Decisions: The fifth starter

As winter finally winds down and the date that pitchers and catchers report approaches quickly, let’s take a look at some of the decisions facing the Pirates in camp this year.

With Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, and Charlie Morton all but assured spots in the Pirates’ 2010 rotation, that only leaves one spot in the rotation for Kevin Hart and Dan McCutchen. With Octavio Dotel, Brendan Donnelly, and probably DJ Carrasco in the bullpen it’s entirely possible that Hart and McCutchen will be competing not just for a starting role this spring, but for a spot on the big league roster.

Both pitchers are 27 (McCutchen is just two months older than Hart and both were acquired by the Pirates in trades. Hart had some success with the Cubs last year, putting up a 2.61 ERA despite a 0.72 K/BB ratio but really struggled with the Pirates, losing eight of his 10 starts with a 6.92 ERA and giving up eight homers in 53 1/3 innings. On the plus side, his walks and strikeouts improved. McCutchen had a really good year in Triple-A with Indianapolis with 6.9 K/9, 1.8 BB/9 while limiting his home runs to 0.6 HR/9 and a handful of decent starts down the stretch with the Pirates.

The temptation is to dismiss Hart out of hand in this competition because of both his struggles with the Pirates and McCutchen’s good year with Indy and not-awful debut with the Pirates. I get the impression that the Pirates really like Hart, though, so let’s start out with the two of them on even footing and make a comparison from there.

Hart throws a bit harder (his average fastball has been around 92, while McCutchen’s was about 90 in his six starts with the Pirates last year) and the sinking action on his fastball got him a lot of ground balls in the minors. Giving up home runs was a bit of a problem for McCutchen when got to to Triple-A in 2008, but he seemed to have that mostly under control by last season. Really, Hart’s profile sounds awfully nice: big, hard-throwing righty with sinking action on fastball, averaged almost a K an inning in the minor leagues, also mixes in cutter, change, and a good curve.

Hart’s problem, though, is obvious; he can’t throw strikes. He falls behind in a lot of counts (his first strike percentage is 54.8, down from the league average of 58.2) and  stays behind (only 46.3% of his pitches are in the strike zone, the league average is 49.3). Perhaps as a result of that, his fastball has been a below average pitch the past two seasons (though he also threw it a lot more last year while FanGraphs doesn’t count anything as a slider after counting almost 30% of his pitches as a slider last year, likely there’s some classification problem with his fastball, slider, and cutter).

McCutchen’s big problem is the fly balls; over his minor league career he’s given up more fly balls than ground balls (and that’s not counting line drives), and he doesn’t have overwhelming stuff to compensate for that. Even after doing a good job with the home runs in Triple-A last year, he promptly turned around and served up six in 36 1/3 big league innings. His strikeout rate also dropped to a Zach Duke-like 4.7/9 innings. He’s going to give up home runs if he’s in the rotation, especially at PNC Park against lefty-heavy lineups.

There’s obviously no perfect option here. Both Hart and McCutchen have shown they can get the job done in Triple-A, but there’s reason to question their ability to be a regular starter in the big leagues. At the very least, though, the spring training battle should be interesting because we know what we’re looking for. How is Hart doing getting the ball over the plate? Is McCutchen keeping the ball down? From this point, my preference would be to see McCutchen get the spot, but only because Hart’s struggles so closely replicate the struggles of Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny that slowly drove me insane over the past couple seasons. McCutchen seemed to make some strides in Triple-A last year with things he’d struggled with in the past, so I’d like to see him get his shot.

Relevant sourcing: FanGraphs (McCutchen, Hart) Minor League Splits (McCutchen, Hart)

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.

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