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Measuring Pirates' success with pitcher reclamation projects

Nicasio, Niese attempting to become latest to excel in Pittsburgh
April 12, 2016

When the Pittsburgh Pirates sign or trade for a pitcher, we all take notice. Of course, when you take A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano from 5.00-plus ERAs to All-Star caliber (and Burnett even made the NL All-Star team last year), your bona fides are well established.Make no mistake that helping

When the Pittsburgh Pirates sign or trade for a pitcher, we all take notice. Of course, when you take A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano from 5.00-plus ERAs to All-Star caliber (and Burnett even made the NL All-Star team last year), your bona fides are well established.
Make no mistake that helping to turn these talented, but struggling arms into strong rotation (and sometimes bullpen) assets is a full organizational effort in Pittsburgh. However, one guy tends to get the bulk of the credit as the face of the revolution: pitching coach Ray Searage, who joined the team in 2011 and has been a key figure during its incredible turnaround from bottom-feeder to contender.
Jonathon Niese and Juan Nicasio instantly became more fantasy relevant the second they reached Pittsburgh -- Niese because he was already a solid Major League starter (career 3.91 ERA entering 2016, three seasons at 3.71 or better) who could jump into mixed league viability with some refinement, and Nicasio because he's a live arm (mid-90s heat, filthy slider) who could be a few tweaks from being the next Burnett or Liriano.

But when we see something like this from a team, one of the risks is to just assume it's always going to work.
Reputations can foster laziness, so I wanted to look back at Searage's track record since joining Pittsburgh and see just how well he was doing with the reclamation projects. I found nine instances of eight starters (remember, Burnett left and came back) over the years and looked at their performances in both K%-BB%, which highlights skills, and ERA+, which measures performance relative to league context.
ERA+ is measured on a scale where higher is better and 100 is average. K%-BB% is simply the rates subtracted and again, higher is better. Average has grown from 10 percent to 12 percent league wide since Searage took over, but we're more focused on what the individual pitcher is doing there as opposed to league averages.
Learn more about advanced stats
2011: James McDonald
ERA+ difference: 9-point decrease in Pittsburgh (hasn't pitched in the Majors since)
K%-BB% difference: 3-point increase
The Pirates actually acquired McDonald in the middle of 2010, prior to Searage's arrival. I thought he was going to pop for them, even before I really had any idea who Searage was as a pitching coach. McDonald was a former top-100 prospect who had good velocity and a useful curveball for a foundation. The Pirates added a slider, as his changeup just never materialized, but he never really took off.
Hit or Miss: Miss
2012: Burnett, Erik Bedard
ERA+: 24-point increase and 34-point decrease
K%-BB%: 5-point increase and 3-point decrease
Burnett is probably the highest profile success Pittsburgh has had, as he consistently did something that eluded him for 13 seasons prior to his arrival: limit walks. He joined the Pirates with a 10 percent walk rate before cutting it to eight percent in Pittsburgh. The real coup with Burnett is that he did it with two pitches, similar to Nicasio, though Burnett's curve is more of a platoon buster than Nicasio's slider.
Bedard rose to prominence in Baltimore and then became infamous as a poor return for a heist of a trade that sent him to the Seattle Mariners. He was a bust in Seattle more because of injuries than a lack of talent (123 ERA+ over just 255 1/3 innings in two and a half seasons), but he fell apart once he left the Mariners with just an 80 ERA+ in 352 1/3 innings -- including a forgettable 75 ERA+ in 24 starts with the Pirates.
Hit or Miss: Hit, Miss
2013: Liriano, Jonathan Sanchez
ERA+: 36-point increase and 22-point decrease
K%-BB%: five-point increase and 11-point decrease
Liriano looked like a future ace early in his career, but his inconsistent control eventually became consistently bad and led to three 5.00-plus ERA seasons in a four-year stretch form 2009-2012. Walks have always been an issue for Liriano, even with Pittsburgh, but he's cut just under three points off of his '12 walk rate to a manageable 10 percent since joining the Bucs. He's been much tougher to hit in Pittsburgh too, which is why he can survive with that walk rate. His hit-per-nine-innings rate is down a full hit with Pittsburgh, to 7.4 (8.4 from 2005-12).

Sanchez had a -2 K%-BB% in his year before joining Pittsburgh, so even his paltry 9 K%-BB% in 2013 registered a big gain. But he's obviously a miss given he threw all of 13 2/3 innings with the Pirates and hasn't been in the Majors since then.
Hit or Miss: Hit, Miss
2014: Vance Worley, Edinson Volquez
ERA+: 55-point increase and 58-point increase
K%-BB%: 7-point increase and 0-point increase
Notice that to this point, all of the pitchers mentioned had a major walk issue when coming to Pittsburgh. That wasn't the case for Worley, who has consistently put up strong walk rates. However, he differs from his peers by not missing many bats. So if you're not going to strike guys out, you better not walk them if you want Pittsburgh to take a shot on you. If Burnett is a best-case scenario for Nicasio, then Worley is that for Niese.
The environment that Pittsburgh has set up can't be ignored in this revolution and Volquez exemplifies that. There weren't any real sweeping changes from him as a Pirate. His pitch mix stayed the same, as did his skills. But with a spacious park, elite defense, and brilliant bullpen supporting him, he delivered the best results of his career. If he wasn't going to stay with Pittsburgh, moving to Kansas City was the next best option. The Royals' staff has had those same three factors aiding it as the club has made two straight World Series appearances.
Hit or Miss: Hit, Hit
2015: Burnett's return, J.A. Happ
ERA+: 39-point increase and 127-point increase
K%-BB%: 4-point increase and 12-point increase
Happ is probably the highest magnitude reclamation in the whole group: his 1.85 ERA produced a filthy 209 ERA+, and he had the skills to back it as his 2.19 FIP suggests (albeit in just 11 starts). He trimmed his arsenal and focused on the hard stuff, using his fastball 72 percent of the time and also leaning on the slider -- his fastest secondary offering. A return to Toronto takes away that great ballpark, but the defense and bullpen change isn't that severe. If he takes what he learned from Pittsburgh, he could hold some of those gains and be a solid mid-3.00s ERA arm.
Hit or Miss: Hit, Hit
Record: 6 Hits, 3 Misses
When you consider a 67 percent success rate and the minimal cost to acquire Nicasio or Niese, they're definitely worth a shot in just about any format. Nicasio was brilliant in Spring Training and his regular season debut before sputtering in Detroit (hardly a crime given that lineup) while Niese has been mediocre in both of his starts.
Ready to panic on Nicasio? Consider that Burnett allowed 12 earned runs in his third start with the Pirates after two gems and still managed a 3.51 ERA over 202 1/3 innings.
If you've invested in either or both, show some patience if you want reap the rewards.
A version of this article also appeared at

Paul Sporer is a contributor to