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The Pirates Are Getting Quality Starting Pitching For Once

The starting pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates was not considered a strength heading into this season. 18 games in, though, it may be the biggest strength for them so far.

Vince Velasquez tossed the literal definition of a quality start on Tuesday night. He went six innings and allowed three earned runs. This marked the 10th quality start of the season for Pirates starting pitching, a figure that leads the major leagues. For a unit that was seen as a big weakness for Pittsburgh, that’s pretty impressive.

Pirates Getting Quality From Starting Pitching

The Unexpected, Yet Welcome Quality

Roansy Contreras and Mitch Keller were supposed to be the main bright spots for the Pirates’ rotation this season. They’ve held up their ends of the bargain in the early going. Johan Oviedo wasn’t even slated to be a starter to open the year. The season-ending injury to JT Brubaker opened the door for him, and he has taken the opportunity and run with it. The biggest question marks came in the form of Velasquez and Rich Hill.

A former second-round pick, Velasquez has spent nine seasons in the major leagues. He’s never finished a season with lower than a 4.12 ERA. The Pirates were hoping to be able to fix that trend this season. He epitomizes the exact type of starting pitching the cost-effective Pirates covet in free agency. He went just 7 1/3 combined innings in his first two starts, allowing eight earned runs. He’s been a totally different pitcher over his last two starts. Velasquez has strung together consecutive quality starts now for the Pirates.

Rich Hill got $8 million this offseason from the Pirates. Yes, the cost-effective Pirates gave Rich Hill $8 million. That’s certainly an interesting use of their money. Much like Velasquez, Hill was tossing batting practice in his first two outings. His last two outings have seen two more quality starts. He has allowed at least one home run in every start so far. That’s something the Pirates would obviously like to see diminish a bit going forward.

The Best of the Pirates’ Starting Pitching

Keller just turned 27 years old this month. He’s been tabbed as the ace of the Pirates pitching staff. Keller’s always been expected to take that leap but hadn’t really done so until last season. He’s finally growing into that guy as he’s posted a 3.8o ERA through 23 2/3 innings so far this season.

Contreras is the young gun in the Pirates’ rotation, a full 20 years younger than Hill. He’s got a 6.00 ERA so far this season through three starts. While that is high, he allowed seven earned runs against the Astros in his second start of the year to balloon the ERA. He’s going to be just fine.

Oviedo has dazzled to a 2.45 ERA, the lowest figure amongst the Pirates’ starting pitching. His first start was a bit rocky as he gave up four in 4 2/3 innings. He combined for one run across 13 2/3 innings in his next two starts. He gets the ball on Wednesday afternoon against the Rockies.

Is This Sustainable for the Pirates?

So far this season, the Pirates have been hitting the ball well. Offensively, it looks like they may be one of the better teams in the National League Central. The lineup is as well-rounded as it’s been in a few years now and they don’t even have Oneil Cruz at their disposal. That part of their game was never considered to be much of an issue.

Last year, the Pirates’ starting pitching only made 38 quality starts, which ranked 30th (last) across all of Major League Baseball. Only Keller began last season with Pittsburgh, so four of the current five Pirates starters were in the rotation on Opening Day last season. Contreras started in the bullpen last season to preserve his innings. Oviedo was acquired at the trade deadline and made a handful of starts over the final few weeks of the season.

Expecting Hill and Velasquez to continue tossing quality starts is a bit of a stretch. Maybe they can be semi-effective and provide a bridge to a prospect like Luis Ortiz graduating to the major leagues. Contreras and Keller have to continue their growth, which they likely will. Will Oviedo pitch to a sub-3.00 ERA for the remainder of the season? Probably not. But the Pirates would certainly be a better team than expected if he can provide them with at least some semblance of his current performance.

The bullpen has been better than expected as well, but the starters have been the true surprise to open the season. If Pittsburgh has even the slightest of playoff aspirations, the Pirates starting pitching will need to continue on an upward trend.


Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Players Mentioned: Vince Velasquez, Roansy Contreras, Mitch Keller, Johan Oviedo, JT Brubaker, Rich Hill, Oneil Cruz, Luis Ortiz


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