Before the start of the 2019 season, there was an article posted on MLB.com labeling the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation as possibly the most underrated in all of baseball. It highlighted Jameson Taillon as an emerging ace, with Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove showing great potential, and a full season of Chris Archer, who was ready to fix his 2018 struggles. It also mentioned Nick Kingham, Mitch Keller, and Jordan Lyles as great backend options. Unfortunately, we all know how this story ends. Taillon hurt his arm, Williams, Lyles, and Archer both posted ERAs over 5.00, Keller’s ERA was over 7 in his debut, and Steven Brault was their 2nd best pitcher. Yikes. Even Musgrove, who had a great season in his own right, posted an ERA of 4.49 and struck out less than a batter per inning, which isn’t great for fantasy purposes. Overall, the Pirates’ starters as a whole posted a combined ERA of 5.40; the 5th worst in baseball, and 2nd worst in the NL, only ahead of the Rockies.
The Pirates as a whole right now are a bit of a joke, and as a Reds fan it brings me great joy and pleasure to say that. There’s obviously some fantasy value in their lineup, with guys like Josh Bell, Brayan Reynolds, and Kevin Newman just to name a few, but what about their pitching, which was horrible in 2019?
Joe Musgrove has been talked about so much this offseason, so I’m not going to go in depth on him. Joe Musgrove is good. There’s plenty of articles out there that will tell you that Joe Mugrove is good. Musgrove’s ADP currently sits at about 232, the 66th highest SP, which could end up being a steal. If you can get Musgrove in that range, 100% do it. For this article, I’m going to be addressing the Pirates’ two most disappointing SP in 2019: Mitch Keller and Chris Archer.
Mitch Keller was honestly never my favorite pitching prospect. I liked his command and well rounded profile, but thought he never missed enough bats to be a frontline starter. When the Reds knocked Keller around in his first start, confirmation bias kicked in for me, and I began my victory lap of telling people how I was right about Keller. As he continued to get shelled, I stuck with my guns and was still low on Keller, but that was until I decided to dig deeper. Mitch Keller came out in 2019 looking like a completely different pitcher. For one, Keller’s stuff became a lot nastier. After sitting in the 22 K%-25 K% range for most of his minor league career, Keller put up a 28.4 K% in 2019. He did this while also lowering his BB% from 2018. When you look at Keller’s underlying stats, you start to see how unlucky he was in his debut. While his ERA was an unsightly 7.11, his FIP and xFIP were an extremely respectable 3.19 and 3.47 respectively.
Keller’s stuff is pretty nasty, so it’s easy to see why he was finally able to start missing bats. His fastball ranks in the 83rd percentile in velocity, and the 91st for spinrate. His curveball and slider are both arguably plus pitches, both sporting high spinrates as well. Both pitches sported outstanding xwOBAs, with the slider coming in at .217 and the curve coming in at .207. When you boil it down, most of Keller’s struggles came from just how unlucky he was with his fastball. Keller’s four-seamer allowed a wOBA of .505, which is absolutely horrible. His xwOBA on the pitch however, was 143 points lower at .362. .362 isn’t a great mark by any means, but it’s a massive difference from .505. His overall wOBA of .392 was also significantly higher than his xwOBA of .314. Difference in wOBA and xwOBA doesn’t always imply luck, but when the difference is that big there has to be some luck involved.
I think that not only will Keller’s luck sort itself out, but he’ll also make improvements as most sophomore pitchers do. Keller is currently being drafted at an ADP of around 246, which I would love for him. I personally like him better than Musgrove, and I think he’s in for a big season.
I don’t want to talk too much about Chris Archer, because I’m not nearly as high on him as I am on Keller, but I think given where he’s being drafted and what he showed at the end of the season last year, he’s worth mentioning. I’ve never been a fan of Chris Archer at all, but somehow he’s managed to drag me in just a little bit. The main thing that sticks out for me is that in the 2nd half Archer completely stopped throwing his sinker, and pitched much better as a result. After a 1st half where he sported a 25.3 K% and a 11.8 BB%, as well as a 5.92 FIP, Archer improved those numbers to 30.9 K%, 7.9 BB%, and 3.29 FIP in the 2nd half. Could this just be small sample size, or just a coincidence? Of course. Could Archer continue to be a very mediocre pitcher in 2020? He sure could, but as the 85th starter off the board, and the upside being a top 20 SP, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.