March 18, 2010

Hart should begin 2010 as an AAA reliever

PITTSBURGH, Pa. / March 18, 2010

Kevin Hart's third consecutive terrible start yesterday, in which he walked six and failed to get out of the second inning, should end the fifth starter competition.

Hart, the centerpiece of the Grabow/Gorzellany deal, came to Pittsburgh after a couple of excellent AAA campaigns and four solid starts as a Cub. Seeing Hart's 2.60 ERA in Chicago and 9.7 K/9 in the minor leagues during 2008-09, the Pirates justifiably expected they were adding a major league starter to their club - one who could replace the talented but control-challenged Ian Snell.

Less than a year later, the time has come for the Pirates to admit they were wrong. Sadly enough, Hart has been something of a poor man's Ian Snell. And that is a very poor metaphorical man indeed. Kevin Hart simply has not performed well enough to be in an MLB rotation, or in the major leagues at all. He has an option remaining and the Pirates should take advantage of it by sending him to the Indianapolis bullpen until he regains his command.

While I have consistently projected Daniel McCutchen to be the fifth starter, management has clearly favored Kevin Hart so far because of his stuff. A 96 mph fastball does not do anything when you walk 13 batters in 4.2 innings, as Hart has this spring. Add in a wild pitch and a hit batter too. The role of a fifth starter is to pitch five or six innings and keep the team in the game. No one needs a fifth man who if he's on could pitch a shutout, while if he's off won't get out of the second inning. If we get outings like Hart's spring starts during the season, that will absolutely kill the bullpen. As a whole the starters need to average over six innings a start so that the relievers can average their optimal 60 innings per man this season.

Hart's control problems this spring greatly exceed the scope of last year, but they are not unprecedented. In his MLB career he's averaging five walks per nine innings. Unless you're J.R. Richard or Nolan Ryan striking out 300 batters a season, no starting pitcher can have success with that many walks. And while it's tempting to view Hart as a young player since he's new to Pittsburgh, he's 27 - the age where he should be in the prime of his career.

May I suggest making Hart a reliever? Looking at minor league stats, in 2006-07 he struck out 7.4 and 7.5 batters per nine innings as mainly a starter. In 2008-09, in a swingman role with more relief appearances, those numbers went up to 9.8 and 9.6. In the major leagues those numbers have declined to 7.5 K/9 relieving - still a good number - but only 6/1 K/9 starting, an unacceptable number for a pitcher with poor control.

Moreover, relievers who throw one inning can work around walks much better than starters, who inevitably will give up a three-run homer if there are always men on base. For example, J.C. Romero in his career has averaged five walks per nine innings - identical to Hart's total. Romero has been a part of six playoff teams in the last eight years, including four seasons of under a 3 ERA and two seasons under a 2 ERA. New Pirates closer Octavio Dotel walked 5.2 per nine last year on his way to a 3.32 ERA in a role as a top set-up man.

Daniel McCutchen is no Hall of Famer but he can pitch at least five innings and keep the team in games. McCutchen is the fifth best starter in camp, capable of an ERA in the high fours which is fine for a fifth starter. I don't even see any reason to use Hart over such career minor league types as Virgil Vasquez.

Whatever is done with Kevin Hart, he should not be starting with any Major League club. This would simply lead to too many bullpen innings, loss of confidence and an inevitable demotion. A 6.92 ERA last summer and a 15.43 this spring should be enough to end his tenure as a Pirates starter.

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