March 6, 2011

2011 Position Preview: Starting Pitchers

The Pirates made one of the two moves I wanted to bolster their starting staff this season when they signed Kevin Correia to a two year, $8 million contract. Correia would be a back end starter almost anywhere else, but based on the spring rotation I expect him to take the Wrigley Field mound on Opening Day, April 1.

Correia is a righthander whose best pitches are a 90 mph fastball with movement and an 85 mph slider. He also mixes in a cutter, a slow curveball and a changeup. After a few inconsistent years in a swingman role, Correia had a breakout season in 2009. Last year he was hurt by the home run and posted the highest ERA of all the Padres' starters.

2008: 110 IP, 3-8, 6.05, 1.71 WHIP, 5.4 K/9
2009: 198 IP, 12-11, 3.91, 1.30 WHIP, 6.5 K/9
2010: 145 IP, 10-10, 5.40, 1.49 WHIP, 7.1 K/9

While his ERA looked bad last year, I'm not too concerned for a few reasons. Correia exceeded his career high in innings by 53 in 2009 while throwing 30% sliders. A huge jump in innings with a high percentage of sliders almost always leads to fatigue the following year. Sure enough, last year Correia had respectable stats (10-7, 4.63) in mid-August before apparently hitting a wall. One year later and at only 30 years old, Correia's arm should be more rested - especially since he threw only 15% sliders last year.

Correia's peripherals are encouraging too. In 2010, he posted his highest ever strikeout rate and also his highest ever ground ball rate, 49%. That ground ball rate makes his home run rate of 1.24 per nine innings look like bad luck. He'll also do better this year if he relies more on the slider, his best pitch. This year I'm expecting Correia to bounce back with a 4.00 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and 7 K/9 over 190 innings.

#2 Starter: Paul Maholm
The Pirates' second longest tenured player, Maholm will hope to rebound from a very disappointing year. He had a 4.03 ERA after shutting out the Astros on three hits in July, then was rocked for a 6.81 ERA the rest of the season. I think he'll be the #2 starter this year, which slots him to pitch the home opener on Thursday, April 7.

2008: 206 IP, 9-9, 3.71, 1.28 WHIP, 6.1 K/9
2009: 195 IP, 8-9, 4.44, 1.44 WHIP, 5.5 K/9
2010: 185 IP, 9-15, 5.10, 1.57 WHIP, 5 K/9

I want to see Maholm succeed as much as anyone, but his falling strikeout numbers are cause for concern. While the lefthander did well with his slider and curveball, his 88 mph fastball looked like batting practice to MLB hitters in 2010. Batters hit .303/.360/.452 against Maholm on the year. Even if he can keep home run totals low, the odds of Maholm putting up a sub-4.00 ERA as he did in 2008 look slim to me. In 2011 I'm expecting a 4.90 ERA, 1.50 WHIP and 5 K/9 over 190 innings.

#3 Starter: James McDonald
After coming to Pittsburgh in the Octavio Dotel deal, McDonald was nothing short of a revelation. He relied mainly on a 92 mph fastball which was easily the best on the starting staff, but his out pitch was a 77 mph curveball that routinely made accomplished hitters look stupid. McDonald had a 3.52 ERA for the Pirates - 2.31 in September - and accomplished the rare feat of increasing his strikeout rate despite moving from the bullpen to starting.

2008: 6 IP, 0-0, 0.00, 1.00 WHIP, 3 K/9
2009: 63 IP, 5-5, 4.00, 1.38 WHIP, 7.7 K/9
2010: 72 IP, 4-6, 4.02, 1.30 WHIP, 8.5 K/9

This season, I'm expecting McDonald to again be the Pirates' best pitcher. He's 26 and unlike most pitchers coming off breakout years, should continue to be durable since he doesn't use a slider and has never thrown more than 142 innings in a season. I'm counting on 175 innings with a 3.60 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 8.3 K/9.

#4 Starter: Ross Ohlendorf
My associate McMillen got together a group of people last year to wear orange in the bleachers for Ohlendorf's starts in honor of his alma mater, Princeton. At the first game the group was me with an orange shirt in section 135, McMillen with an orange shirt in 138, and zero other people who even happened to be wearing orange. It was a real microcosm of Ross's season, which was undoubtedly the best ever for a starter with just one win.

2008: 63 IP, 1-4, 6.46, 1.87 WHIP, 7 K/9
2009: 177 IP, 11-10, 3.92, 1.23 WHIP, 6 K/9
2010: 108 IP, 1-11, 4.07, 1.39 WHIP, 6.6 K/9

Despite the one win season, Ohlendorf pitched well enough that he's now an established major league starter rather than a one year wonder. At 28, he shouldn't lose anything from his 91 mph fastball and can continue to improve his excellent slider. I expect Ross Ohlendorf to be effective again and healthy this year: a 3.90 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 6.5 K/9 in 175 innings.

There are several candidates for the fifth starter spot, so I'll save those for another day. I have confidence in three of Pittsburgh's top four starters, but we'll need Paul Maholm to return to form if the Pirates are to have a good rotation this season.

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