|Pirates pitchers learning value of strikes|
Written by Daniel Paulling (Contact & Archive) on May 01, 2009
The Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation has drawn a lot of attention for its good work early in the season. Only one starter has an ERA over 3.72. Zach Duke has taken the role of staff ace, posting a 3-1 record and 2.43 ERA over four starts.
The Pirates have had some well regarded arms for a few seasons, but it seems this is the first time they're coming together at the same time.
Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette discusses why in an excellent read.
To hear the Pirates tell it, the foundation of pitching coach Joe Kerrigan's philosophy can be tidily summarized in two words: Strike one.
"It all starts right there," starter Zach Duke said. "The numbers don't lie."
They surely do not: As Kerrigan eagerly points out to his pitchers with a weekly posted notice in a clubhouse meeting room, a National League batter who sees a first-pitch strike -- a called or swinging strike, foul ball or ball put in play -- has a .233 average, while the one who gets a 1-0 count has a .278 average. That creates the difference, with one pitch, between facing a utility infielder and a top-of-the-order type.
It may seem like a cliché, but strikes are a pitchers biggest weapon against hitters. Once hitters fall behind in the count, they are more likely to become defensive at the plate -- i.e. swing at pitches they normally wouldn't swing at -- and either strike out or put bad wood on the ball.
And the opposite is true. If a pitcher falls behind in a count, he's likely to try to catch too much of the plate for a striker. Hitters can start looking for pitches in their wheelhouse when this happens. That's why pitchers need first-pitch strikes.
The Pirates, for all the talk of their improvement under new pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, have actually regressed in that area.
One problem with it: The Pirates are, according to those same numbers that do not lie, no better at throwing first-pitch strikes now than in 2008, when their pitching was among the worst in Major League Baseball, with a 5.08 ERA and only 66 quality starts. The Pirates threw 55.8 percent of their pitches for strikes in 2008 under pitching coach Jeff Andrews and currently are throwing 54.8 percent, third-lowest in the majors. Moreover, four of their five starters -- everyone except Duke -- have regressed in this area.
So, now that the team's ERA is the best in the game at 3.41, and a remarkable 13 of the 21 starts have been quality, what is the real difference?
The answer clearly is not strike three: The Pirates rank last in the majors with 112 strikeouts.
Perhaps it would be wise, then, to look at what happens between those pitches ...
For one, and this might be most important, the Pirates are walking far fewer batters, averaging 4.2 per game now compared to 5.9 in 2008. They also average 15.85 pitches per inning, fewest in the majors. Those are strong signs that Kerrigan's push for first-pitch strikes is just part of a push for strikes, period.
The Pirates are throwing more strikes, which means they are allowing fewer walks. Last season, their pitchers averaged 5.9 walks per nine innings, but this season they're averaging 4.2 per nine. That's a huge difference.
And perhaps that shows the value of a good pitching coach. Kerrigan has long been reputed as a top-notch guy who provides his pitchers with mounds of statistics. He has turned around the careers of several pitchers and is doing that again for the Pirates.
It's too early to make any lasting impressions about the Pirates staff, but it appears things are looking a little better for Pittsburgh.
That leaves me to wonder: Where is Leo Mazzone?