Monday, October 14, 2013

Gerrit Cole and the Pirates' History of Pitchers

For all of the Pirates legendary players, the vast majority of the truly great ones have been hitters.  The Pirates have not had many great long-term pitchers, especially since racial integration started to occur in the late 1940’s.

If you look at Baseball Reference’s Pirate Pitching Leaders page, you’ll see it is dominated by pitchers that played in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  This is to be expected for the traditional “counting stats” such as innings pitched, wins, and strikeouts.  It’s pretty easy to rack up the innings total and wins like Wilbur Cooper when you’re regularly pitching 285-325 innings per year.  Those totals will just never be seen on a regular basis again.

I wondered if the Pirates were just victims of their own long standing history, as it related to the leaderboards being dominated by old-timey pitchers.  I went on the Cincinnati Reds’ Pitching Leader page and saw plenty of modern-day pitchers like Jose Rijo (4th in K’s), Bronson Arroyo (7th in K’s, 9th in games started), Mario Soto (2nd in K’s), and Aaron Harang (6th in K’s).  

But even within the last 50 years, there just have not been many truly great Pirate pitchers.  Bob Friend leads them in both innings pitched and strikeouts, but that’s more to the fact of his longevity, as he was a Pirate for 15 seasons and finished with a 191-218 record with the club.  The strikeout was de-emphasized in that era, as well, which is why he has “only” 1,682 strikeouts in 3,480 innings pitched as a Pirate (4.35 K/9, which you couldn’t last in today’s game with that ratio).

Vern Law is perhaps the iconic Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher of the past 50 years, as he pitched all 16 seasons with Pittsburgh and finished with a 162-147 record.  He also appears throughout various Top 10 lists for Pirate pitchers (4th in IP, 5th in K’s, 6th in wins).

Bob Veale was like a less temperamental Oliver Perez, as he racked up some mammoth strikeout numbers, as well as large walk numbers, during his 11 seasons with the Pirates.  Veale finished with a 116-91 record and is 2nd in strikeouts with 1,652.

Since the advent of free agency in 1975, the Pirates have had even fewer all-time great pitchers in their history.  Perhaps the two best pitchers during this era have been John Candelaria and Doug Drabek.  There have been plenty of good to very good level pitchers, plus some fantastic single seasons (Perez in 2004 and Liriano in 2013), but no real iconic careers aside from those two.

Candelaria came up in 1975 as a 21-year old rookie and pitched 12 seasons for the Pirates.  He finished with a 124-87 record as a Pirate and was a key member of their glory years in the ‘70’s.  His 1977 season (20-5, 2.34 ERA, 5th place in Cy Young vote) was his masterpiece.

Drabek only lasted his 6+ seasons that the Pirates controlled his rights, after he came over in a trade with the Yankees, but he put his mark on the rotation during the 1990-92 run of division titles.  As a Pirate, he finished with a 92-62 record, 3.02 ERA, 1.15 WHIP (8th all-time for Pirates), and one NL Cy Young.

All of this is saying that the bar for Gerrit Cole to reach all-time Pirate greatness is pretty low.  He has all the tools and arsenal of pitches to enter into this relatively small modern pantheon.  After this season, he is under control with the Pirates for 6 more full seasons (2014-2019), until uber-agent Scott Boras whisks him away to free agency, where the Pirates may lose out on his services.

Cole is also entering a renaissance period for the Pirates, as it appears as if this is just the start of a prolonged window of contention.  At the very least, it should be a period of “not sucking”, which will afford Cole the opportunity to accrue bulk counting stats like wins, innings, and strikeouts.

While I would love to have Cole here for his entire career like Vern Law, it’s more realistic to expect him to have the Doug Drabek style of 6+ years instead.  If he can replicate Drabek’s career, but with more strikeouts, that would be quite an achievement.  It would probably allow him to be talked about in the same conversation as some of these pitchers mentioned in the article as All Time Great Pirate Pitchers.

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