Bucs' Biggest Problem Easier to Identify than Solve
As the Pirates try to climb out of a demoralizing slump, one factor has emerged as the team's biggest shortcoming.
In making their first attempt to crawl back after enduring a slump the likes of which the Pirates haven’t seen since they first became a playoff team, the Bucs confirmed what type of team they have become in 2016.
One that lacks consistency and quality in its starting pitching.
On Friday night, potential savior Jameson Taillon lasted just four innings and allowed four earned runs. Somehow, the Pirates won, 8-6.
On Saturday night, Jeff Locke dominated through seven and the Bucs won easily, 6-1.
On Sunday night, Chad Kuhl battled through five in his Major League debut against the great Clayton Kershaw and the Pirates hung on, 4-3.
And on Monday afternoon, a 4-0 lead degenerated into a 5-4 loss in large part because Francisco Liriano couldn’t get through five innings in yet another profoundly disappointing start.
It all added up to a 3-1 series against the Dodgers in response to a brutal 6-20 stretch that had begun on May 28 at Texas and continued through a 5-3 loss to San Francisco on June 23. The bounce-back series against Los Angeles at least stopped the bleeding. But the performance of the starting pitchers throughout wasn’t enough to re-establish confidence that the wins are likely to begin piling up again on a regular basis.
That won’t happen until the Pirates can string together a succession of well-pitched games.
“The majority of what the Pirates have suffered through this year has been because of the pitching,” Root Sports analyst Kent Tekulve assessed on Monday during an appearance on The Stan Savran Show on 970 ESPN. “The starting pitching in particular has caused most of the problems that have been there.”
It really is that simple. There’s no need to delve deeper into some obscure analytic.
Injuries, especially the one sustained by Francisco Cervelli, have been a factor. So has the season-long slump endured by Andrew McCutchen.
But too often on the way to 37-40 — that would be seven games off the 77-game pace established last season on the way to 98 wins and a third consecutive trip to the playoffs — the Pirates have been chasing the game.
“There have been stretches where the offense has had trouble scoring runs,” Tekulve continued on the Savran show (with guest host Jason Mackey). “But those stretches have been much shorter and fewer than the stretches that we’ve gone through with the starting pitchers either not pitching well and giving up a bunch of runs or not being able to get deep enough into the game.
“We know this year, unlike past years, that the middle relief is not very strong. It’s not as strong as it [has] been in the past. And middle relief is a very difficult area to fix. So the job is for the starters to get past the middle relievers to the back-end guys. That’s what needs to happen and the starters haven’t been able to do that.”
Watching Liriano labor with a big lead on Monday against the Dodgers was the latest painful reminder.
Watching Taillon and Kuhl of late has been encouraging, merely because of their obvious potential, but having potential and consistently going six or seven innings and giving your team a chance to win are two different things entirely.
And that’ll be the case if and when the Pirates decide to turn to Tyler Glasnow, another potential savior for the rotation.
So it’s going to be up Liriano and to Gerrit Cole, once he gets back from the DL, to lead the charge.
If one is to be made.
Perhaps that’ll prove impossible in the wake of losing Special Assistant to the General Manager Jim Benedict, regarded in the industry as a behind-the-scenes pitching guru and a significant if under-publicized contributor to the Pirates’ pitching success in recent seasons. Benedict went to the Marlins during the offseason.
Perhaps pitching coach Ray Searage has lost his magic touch; perhaps manager Clint Hurdle has run out of inspirational, button-pushing phrases. Perhaps Liriano has begun the inevitable descent and Cole and the other youngsters just aren’t ready yet.
This much the Pirates have established as they close in on concluding the season’s first half: When Locke has suddenly become your most reliable starting option, you’ve got a problem.
“They’ve had some games where they’ve just given up a ton of runs,” Tekulve continued regarding the starters. “They’ve had a lot of games where they’re pitching alright but you’re only pitching five innings because of the number of pitches that they’re throwing, all things that they haven’t done in the past.
“That has been the major effect on how this team has gone and why it is where it is and the answer to, how’s it going to get back to where it needs to be? All those answers are wrapped up in one spot, it’s the starting pitching.”