When the Pittsburgh Pirates sign or trade for a pitcher, we all take notice. Of course, when you take A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano from 5.00+ ERAs to All-Star caliber arms (and Burnett even made the ASG last year), your bona fides are well established. Make no mistake that it’s a full organizational effort in Pittsburgh that helps turn these talented, but struggling arms into strong rotation (and sometimes bullpen) assets, but one guy tends to get the bulk of the credit as the face of the revolution: pitching coach Ray Searage.
Searage joined the team as the pitching coach in 2011 and he has been the point man for pitching during their incredible turnaround from bottom-feeder to contender. Jon Niese and Juan Nicasio instantly became more fantasy relevant the second they reached Pittsburgh. Niese because he was already a solid major league starter (career 3.93 ERA, three season at 3.71 or better) who could jump into mixed league viability with some refinement and Nicasio because he’s a live arm (mid-90s heat, filthy slider) who could be a few tweaks from being the next Burnett/Liriano.
One of the risks when we see something like this from a team is to just assume it’s always going to work. Reputations can foster laziness so I wanted to look back at Searage’s track record since joining Pittsburgh and see just how well he was doing with the reclamation projects. I found nine instances of eight starters (remember, Burnett left and came back) over the years and looked at their performance in both K%-BB% which highlights skills and ERA+ which measures performance relative to league context.
ERA+ is measured on a scale where higher is better and 100 is average. K%-BB% is simply the rates subtracted and again, higher is better. Average has grown from 10% to 12% league wide since Searage took over, but we’re more focused on what the individual pitcher is doing there as opposed to league averages.
2011: James McDonald
ERA+ difference: -9 points in Pittsburgh (hasn’t pitched in the majors since)
K%-BB% difference: 4% improvement
The Pirates actually acquired McDonald in the middle of 2010, prior to Searage’s arrival, but I thought he was going to pop for them, even before I really had any idea who Ray Searage was as a pitching coach. McDonald was a former top-100 prospect who had good velo and a useful curveball for a foundation. They added a slider as the changeup just never materialized, but he never really took off.
Hit or Miss: Miss
ERA+: 24 and -34
K%-BB%: 5% and -3%
Burnett is probably the highest profile success they’ve had in Pittsburgh with 557.3 IP of a 111 ERA+ as he consistently did something that eluded him for 13 seasons prior to his arrival: limit walks. He joined the Pirates with a 10% walk rate before cutting it to 8% as a Pirate. The real coup with Burnett is that he did it with two pitches, similar to Nicasio, though Burnett’s curve is more of a platoon buster than Nicasio’s slider.
Bedard rose to prominence in Baltimore and then became infamous as a poor return for a heist of a trade that sent him to the Seattle Mariners. Injuries made him a bust in Seattle more than talent (123 ERA+, but just 255.3 IP over 2.5 seasons), but he fell apart once he left the Mariners with just an 80 ERA+ in 352.3 innings, including an forgettable 75 in 24 starts with the Pirates.
Hit or Miss: Hit, Miss
ERA+: 36 and -22
K%-BB%: 5% and 11%
Liriano looked like a future ace early in his career, but his inconsistent control eventually became consistently bad and led to three seasons 5.00+ ERA season in a four-year stretch form 2009-2012. Walks have always been an issue for Liriano, even with Pittsburgh, but he’s cut three points off of it to a manageable 10%. He’s been much tougher to hit in Pittsburgh which is why he can survive with that walk rate. His hits-per-nine is down a full hit with Pittsburgh to 7.4 H/9.
Sanchez had a comically horrific -2% in his year before Pittsburgh so even his paltry 9% registered a big gain, but obviously, he’s a miss for them. He threw all of 13.7 IP with them and hasn’t been in the majors since then.
Hit or Miss: Hit, Miss
ERA+: 55 and 58
K%-BB%: 7% and 1%
Notice that to this point, all of the pitchers had a major walk issue when coming to Pittsburgh. That wasn’t the case for Worley, who has consistently put up strong walk rates. However, he differs from his peers by not missing many bats. So if you’re not going to strike guys out, you better not walk them if you want Pittsburgh to take a shot on you. If Burnett is kind of a best-case scenario for Nicasio, then Worley is that for Niese.
The environment that Pittsburgh has set up can’t be ignored in this revolution and Volquez exemplifies that. There weren’t any real sweeping changes from him as a Pirate. His pitch mix stayed the same as did his skills, but the spacious park, elite defense, and brilliant bullpen supporting him yielded the best results of his career. If he wasn’t going to stay with Pittsburgh, moving to KC was the next best option. They have those same three factors aiding their staff to two straight World Series.
Hit or Miss: Hit, Hit
2015: Burnett’s return, J.A. Happ
ERA+: 39 and 127
K%-BB%: 4% and 12%
Happ is probably the highest magnitude reclamation in the whole group: his 1.85 ERA produced a filthy 209 ERA+ and he had the skills to back it as his 2.19 FIP suggests (though it was just 11 starts). He trimmed his arsenal and focused on the hard stuff (72% fastball, but also leaning on the slider, his fastest secondary offering). A return to Toronto takes away that great ballpark, but the defense and bullpen change isn’t that severe so if he takes what he learned from Pittsburgh, he could hold some of those gains and be a solid mid-3.00s ERA arm.
Hit or Miss: Hit, Hit
Record: 6 Hits, 3 Misses
When you consider a 67% success and the minimal cost of entry to acquire Nicasio or Niese, it makes too much sense to try them out. Nicasio was brilliant in Spring Training and his debut before sputtering in Detroit (hardly a crime given that lineup) while Niese has been mediocre in both, also against St. Louis and Detroit. You want to panic on Nicasio? Consider that Burnett allowed 12 ER in his third start with the Pirates after two gems and still managed a 3.51 over 202.33 IP. If you’ve invested in either or both, show some patience if you want reap the rewards.