The Pirates’ starting rotation, touted as perhaps the National League’s finest entering 2019, has instead been a train wreck. The long-term health of 2018 ace Jameson Taillon is yet again in doubt. Big-ticket trade deadline acquisition Chris Archer is serving up more taters than Potato Patch at Kennywood. Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove have been adequate, if somewhat underwhelming. The just-traded Jordan Lyles, after a dominant April, was rocked. Add it up, and you have a starting corps that has the worst park-and-league-adjusted ERA (20 percent worse than the MLB average) among NL teams.
That’s the fifth-worst starting pitching performance in franchise history, besting only the rotations from 2010 (35 percent worse than average), 2008 (26 percent), 2001 (21 percent) and 1952 (21 percent).
Amid all the doom, gloom and crooked numbers, Dario Agrazal has shined.
A modestly rated Panamanian prospect, Agrazal has made six starts in his rookie year, and boasts an adjusted ERA that is 36 percent better than the league average. Agrazal has the fifth-best adjusted ERA among all rookie starters who have logged at least 30 innings pitched, and the sixth-best mark for a Pirates rookie starter meeting that criteria during the Expansion Era (1961-present). Only Zach Duke (193 percent above average in 2005), Paul Maholm (94 percent in 2005), Brandon Cumpton (75 percent in 2013), Tim Wakefield (62 percent in 1992) and Randy Tomlin (42 percent in 1990) kept runs off the board at a better clip.
Of course, that list of Pirates rookie starters demonstrates that tearing up the league early on isn’t necessarily an indicator of long-term dominance. And with Agrazal, 24, there are some warning signs that his charmed season may hit choppy waters. The fundamental question with Agrazal is, can his superb command make up for his inability to make batters whiff?
First, let’s start with the good. Agrazal is walking 2.7 batters per nine innings, which is better than the 2.94 average for MLB starters this season. He’s pitching aggressively, placing 49 percent of his offerings within the strike zone (42 percent MLB average, per Fangraphs), and it’s not like he’s just lobbing hittable pitches over the plate for the sake of trying to get strikes. Agrazal has located 43.6 percent of his pitches to the edges of the strike zone, according the MLB Statcast, which is above the 42.7 percent MLB average. He has thrown a “meatball” — a pitch located to both the horizontal and vertical middle of the zone — less often (5.9 percent) than most pitchers (7.2 percent average). In other words, he’s throwing quality strikes that have a lesser chance of getting crushed. That helps explain how Agarzal has limited batted balls to an average exit velocity of 86.9 mph, below the 87.5 mph average. Opponents have a hard-hit rate (balls put in play at 95+ mph) of 28.4 percent against Agrazal, compared to the 34.4 percent MLB average.
Agrazal features a four-pitch mix: a 91 mph sinker (thrown about 53 percent of the time), low-80s mph slider (thrown 21 percent), 91 mph four-seam fastball (15 percent) and mid-80s mph changeup (12 percent). But the sinker has been, by far, his most effective pitch. While batters have smacked around his four-seamer (1.000 slugging percentage), slider (.583) and changeup (.563), he has limited opponents to a .314 slugging percentage on his sinker. That, despite generating whiffs just 7.6 percent of the time with the pitch.
About those whiffs — or lack thereof. It’s a problem. Agrazal’s command is a plus. But even with those well-spotted offerings, his performance so far looks unsustainable. Agrazal never struck out many hitters in the minors (5.7 K/9 overall; 7.0 at Triple-A Indianapolis this season before his call-up). In the majors, he’s punching out a mere 3.5 hitters per nine. That’s the lowest K rate among all MLB starters with 30+ innings pitched, and it’s not close (Erick Fedde is second, at 4.3 K/9). Agrazal’s K rate is less than half of the 8.55 average for big league starters this season. His MLB-low 5.5 percent swinging strike rate is barely half of the 10.7 percent average. In an era of unprecedented punch outs, Agrazal has a strikeout rate that’s straight out of the early 20th century.
And while Agarzal is a sinker-centric pitcher, he actually generates ground balls at a lower rate (38.5 percent) than the average starter (42.8 percent). That’s one reason why he’s giving up 1.62 home runs per nine innings, which is a lot even in this power-laden era (1.43 MLB average).
When you take a look at Agrazal’s total production — quality control and command, but an alarming lack of whiffs and lots of fly balls — it’s hard to envision him continuing to succeed like he has. He has a tidy 3.24 ERA, but his fielding independent ERA (a more accurate barometer of performance based on strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed) is nearly three runs higher (6.05). In fact, no MLB starter with 30+ innings pitched has a larger split between his actual and expected ERA:
Although Agrazal is generating fairly weak contact, there’s no way his batting average on balls in play (.214) is going to remain more than 80 points below the MLB average for starters (.296). He’s also highly unlikely to keep stranding so many base runners (86.3 percent) compared to the average starter (71.8 percent). If the underlying performance doesn’t change, expect Agarzal’s ERA to climb.
Agrazal has a puncher’s chance. He has always spotted his pitches well (1.7 BB/9 in the minors), and he managed to keep the ball in the park (0.7 HR/9). But the truth is, there are 100 guys at Triple-A and on the fringes of the MLB roster with Agrazal’s skill set. A few of them, like the aforementioned rookie standouts Duke and Maholm, managed to forge decent big-league careers. Many more turn out like Brandon Cumpton. Without more whiffs, Agrazal will have to do an immaculate job of locating his stuff to succeed long-term.
• Historically homer-prone: Today marks the one-year anniversary of the so far ill-fated deal that sent Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for Chris Archer. The presumed Pirates ace has racked up a 5.14 ERA in Pittsburgh, and has become the unfortunate poster boy for this power-charged era of baseball. Archer has surrendered 2.21 home runs per nine innings pitched in 2019, which is the second-highest rate among MLB pitchers who have tossed at least 90 frames (CC Sabathia is first, at 2.39 HR/9). Archer has also been more generous with the souvenirs than any Pirates pitcher who has ever thrown 90+ innings in a season. Jim Waugh, who served up 2.09 HR/9 back in 1953, is the closest “competitor.” In fact, there have been only 11 player seasons in MLB history in which a guy allowed more HR/9 while throwing 90+ innings. In case you’re curious, Archer has coughed up eight homers on his four-seam fastball, seven on his slider, six on his sinker, and four on his changeup.
• Kang’s contact: Is Jung Ho-Kang still an MLB-caliber hitter? And, with the Pirates free-falling in the standings, should the one-time KBO star and celebrated rookie hang onto a roster spot? On one hand, Kang aspires to reach the Mendoza Line and his park and league-adjusted OPS is 43 percent below the overall MLB average. He’s punching out about 33 percent of his plate appearances, compared to about 21 percent during his halcyon days with the Pirates. On the other, he still knocks the snot out of the ball when he manages to connect. Kang’s average exit velocity (92.1 mph) is nearly 5 mph above the MLB average (87.5 mph), and ranks 15th among all major leaguers who have put at least 100 balls in play in 2019. At 32 years old, and now three seasons removed from being a productive player, Kang is clearly playing for his career at this point. The power is still there, but it’s not nearly enough if he’s whiffing this much.
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