Two disturbing trends the Pittsburgh Pirates must not see continue in 2018

This is the first in a series of looks at negative trends that popped up this season for the Pittsburgh Pirates that need to be turned around for the club to contend in 2018.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the season had to deal with the inability of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ top two pitchers in the rotation not being able to keep the ball in the ballpark.

Gerrit Cole allowed a whopping 31 homers while Ivan Nova got torched for 29 long balls.

When your top two arms entering the season allow 60 homers, there is a big problem.

That especially rings true when the trend of allowing the big fly is unlike anything we’ve seen before, especially in the case of Cole.

So how does this trend become just a 2017 speed bump opposed to a long term issue?

Gerrit Cole

Cole entered the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2017 campaign as a guy who generally didn’t get hurt by the home run ball, having given up just 36 combined the past four seasons; including only seven in 2016.

While I do have some confidence in Cole being able to rebound, I don’t have as much confidence in Nova.

While homers were way up across the league, it still shouldn’t account for the massive spike in Cole getting crushed by the homers.

In his case though, Cole’s problems are correctable.

Cole’s arm looks fine with a career-best fastball velocity (96.1mph), but perhaps the best sign of Cole’s season was that his 4.08 FIP was below the 4.36 league average.

Strike outs were up from 7.6 per nine innings in 2016 to 8.7 this year, while his walks were down to 2.4 per nine. In addition the batting average against and BABIP were right at the league average, so not terrible.

Of course Cole is expected to be better than the league average and the biggest reason he wasn’t is the hard contact rate spike to a career-worse 31.3 percent. That number was actually around 35 percent for most of the season, which shows slight improvements from Cole.

To put that into perspective, during Cole’s first three seasons in the league, his hard contact rates were 24.0 percent, 28.9 and 29.5. Sadly that number has increased every season, which is a bad trend, but Cole isn’t nearly as bad as the guy who got beat around at times this season.

At times in 2017 Cole struggled with pitch sequences and command. Whether he was tipping pitches or not, it was a problem, but it is also one that should be correctable.

A lot of the damage against Cole this season came off the fastball. He allowed a .796 OPS and 12 homers off his four-seam fastball while the league put up a .838 OPS and hit six homers off his two-seamer.

Better fastball command alone should help Cole rebound in 2018

Ivan Nova

While I do have some confidence in Cole being able to rebound, I don’t have as much confidence in Nova.

Of the 29 homers he allowed, 24 of them came after May, which means he spent the past four months getting torched.

Throughout the first two months of the season and after being acquired at the 2016 trade deadline, Nova was very effective, pitching like a top of the rotation starter. While that may have been a case of him pitching above his head for a long stretch, Nova pitched to contact and was very effective.

In his case though, Cole’s problems are correctable.

What changed the final four months of the season?

The ground ball.

His first four months in a Pittsbugh Pirates uniform, dating back to the 2016 season, Nova had a ground ball rates 47.9, 56.6, 51.0 and 49.7 percent. In the four months that followed, Nova’s ground ball rates dipped to 43.2, 46.2, 40.2 and 45.2 percent. The results turned into a lot more fly balls and a lot more balls leaving the ball park.

The worst sign though in Nova’s case is his FIP. His first four months as a Pirates saw him post FIP’s of 3.18, 2.10, 2.79 and 3.64. That ballooned to 5.22, 5.60, 5.33 and 7.49 the past four months. Quite simply, Nova isn’t fooling anyone and is performing worse than a back of the rotation starter.

What made Nova very effective in the early going was his sinker. When that pitch is going he is getting ground balls and making pitching look easy.

Somewhere along the line Nova lost that sinker and the ability to hit the bottom third of the zone with any pitch. He doesn’t have the stuff to pitch in the middle or upper third of the plate and has paid dearly for missing spots.

Whether Nova can rediscover that sinker in the offseason remains to be seen, but the bottom line is that he has to or he will continue to trend in the wrong direction.

If the Pittsbugh Pirates are to contend in 2018, the first negative trend they need to reverse is Cole and Nova keeping the ball in the park more often.

It can be as simple as getting back to better fastball command.

If they do, the Pittsburgh Pirates staff has a chance to be better at the top right off the bat next season.

Matt Shetler

Matt is a life long Pirates fan with both a newspaper and radio background. Before coming to Pirates Breakdown he was most recently the co-owner and lead columnist for Pittsburgh Sporting News. He has been a credentialed writer for all four major sports and also has written for plenty of other sports and fantasy sports websites.