line up the rotation so that he will face the Reds.  Barring a trade, there are only two real options – Steven Brault and Wade LeBlanc.

Brault versus LeBlanc

Brault saw significant time on the mound for the Pirates last year as he racked up 33 plus innings over seven starts.  He was knocked around quite a bit, posting a 4.86 ERA and allowing an opponent batting average of .313.  Wade LeBlanc is currently viewed as a relief pitcher, but has a longer resume as a starter, having spent parts of 8 years in the majors.  LeBlanc has a better stat line with a 4.39 career ERA and a .272 opponent batting average.  LeBlanc gives up more than his fair share of home runs though, coughing up 14 of them last year in only 62 innings pitched.

This is the real Spring Training battle.  Even though Drew Hutchison might be called on to start one of the TBDs in the first week of the season, he will likely be in the bullpen after that.  At that point, the 5th spot will go to one of a left-hander.  Brault has performed better in Spring Training but he only has part of one season under his belt and is technically still a rookie.  The Pirates will probably weigh LeBlanc’s career numbers more heavily that Brault’s Spring Training performance.  This call will likely go to LeBlanc but Brault could easily be slotted in his place in the rotation below.

Taking the Hill in April

With this in mind, we can map out the starting pitchers for the first three weeks of April.

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
April 3

@ BOS

Cole

April 4

 

 

April 5

@ BOS

Taillon

April 6

@ BOS

Kuhl

April 7

Vs ATL

Nova

April 8

as ATL

Hutchison

April 9

vs ATL

Cole

April 10

vs CIN

Taillon

April 11

vs CIN

LeBlanc

April 12

vs CIN

Nova

April 13

 

 

April 14

@ CHC

Cole

April 15

@ CHC

Taillon

April 16

@ CHC

Kuhl

April 17

@ STL

Nova

April 18

@ STL

LeBlanc

April 19

@ STL

Cole

April 20

 

 

April 21

vs NYY

Taillon

April 22

vs NYY

Nova

This schedule lines LeBlanc up against the Reds and the Cardinals, two of the weaker teams against LHP.  If LeBlanc has a disastrous first outing, then Brault can step in and take his April 18th start.  It also gives Drew Hutchison an early start before going into the bullpen and aligns the Pirates’ two best pitchers, Cole and Taillon, with the first two games of the season against the Chicago Cubs.

Of course, all this could change in an instant with an injury to one of the top four starters so we shouldn’t get too excited just yet.  Besides, it will be interesting to watch the rest of Spring training and see if Brault and LeBlanc can further make their case to be the lone lefty in the starting April rotation for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Sean Riley

Sean Riley is a lifelong Pirates fan who now resides in Portland, OR. He is a former executive of several major companies and a published author. His current passion is balancing statistics and good old-fashioned “feel” to provide insight into the game of baseball. Sean is married to a great gal and the father of two amazing boys.
  • Lee Foo Young

    Hutch is almost guaranteed that #5 slot. What is your reasoning for putting him in the ‘pen?

    • Jason Rollison

      I’m not the author here of course, but what Sean is getting at is that the team may use a de facto rotation through April as they won’t need a fifth starter very much, then re-asses

  • SeanBucFan

    Exactly. They keep Hutchison on the active roster through April but only use him for one start. If Brault (or LeBlanc) have been lights out then they stay in the rotation. Hutchison is then a long relief option out of the bullpen. If not, then they reassess and Hutchison probably has the inside track. We will see in three more weeks.

  • Phillips isn’t a Red any more. so he won’t be in the top 5.

    Glasnow showed some stuff but he’ll be starting in AAA, Williams won’t make the cut as a starter. Lindblom has had a couple starts, but probably not an option either as hes mostly been a pen guy in his career.

    That leaves Hutch and Brault pretty much.

    I’m leaning to Brault. But he NEEDS to get the ball on the ground more, if he cannot do that he won’t last.