While buccaneers elsewhere are enjoying plenty of success, the Pittsburgh Pirates continue to struggle mightily. A new, more progressive front office regime is in place, but the route back to contention (much like shipping route in the Gulf of Aden) will be a long an treacherous one. Closing in on a dubious record for the most consecutive losing seasons, the Bucs must invest heavily in the player development system to once again become relevant, cultivating home-grown stars at minimal cost.
One of the few bright spots during former GM Dave Littlefield’s ill-fated tenure was the selection of left-hander Tom Gorzelanny in the 2nd round of the 2003 amateur entry draft. The Triton College product quickly established himself as one of the more promising prospects in the Pirates’ system, compiling an impressive minor league dossier that included a 3.01 ERA, 8.59 K/9 and 2.72 BB/9.
After getting a brief glimpse of the majors in 2005, Gorzelanny went on a tear at AAA Indianapolis in ’06 (99.2 IP, 3.48 K/BB ratio) and tossed 61.2 frames for the Pirates at the end of the season. The results were nothing to write home about (5.84 K/9, 4.52 BB/9) and he served a DL stint for elbow soreness in August, but he displayed a 92 MPH fastball and a pretty sharp low-80’s slider while generating a decent amount of grounders (49.2 GB%). Lefties with that sort of package do not grow on trees.
The Evergreen, Illinois native spent the entire 2007 campaign in the big league rotation, tossing a curiously high 201.2 innings (more on that later). His peripherals weren’t great (6.02 K/9, 3.03 BB/9), and his 3.88 ERA was more the reflection of a very low home run/flyball rate (HR/FB%) of 7% than stellar pitching. Using Expected Fielding Independent ERA (XFIP) from the Hardball Times, we can get a better read on Gorzelanny’s performance. XFIP uses strikeouts, walks and a normalized home run rate (HR/FB% for starting pitchers tends to hover around 11-12%) to calculate a pitcher’s ERA. Gorzelanny’s XFIP was nearly a run higher than his actual ERA, at 4.87. On top of that, his 92 MPH heater dropped to 89.9 MPH, he cut the usage of his slider to 11.2% and his GB% fell to 42.1%.
The most surprising aspect of Gorzelanny’s 2007 season was the way that he was used/abused down the stretch. Despite being in contention for positively nothing, then-manager Jim Tracy worked his 24 year-old starter unnecessarily hard, perhaps to the point of breaking him. In his article examining Chad Billingsley, Peter referenced the “Verducci Effect“, a concept developed by Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci. Verducci, using research compiled over the past several seasons, theorizes that young pitchers who are subjected to an innings total increase of 30 or more between one season and the next are more prone to injury.
In 2006, Gorzelanny tossed 99.2 innings at AAA and 61.2 innings with the Pirates, for a combined total of 161.1 IP. Considering that some people (including Baseball Prospectus’ Will Carroll) believe that there’s a marked difference in stress between minor league and major league innings, Gorzelanny’s innings increase between 2006 and 2007 might have actually been higher than 40.1 frames. Even if taken at face value, Gorzelanny’s workload put him squarely in the crosshairs of the “Verducci Effect.”
Perhaps in an attempt to win a few extra ballgames and save his job, Tracy seemingly pushed Gorzelanny harder as the season progressed. Gorzelanny made 11 starts over August and September, and Tracy kept his lefty out there for at least 100 pitches in eight of those starts. It’s not as though the 100+ pitch games were efficient, either: the longest Gorzelanny went in any of those games was seven innings. Not surprisingly, Gorzelanny ranked near the top of the majors in Pitcher Abuse Points, a Baseball Prospectus stat that attempts to measure the stress that pitchers are put under by higher workloads.
With that damage inflicted, Gorzelanny was an unmitigated disaster in 2008. In an injury-shortened 105.1 IP, he struck out just 5.72 batters per nine innings and issued an alarming 5.98 BB/9. Gorzelanny was crushed by the long ball, surrendering 1.71 HR/9. His HR/FB rate was somewhat high at 13.2%, but even if we normalize the HR rate, Gorzelanny’s XFIP was a macabre 6.14. His once-plus fastball continued to fade, coming in at an average speed of 88.7 MPH, and he cut his slider usage down to 7.9%. Instead, Gorzelanny heavily utilized an 82.5 MPH changeup (20.5%). Gorzelanny also continued to surrender more flyballs, with a GB% of just 40.3%. Banished to the minors in July and placed on the DL with a left middle finger injury in September, Gorzelanny endured a season that he would rather forget.
Unfortunately, the current version of Tom Gorzelanny just doesn’t look anything like the guy in the prospect catalogs. Instead of displaying low-90’s heat and a plus slider, he now showcases a much less appealing high-80’s fastball/low-80’s changeup combo, with flyball tendencies to boot. Perhaps an offseason of rest will do wonders for Gorzelanny’s battered body, but steer clear of this Pirate if he doesn’t regain his velocity, lest your fantasy season go the way of an oil tanker off the coast of Somalia.