Just How Bad Was Pitch-to-Contact for the Pirates?

The Pirates have long employed the pitch-to-contact philosophy, but that is gone with the exit of Neal Huntington. How bad was it for the Pirates? Real bad.

I get it. You're probably long over reading the words Pittsburgh Pirates and pitch-to-contact in the same sentence, but bear with me. I'll try to stop, but the reality is that a shift away from this philosophy is one of the most exciting parts about the leadership change in Pittsburgh. I'll try to illustrate that here.

For those who are new to the term, pitch-to-contact is a pitching strategy where the pitcher tries to elicit weak contact, resulting in a ground ball, in as few pitches as possible. You will often see pitchers who use this strategy throwing a heavy dose of sinkers and two-seam fastballs as they get the type of movement that should result in that weak contact.

If you've followed the Pirates for any length of time, you know that they have been a pitch-to-contact team for quite some time. However, that era has seemingly come to a long overdue end after our new GM, Ben Cherington, expressed that the organization is going to focus on player-centric development. So, no more square pegs in round holes.

The Pirates have recently had three former pitchers who have enjoyed immediate success with other teams. Success that FAR surpassed anything they did in Pittsburgh. So, I thought it would be fun to display how pitch-to-contact contributed to those players not realizing their potential with the Pirates.

Charlie Morton

When Charlie Morton was a Pirate, he was a sinkerballer - almost exclusively. He threw the sinker quite a bit in his one season with the Braves prior to coming to Pittsburgh, but not nearly as frequently as he did with the Pirates. 

In 2015, Morton's finally year in Pittsburgh, he threw the sinker 63% of the time. It was essentially his fastball as he only threw a traditional four-seamer 5% of the time.

Now, that wouldn't be a problem except that his sinker was probably his worst pitch. Batters hit .315 off of it as opposed to .238 off his four-seamer, .144 off his curve, and .300 off his splitter. It's true that 72% of those hits were, true to form, rather weak and resulted in singles, but the batter is on-base as opposed to walking back to the dugout.

Now, let's compare that to his most recent, highly-successful season with the Tampa Bay Rays. Charlie still throws the sinker, but at a much lower frequency - only 19%. And, in case you're wondering, yes, it is still his worst pitch. However, he can now use it as a tool to help him get out of jams rather than relying on it 60%+ of the time.

The big difference for Morton is the Rays took what he did well and amplified it. The curve ball was always his best pitch, throughout his years with the Pirates and even now. It is now the pitch he uses most often - throwing it 38% of the time in 2019. 

Imagine that. The Rays ask a relatively average pitcher to throw his best pitch more and his worst pitch less and the guy turns into a Cy Young candidate. Who would have thought?

Tyler Glasnow

Tyler Glasnow is perhaps the Pirates' best example of a square peg being shoved into a round hole. Glasnow is a guy that thrives on striking batters out with his high-90s fastball and a fantastic curve ball. Those two pitches alone can make for a pretty successful career and Glasnow has them both.

The Pirates, however, insisted that the throw the sinker almost equal to his four-seamer, which batters hit .313 against in 2017 (not good, I know, but read on), and more than his curve ball, which batters hit .206 against. His sinker, which, like Morton, was his worst pitch...by far (.422 BAA).

Fast forward to 2019, and Glasnow is with the Tampa Bay Rays. However, unlike Morton, the sinker isn't mixed into Glasnow's arsenal. He's dropped it altogether, and with great results. Now, the Rays have asked Tyler to focus in on those two exceptional pitches that he has, his fastball and his curve, and use them exclusively. Again, they determined what Glasnow does best and let him do it.

Gerrit Cole

Gerrit Cole has become the poster child of the Pirates' failures with pitchers during the Neal Huntington era. He went from being a frustrating case of a guy who couldn't seem to reach his full potential in Pittsburgh to someone who looks to be an annual Cy Young contender. It was almost as if there was something in Pittsburgh holding him back. What could that be?

Cole is a little bit different than other two above in that he only threw the sinker 17% of the time during his last season in Pittsburgh. So, it didn't make up quite as much of his arsenal, but I'll give you two guess what his worst pitch was. If you guessed fastball, go sit the next couple plays out. Of course, it was his sinker, and probably moreso than either Morton or Glasnow. 

Cole's sinker not only yielded the highest BAA of all his pitches, but also the highest power numbers. Teams slugged .497 off his sinker and had an ISO (isolated power) of .212 - both were the highest of any of his pitches, which completely defeats the purpose of throwing the sinker in the first place.

In 2019, with the Astros, Cole threw the sinker 13 times. Not 13% - 13 times. Instead, Houston allowed Cole to rely more on his elite fastball, slider, and curve. This is the part that makes me pull my hair out. Why, if you have a guy that throws those three pitches like Cole can, would you waste 17% of him on a pitch he is below-average at?

Pirate fans are consistently bringing up the Cole trade as a reason the pitching staff is in shambles. "If we hadn't traded Cole," is a common thread in the fan base, but the reality is, trade or not, Cole was not going to be a Pirate in 2019. Even with his slightly above average performance, he still priced himself out of Pittsburgh. The frustrating part of the trade for me was that the Pirates submarined his trade value for five years by forcing him to throw a pitch that didn't take advantage of what made him elite. So, the return they got was reflective of who the Pirates made him, not who he really was. If Cole was today what he was in 2017 - a 4.26 ERA, 1.251 WHIP, 8.7 K/9 guy - I'd feel pretty good about getting Moran, Feliz, Martin, and Musgrove. The problem is that he isn't that guy, and he never was. He was just handicapped in Pittsburgh. Imagine the bounty they could have received if they just let him throw.

So, if you're the cynical fan who thinks things in Pittsburgh will never be different as long as Bob Nutting owns the team and can't quite figure out why people are hopeful it will, that is one reason. Ben Cherington has promised player-centric development which focuses on amplifying their strengths as opposed to creating weaknesses. That's why I'm hopeful.

Follow Jared on Twitter: @a_piratelife

Comments (6)
No. 1-3
Glennithy
Glennithy

This has been my complaint for years! You don’t buy a Triple Crown winning horse so he can pull a plow, just like you don’t draft a big arm stud pitcher who has struck guys out for years and make him hit bats.

PirateSteve
PirateSteve

As bad as this made me feel, it was oddly laced with hope. lol

Billdunn
Billdunn

It angers me more that we had these pitchers and didn't take full advantage of them, more than it does that we let them go. Like you said, the return on Cole could have been MUCH higher.