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The Pirates have weathered the storm at the start of their season nicely. The team didn’t have Jung-ho Kang for the first 28 games. Gerrit Cole has been uneven, and Francisco Liriano has been wild. For the second consecutive year, Andrew McCutchen started slowly. Still, here they are, 27-19 through their first 46 games, on pace to win 95. Though the Cubs have stolen the headlines with their blazing start, the Pirates stood only four and a half games back at the start of play Friday.

That’s well within range, but it’s especially heartening because, in the view of many, the Pirates haven’t yet opened up the engine to see what they can really do. Behind Cole and Liriano, their rotation has been a mess, and the guys who make up that back half right now (Jeff Locke, Juan Nicasio, and Jon Niese) aren’t very good candidates to turn things around.

Pirates Starters, 2016, DRA- and cFIP

Player

DRA-

cFIP

Gerrit Cole

98

96

Francisco Liriano

105

111

Juan Nicasio

98

100

Jon Niese

111

118

Jeff Locke

118

128

With cFIP about as good a predictive metric as we have for pitchers, it’s clear that most of the staff is genuinely performing at a subpar level, and in particular, that Niese and Locke are unfit for a big-league rotation. This unit has an aggregate DRA of 4.93, fourth-worst in baseball.

If things go the way the Pirates hope, though, this won’t be the look of the starting rotation in the second half. Pitching prospects Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon have had their names on the tips of Pirates fans’ tongues for multiple years, and now, both are on the cusp of joining the parent club. This probably isn’t news to you. It’s been a well-covered topic, and it will only get even more well covered in the weeks to come, as the time at which the Pirates can call up one or both hurlers without making them Super Two-eligible after 2018 approaches.

Here’s my red-hot take on the situation: what a story! It’s really hard to say whether it will work, but what an extremely appealing story this is. The Pirates, always a bit hamstrung by their market situation, fiercely committed to sustaining their newfound success, criticized at times (both fairly and unfairly) for not trading more of the future for a brighter present, these scrappy and special Pirates are going to have a chance to use the prospects they have so closely clutched as real, on-field weapons in what could be their toughest pennant race yet. They could call up a pair of guys who have not merely gotten people out at the highest level of the minors, but have punched them out. They’re a pair of guys who have not just overcome their opponents, but overwhelmed them, with scorching fastballs and some of the best breaking stuff in the minors. To this team chock-full of stars already, this team with probably the best outfield in baseball, with a Hall of Famer patrolling center, with their top overall pick from 2011 waiting at the front of the rotation for his fellow young guns, Neal Huntington is probably going to get to add even more excitement. Imagine the Halberstamian masterwork you could craft from this raw material.

Pointing out how cool this story is feels a little vapid, though, so let at least try to handicap this. First of all: how often does it happen? If Taillon and Glasnow each come up by the All-Star break, there will be time for each to start 15 games before the year is out. I used the Play Index to look for teams who have given that many starts to two different pitchers (ages 24 and under) who had never made it to the majors before. That’s been a little bit rarer than I would have guessed: only 42 teams have done it since 1947. Of those 42, though, most were either expansion teams (the 1969 Expos and Royals, the 1977 Blue Jays, etc.) or overtly rebuilding (1998 Tigers, 1999 Mariners, 2009 A’s (who had three such pitchers reach 15 starts, by the way), and more). Most were, intentionally or structurally or just out of mismanagement, pretty bad. Only 10 of the 42 won more than 83 games and finished within 15 games of a playoff spot. Here are those 10, and the pairs of pitchers on whom they bet.

Two Young Rookie Starters, One Contending Team

Team

Season

Pitchers

Orioles

1960

Steve Barber, Chuck Estrada

Reds

1976

Santo Alcala, Pat Zachry

Tigers

1979

Dan Petry, Pat Underwood

Giants

1982

Alan Fowlkes, Bill Laskey

Phillies

1983

Kevin Gross, Charles Hudson

Cardinals

1984

Ricky Horton, Kurt Kepshire

Royals

1984

Mark Gubicza, Bret Saberhagen

Indians

1997

Bartolo Colon, Jaret Wright

Giants

2003

Jesse Foppert, Jerome Williams

Reds

2010

Mike Leake, Travis Wood

I’m not going to analyze any of these players from a career perspective, because that’s not material to this story. I want to know, for the sake of some historical context whenever Taillon and Glasnow arrive, what each of these pitcher pairs’ stories were, and how they performed in their crucial rookie seasons.

1960 Orioles: Steve Barber and Chuck Estrada
Barber was a local lefty, a Maryland native who had signed with the Orioles in 1957. For a guy with 15 years of MLB service time and 1,999 innings pitched (could no one be bothered to let him get three extra outs? A story for another time), he’s not very well remembered, but for a guy named Steve Barber, he’s exceptionally famous. Barber belongs to a fascinating class of pitchers who thrived for decades, especially in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, despite very low strikeout rates and very, very high walk rates. DRA hates Barber, who walked 113 and fanned 112 that 1960 season, and says he was worth -1.2 WARP. He had a 3.22 ERA (119 ERA+) in a little over 180 innings, though, so maybe DRA just doesn’t capture the different way baseball was played back then.

Estrada couldn’t have been much more different from Barber than he was. A righty from California, he’d signed with the Braves, but been passed to the Orioles in a transaction lost to history, sometime before the start of the 1958 season. He threw harder and struck out more batters than Barber, though he, too, racked up unbelievable walk rates. He departed from Barber in one more, significant way: He threw a lot of innings everywhere he went. He’d thrown 223 innings in the California League when he was 19, and still the Braves’ property. In 1960, as a rookie, he pitched 12 complete games. Included among them: a May 1 win in which he allowed 11 hits, six walks, and five runs, and faced 44 batters; a 9-4 win on July 5 in which he walked nine, fanned seven, and faced 41 batters (after which he appeared on three days’ rest in relief and faced 10 batters); and a July 24 contest in which he went the full 11 innings and won 2-1, facing 40 batters along the way. He pitched 208 2/3 innings for the Orioles as a rookie, and increased from there in 1961 and 1962, effective the whole time. DRA pegged him at 2.8 WARP in that rookie season, then 3.3, then 3.9. You know how this story ends. He blew out. Before he did, though, he and Barber were two of the five pitchers 22 and under (along with Milt Pappas, Jack Fisher, and Jerry Walker) who combined to start 117 games for those Orioles.

Baltimore was tied with the Yankees as late as mid-August that year, but with so many young arms wearing down at the end of the season, they went 10-12 over their last 22 and finished a distant second, eight games back. The Yankees swept them in a four-game series in mid-September, in which the losing pitchers were, in order: Barber, Estrada, Fisher, and Pappas.

1976 Reds: Santo Alcala and Pat Zachry

There’s nothing especially complicated or interesting about Alcala’s story. He was pretty bad, and probably never would have escaped middle relief, if not for Don Gullett’s three separate trips to the disabled list that season. (At 25, Gullett already had over 1,000 MLB innings on his odometer, and there turned out not to be many more miles in his arm.) Alcala finished with a 4.70 ERA and 4.92 DRA, good for -0.6 WARP.

Zachry’s story is different. The Reds had drafted him some five and a half years before his debut, so he was an old rookie, but he was a good one. The tall right-hander kept the ball on the ground over half the time and struck out 143 in 204 innings, which was pretty good for that time and place. His 3.42 DRA across a hefty workload made him worth 2.9 WARP.

Zachry stepped nicely into the breach left at the front of the Reds’ rotation by Gullett, and even if Alcala was a bad fill-in starter, he wasn’t as bad as he could have been. With the veteran core of Gary Nolan, Fred Norman, and Jack Billingham doing about as well as they had the year before, the Reds rolled to the same result they’d achieved the year before: a World Series title. In fact, they won all seven games they played that postseason. Zachry won Game 2 of the NLCS and Game 3 of the Series. Alcala didn’t pitch in the playoffs, and indeed, it’s not clear that he was on the roster.

1979 Tigers: Dan Petry and Pat Underwood
Of the pairs we’ve looked at so far, Petry and Underwood best fit the seasonal storyline the Pirates are likely to follow. Underwood debuted on May 31, and would start full-time until mid-August. Then, after back-to-back starts in which he was knocked out by the second inning, the Tigers moved him to the bullpen. He was no savior, then, but for a stretch around the middle of the season, Underwood helped. He finished with 83 strikeouts and 29 walks in 121 1/3 innings, and despite his 4.59 ERA, he had a DRA of 3.40 and was worth 2.4 WARP.

Petry didn’t make his first start until July 8, when he was called up to pitch the second half of a doubleheader. The Tigers lost that game, to fall to 40-42 and 14 games back in the standings. They would go 45-34 from that point on, not good enough to reach the playoffs, but not bad, either. Petry was a full-time starter at age 20, and nine of his 15 starts were quality starts. In seven of them, he had a Game Score of at least 60. He didn’t strike out anyone (43 whiffs in 98 innings), but didn’t walk the world, either, and ended up with a DRA of 4.27 and a WARP of 1.0. The Tigers didn’t come all that close to making the playoffs, but without Petry and Underwood, they would have barely reached .500.

1982 Giants: Alan Fowlkes, Bill Laskey
The 1981 Giants were a .500 team with a bunch of aging position players (hello, 37-year-old Joe Morgan) and a veteran starting rotation: Doyle Alexander, Vida Blue, Tom Griffin, Ed Whitson, and Allen Ripley. Early in the winter, the team traded Griffin, Whitson, and Ripley, all for younger or sparer parts. Then in spring training, they signed 37-year-old Reggie Smith to play first base, and traded incumbent Enos Cabell. It’s no surprise that, when the team then traded Blue and Alexander (in separate deals) on the eve of Opening Day, Blue told reporters he was glad to be gone, that the team seemed “not have any direction.” The Giants, for their part, insisted the maneuvers were all part of a plan to build around young arms.

They would be better in 1982, though it was not thanks to their bizarre offseason choices. In December, they had traded declining outfielder Jerry Martin to the Royals, and got back two pitchers: Rich Gale and Bill Laskey. It was after Laskey asserted himself in the spring that the Giants dealt away Blue and Alexander, getting back Atlee Hammaker and Renie Martin, among others. Their rotation, for most of the season, would consist of Laskey, Gale, Hammaker, Martin, and Fowlkes—all five 28 or younger, three of them 24 or younger.

That really wasn’t the strength of the team. Laskey emerged as a quasi-ace for an aceless team, pitching nearly 190 innings with an ERA of 3.14, a DRA of 3.74, and 3.0 WARP. The rest of the group was shaky, all with ERA+ figures under 100. Fowlkes, a 10th-round pick out of Cal Poly less than two years beforehand, was thrust into the rotation on Opening Day, and struggled. He visited the minors twice, and limped to a 5.23 ERA in 15 starts and six relief appearances. DRA favors him, giving him a 4.94 and 0.1 WARP when the old-school numbers suggest something much worse, but the old school might have been right about Fowlkes. He would only appear in two more big-league games after 1982, for the 1985 Angels. The Giants had a bullpen full of guys who did good work and a solid offense, but the rotation and the old legs of Smith, Morgan, and Darrell Evans in the field did them in. They won 18 of 22 at one stretch in September, closing from nine games behind the Dodgers to just one, tied with the Braves for second in the NL West with seven to play and Atlanta coming into Candlestick Park for two games. The Braves shut them out 7-0 in the first game, and knocked Laskey out after 2 1/3 innings to win the second 8-3. Never try to build around young arms.

1983 Phillies; Kevin Gross and Charles Hudson
That Hudson made 26 starts for this team might lead you to believe he was another full-season member of the rotation, and so an imperfect comp to Glasnow and Taillon, but in fact, he didn’t debut until May 31. He made nine of those starts on three days’ rest. He’d been drafted in the 12th round of the 1981 Draft, but unlike Fowlkes for the Giants, he turned out to be a real find for the Phillies. A 3.76 DRA backs up the story his 3.35 ERA tells. He was worth 2.8 WARP to the Phillies in 1983.

Gross came up in late June, as Glasnow and Taillon might, and made 17 starts. He posted a ridiculous 65 percent groundball rate, but that was the only shining star in his constellation of skills. He did well, with a 3.56 ERA, but DRA feels that was a bit lucky, and pegs him at 4.78, good for 0.4 WARP in his 98 innings.

Hudson had a complete-game win in Game 3 of the NLCS, but lost Games 2 and 5 of the World Series. Gross wasn’t called upon at all during the playoffs, but they were four and a half games back on the day he came up, so he and Hudson were both important parts of the team’s march through the regular season.

1984 Cardinals: Ricky Horton and Kurt Kepshire
Horton was a 24-year-old rookie reliever to open the season, but when his ERA remained under 1.50 in that role in mid-June, he got a promotion to the rotation. He won his first start, pulling the Cardinals to within two games of first place. He would struggle as a starter, though, with a 4.01 ERA and an .800 opponent OPS in 18 starts, and the Cardinals demoted him back to the bullpen in mid-September.

One reason Horton lost his place in the rotation down the stretch was that Kepshire was pitching so well. He didn’t debut until the Fourth of July, and made 16 starts (plus one relief appearance) through the end of the campaign. Though the Cardinals faded, Kepshire finished the season with a furious flourish, spinning consecutive shutouts in his last two starts. He had a 3.99 DRA and 1.4 WARP, enough to keep a mediocre team competitive.

1984 Royals: Mark Gubicza and Bret Saberhagen
Here’s the closest we’ll get to Glasnow and Taillon, from a pedigree perspective. Gubicza was 21, and pitched virtually the whole season in the Royals’ rotation. His 4.05 ERA wasn’t sparkling, but his 3.76 DRA was closer, and he posted 2.9 WARP in 189 innings. Saberhagen, despite not yet having the marvelous command that would become his trademark, split the season between the rotation and the bullpen and posted a 3.65 DRA and 2.5 WARP. The Royals only won 84 games, but it was enough to earn them the AL West title and the right to be flattened by the 104-win Tigers. Without their sensational young guns, they might not have gotten that far.

1997 Cleveland Indians: Bartolo Colon and Jaret Wright
Don’t get excited. There are no fuzzy feelings about Colon to revel in here. The big right-hander’s rookie campaign was a nightmare. He started the season with the parent club, but was demoted twice, making a total of 10 starts in the minors. Around that, he had a 5.65 ERA and 6.04 DRA in 94 innings, making him worth -0.2 WARP. Even if you start with his return to the rotation on a full-time basis in early June, he had a 5.29 ERA the rest of the way.

Wright is, of course, a different story. He came up for the first time June 24, made 16 starts (in which the Indians were 12-4), posted a 4.38 ERA and 5.03 DRA, and was worth 0.8 WARP. That was the worst Indians team of their very impressive run, though it was the one that came closest to winning the World Series, and the lack of pitching depth was part of the reason. They won only 86 games. It’s fair to say both that the team was counting on more than it got from Colon, and that things could have gone much worse than they did, considering that Colon and Wright combined for a full slate of starts and were above replacement level. Wright made five playoff starts, earning three wins despite pretty shaky performances.

2003 Giants: Jesse Foppert and Jerome Williams
Foppert entered 2003 as the fifth-ranked prospect in all of baseball, according to Baseball America. The Giants called him up in mid-April, eased him in with a pair of relief appearances, and then handed him a slot in the rotation. Only, something was wrong. Foppert’s velocity wasn’t what it had been the previous season, and the results were what they usually are if a young arm suddenly loses a few ticks. Foppert had a 5.03 ERA in late August, when his UCL shredded and his career all but ended, a brief flash of light ousted violently and quickly. Despite a 5.61 DRA, he was worth 0.1 WARP in his 21 starts. (Man, 2003 was a heck of a time to be alive.)

Glasnow was 11th on our Top 101 Prospects list this year, so he’s the Pirates’ answer to Foppert. That would make Taillon (51st on this year’s list) the equivalent of Williams (50th, according to BA, in 2003), which is about right. Like Taillon, Williams had been a much more highly touted prospect in previous years, but had hit a snag. Taillon’s has been injuries. Williams’s was performance-related. He just wasn’t missing bats, even in the minor leagues, and confidence in his future was fading all over.

When the Hefty Hawaiian (no one called him that, as near as I can tell, but I don’t know why not) got his chance, though, he acquitted himself well. He was called up for a spot start in late April, which ended disastrously. After being promoted for good in early June, though, he posted a 3.05 ERA in 20 starts. His 4.46 DRA says he wasn’t quite that good, but 1.8 WARP in 131 innings is an impressive first go-round.

Neither Foppert’s flop nor Williams’s wins mattered a great deal to those Giants, because they won 100 games and finished 15 up on the Dodgers. If the Pirates win 100, though, they might not even win their division, so a similarly strong showing from Glasnow and Taillon (1.9 WARP in 40 starts would still be 1.5 or so in 35) would be much more helpful to them.

2010 Reds: Mike Leake and Travis Wood
The Reds hadn’t won even 81 games in any season since 2000, so when they realized how polished Leake was in spring training in 2010, they decided he could handle himself in a big-league rotation without pitching at all in the minor leagues first. It’s not clear whether they were right. Leake did make 22 starts and pitch nearly 140 innings, with a 4.23 ERA that wasn’t so bad, for a pitcher who called Cincinnati home in 2010. He didn’t miss many bats, though, nor even the barrels of them, as he allowed 19 homers despite his strong ground ball rate. He went on the shelf with shoulder fatigue in late August, by which point DRA was fed up with him anyway, to the tune of 6.07 and -1.4 WARP.

Wood’s path was very different from Leake’s. He had been in the Reds organization for over five years, by the time the team called him up on July 1. He seemed more prepared for it all, too. In his third MLB start, he nearly no-hit the then-mighty Phillies. Only three of his 17 starts were clunkers, and at least five were certifiable gems. He finished with a 3.51 ERA, 86 strikeouts against 26 walks, a staggering 2.78 DRA, and 2.9 WARP. Wood not only offset whatever damage Leake did, but pushed the Reds over the 90-win threshold, allowing them to cruise to a division title.

***

That’s everyone. If you read all of those narratives, you’ve probably already gleaned the theme: expect one good pitcher and one bad pitcher in any pairing akin to Glasnow and Taillon. It doesn’t seem that the overall quality of the team can hinge on the performance of two young arms like these, but under the right circumstance, they can have enough impact (in either direction) to make the difference between advancing into October and going home. The Pirates have an exciting season ahead, and a really good team from top to bottom, despite their crummy rotation depth. Some of their position players have overperformed early, allowing them to thrive despite adversity. When the regression dragon comes for those numbers, the Pirates have two young knights they can ask to help slay it. The fun part, I suppose, is that it’s impossible to know whether they’ll save the day or not.

Thank you for reading

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TGT969
5/29
Most here in The 'Burgh believe the party line: we will see Taillon but not Glasnow. The latter is still struggling with his offspeed pitches. Perhaps the
3rd arm is more likely Chad Kuhl who has been unhittable at AAA
lipitorkid
5/30
If struggling with your offspeed pitches results in 56 IP and 69 Ks with a 2.25 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP while pitching in AAA at the age of 22, color me impressed.
lipitorkid
5/30
And I hope when a similar article gets written ten years from now we can point to this year as the year we got two good pitchers.
oldbopper
5/30
I was surprised to see the comment that Steve Barber was a pitcher with a very low strikeout rate. Barber finished the 1963 season 6th in the league in strikeouts. Hardly a pitcher with a "very low strikeout rate". The game was much different then. I wonder if any pitcher averaged even 7 K's per 9 and DRA would definitely be unable to cope with that. Barber, who was stalwart for the Orioles for several years, was considered very much a strikeout pitcher in those days, also very wild, and absolutely no fun to face.
gilpdawg
5/30
I don't think the low strikeouts is where DRA doesn't like Barber's 1960 season, it's the high walks. He had cut the walks down a lot by 1963. Of course, I can't read his name without thinking about Ball Four.