PHILADELPHIA -- In the coming weeks, once the Pirates’ season ends, Johan Oviedo will have an opportunity to dive into the nuances of his first full campaign as a Major League starter. He can highlight where he performed well, and he can hone in on where he requires improvement. Following a 7-6 loss to the Phillies on Wednesday night, Oviedo did provide a blunt, crude assessment of one area in which he needs to improve next year:
He needs to be more mean.
“When I pretend that I’m not nice, things go better,” Oviedo said. “So next year, I’m going to be a little more of a [expletive].”
Oviedo, after allowing six runs across five innings to the Phillies, wasn’t in a particularly jovial mood following his 32nd and final start of the season. The right-hander had a five-run lead in the fourth but was unable to protect the advantage; upon departing, the game was tied at 6-6. Bryce Harper provided the go-ahead blast for Philadelphia in the seventh, a solo shot off Jose Hernandez that landed in the Phils’ bullpen.
It was a sour end to an overall solid season -- the first season where he had an opportunity to start every five days from April to October. Here’s a statistical slice of his first three seasons in the Majors compared to this season:
16 home runs
177 2/3 innings
19 home runs
“There wasn’t much of a sample size last year coming over after the Trade Deadline,” Mitch Keller said. “But we saw last year that he’s got an elite fastball and a really good slider, so you kind of knew something special was going to happen. He’s had an amazing year. The growth he’s had outing to outing, start to start has been great. I think for him, finding his routine in the big leagues, knowing what he’s doing in between starts has been great for him. I’m really excited for next year, too, to be able to toe the rubber and go start for start with him. He’s a great competitor.”
Excluding openers, the Pirates have used 10 starting pitchers this season. Of those 10, only two will have pitched wire to wire: Oviedo and Keller. Those two make up the Bucs’ first starting pitching duo with at least 32 starts apiece in a single season since Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny both started 32 games in 2007.
“That tells you that he’s taking care of his body, his work in the weight room, his work in the training room, whether it’s prep work or recovery work," manager Derek Shelton said. "You don’t make 32 starts unless you do those things.”
Oviedo wouldn’t have made 32 starts this season if not for circumstance, either.
Coming into the year, Oviedo was on the outside looking in. The Pirates entered Spring Training with five capable starters: Keller, Roansy Contreras, JT Brubaker, Vince Velasquez and Rich Hill. They were likely to roll with a five-man rotation, leaving Oviedo in a nebulous spot. Would he start the season in the bullpen? Could he start with Triple-A Indianapolis’ rotation? Both scenarios were possibilities.
When Brubaker began the season on the injured list with right elbow discomfort -- he would eventually undergo season-ending surgery to reconstruct his right ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) -- Oviedo took his spot in the rotation. He’s remained ever since. Unlike this year, Oviedo should enter Spring Training 2024 with a solidified spot in the starting rotation alongside Keller.
Looking ahead to next season, the third, fourth and fifth spots for the Opening Day rotation are up in the air.
The Pirates have several internal candidates, a list that includes Contreras, Quinn Priester, Luis L. Ortiz, Bailey Falter and Andre Jackson. Pittsburgh will likely add externally as well, whether that’s through free agency or the trade market will be determined this winter.
Regardless of the specific combination of starters that will represent the Pirates on March 28, 2024, Keller and Oviedo will be right in the mix. When he toes the rubber for the first time next season, maybe he’ll have more of a mean streak, too.
“I have to be more selfish and jealous about my job,” Oviedo said. “I have to be more mean, even if it means it’s with people that are next to me.”