Since the Neal Huntingdon era started for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team has always focused on developing pitching.
Whether it from be trades, free agent signings, or through the draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates have been successful in making certain guys productive.
That is why they made the playoffs for three straight years from 2013-15. That is why their current window for winning should still be open. Losing two of their top hitters changes things but that’s another story.
Early on this season, two Pirates pitchers have caught my eye. These pitchers are Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow. They both have tremendous talent and incredible stuff. Both throw with high velocity and have to ability to compile strikeouts with sharp breaking pitches. The problem is, they often lack a third pitch.
We saw this on Opening Day when Cole gave up five runs in the blink of an eye after getting two quick outs in the fifth inning. Cole was relying on his fastball and changeup but did not throw many sliders, only 7.9 percent. By the time the batting order came around for a third time, the Red Sox had timed his 98 mph fastball. Andrew Benintendi turned one of those fastballs around for a long home run.
That day, Cole needed a better mix of pitches.
Yes, in his two starts since Opening Day, Cole has looked better. He gave up three runs in six innings against the Atlanta Braves. He beat the Cubs at Wrigley Field allowing two runs in six innings. That being said, he’s given up 21 hits in 17 innings pitched this season. His ERA sits at 5.29. It is way too early to judge these numbers but Cole has been hit fairly hard thus far.
That being said, there is reason for hope. Over his career, Cole has thrown his changeup 5.3 percent of the time. This year he’s throwing it 12.2 percent of the time. He is also throwing his slider slightly more this year than last, 19.5 to 17.9 percent. He’s used it much more since Opening Day. If Cole can effectively mix has fastball, slider, and changeup and throw those pitches for strikes, he can return to his 2015 self.
Cole’s Career Usage Rates Courtesy of Brooks Baseball
Then there’s Glasnow. In his first start, Glasnow walked four straight batters, two of which forced in a run. He was pulled after 1.2 innings and looked glum in the dugout until his next start. When that time came, Glasnow did show improvement. He ended his day going five innings giving up six runs, yet only four were earned. He struck out seven and walked two. Both walks came in his final inning.
Was Glasnow sharp in his second start overall? Not really. Did he show improvement from the first start? Immensely. In his first start, Glasnow threw the fastball 81.3 percent of the time. He clearly couldn’t locate it. He couldn’t locate anything. The first start was a throwaway start. For whatever reason, Glasnow just did not have it together – possibly from nerves.
In his second start, things looked much better. He threw strikes. He mixed pitches. Glasnow labored through five innings when he easily could’ve been bounced in the second. When the Cubs punched for four runs in the first inning, Glasnow punched back with a 1-2-3, two strikeout second inning. The biggest reason Glasnow was able to be fairly effective was the use of his changeup. He threw it 26.3 percent of the time against the Cubs and only 4.7 percent of the time in his first start. He’s gotten a swing and miss on the changeup 24.1 percent of the time so far this year.
The pitch has shown it can be deadly. It just needs to be used more consistently.
Glasnow’s Career Usage Rates Courtesy of Brooks Baseball*
*Glasnow’s usage includes time spent in the Arizona Fall League in 2014
A look in the past
The biggest worry for these two is that they will get in their own way of reaching full potential. We’ve seen this from Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers in the past. James McDonald comes to mind. JMac had really good stuff. A mid-90s fastball with a looping 12-6 curveball that made hitters buckle at the knees. In the first half of the 2012 season, it looked as if McDonald was going to be apart of the rotation for years to come. He would be a free agent the next season. In the second half of 2012, McDonald got hit hard. He couldn’t respond. He didn’t have a third pitch. For his career, McDonald threw 65.6 percent fastball, 27.6 percent breaking ball, 6.8 percent changeup.
The lack of mixing in a changeup killed his career.
Charlie Morton pitched much the same way with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He has always had excellent stuff. Once again, a mid-90s sinking fastball with a sharp curveball. Some days he would pitch seven scoreless and look like one of the game’s best. Other days he would get lit up. The stuff has always been there. It has always been electric. Why couldn’t he become a number one or two starter? It comes down to not having that third pitch. For his career, Morton has thrown his changeup 9.4 percent of the time. Morton is an effective back-end of the rotation starter. Perhaps he could have been more with a better third pitch.
As a hitter, it is much easier to decipher a breaking pitch from a fastball than a changeup from a fastball. If a hitter only has to worry about the changeup less than 10 percent of the time, he’ll be able to see – and more importantly, time – pitches better. That is why a third pitch is crucial, especially when pitching three or four times through the batting order.
All throughout Spring Training, the biggest focus for Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitchers was the changeup. If the pitching staff can execute that pitch effectively all season, dividends will be paid. In today’s MLB, where hitters are currently focusing on vertical swings and hitting fly balls, an effective pitch mix is paramount.
A three pitch mix has always been the key to being a successful starting pitcher. That may be true more now than ever. If a hitter times up a pitch, he isn’t looking to make solid line drive contact anymore. He is looking to hit the ball over 400 feet. On the flip side, if a pitcher is able to mix his pitches and keep hitters off-balance, he can rack up many strikeouts. If your name is Gerrit Cole or Tyler Glasnow, a three pitch mix can make you lethal.