Bucco pitching fever

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Bucco pitching fever

Brian Carr, West Hills Center Staff

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Heading into the 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates season, there looms many question marks surrounding the team. Most of them point to how they are going to win back fans after gutting their payroll significantly over the last few years. But one of the positives is perhaps the starting pitching rotation, along with the relievers. As a collective unit, they showed vast improvements last season, and will hope to continue that upward trend this season.

It is a very underrated collection of youngsters and veterans, led by Jameson Taillon. The pitchers all excel at soft contact, which in other words means that opposing hitters don’t hit the ball very far against them most of the time. In examining each of the starters, there is cause for a lot of optimism, starting with the previously mentioned Taillon.

The expectations that surrounded Taillon when he was drafted nearly a decade ago are finally coming to some fruition. Taillon traded his sinker for his four-seamer as his primary fastball last year, which paired better with one of the better curve balls in the game, while also mixing in a new slider that paid off with good results. Taillon bumped his strikeout rate by nearly two points, and his whiff-per-swing rate by nearly four points from 2017 to ’18, all the while maintaining his ability to suppress hard contact. In fact, only two full-time starters have allowed fewer barrels — the most damaging contact a hitter can put in play — per batted ball than Taillon since the start of ’17.

The Pirates made a big splash by trading for right-hander Chris Archer at the mid-way point of last season. Archer’s declining numbers are no secret, and his fastball has been knocked as teams have grown accustomed to seeing his slider as his primary pitch. But perhaps change is afoot: Archer began mixing in some two-seamers and curve balls once he arrived in Pittsburgh, and told MLB.com’s Adam Berry that he’s willing to start changing up his offerings to make himself more unpredictable.

“I felt like when I was at my absolute best, I had that. And I got away from it,” Archer said of his two-seamer. “I was getting more swing-and-miss, but there’s times where you need contact, too. Just as my evolution, I figured why not use a full arsenal? I think I was limiting myself to a two-pitch pitcher for a while. I’ve already seen the benefits of using a two-seamer.”

Jordan Lyles’ one-year, $2.05 million contract won’t rank anywhere near the off season’s headlining acquisitions, but perhaps the Pirates found some value in the veteran journeyman. Lyles is another pitcher who eased off his sinker in favor of a four-seamer in 2018, and found enough success by pairing it with his curve ball to post the highest strikeout rate (22.6 percent) of his eight-year career. He was at his best as a reliever once the Brewers claimed him off waivers in early August (3.31 ERA, 2.49 FIP), so perhaps he could be even more valuable as a multi-inning swing-man who can piggyback off a back-of-the-rotation starter.

Names such as Nick Kingham and Joe Musgrove will most likely improve, helping the Buccos cut down on their runs-against category. While they may not have the hitting to contend for a World Series, the pitching should keep the team competitive most night barring too many injuries. That is something that fans have to look forward to, and will most likely have respectable attendance records heading into the campaign.