Why Pitchers Get Better Once They Leave Pittsburgh

While the Pirates franchise did have a relatively successful stretch during the mid-2010’s by their standards, the teams motivation to cut payroll and stockpile prospect depth over recent years has led to the product on the field to suffer. Following a 93 loss 2019 season, the franchise finished the shortened 2020 season with the worst record in Major League Baseball. The start to this season has been no different as the team has struggled, as many expected coming into the year, with a record of 15-21, the worst run differential in the National League and the worst record in the National League’s Central Division.

What really stands out about the Pirates recently is what has happened on the pitching side. While the performance of J.T. Brubaker has surprised many in the early parts of this season, former top prospect Mitch Keller has been very inconsistent over his first 97.1 big league innings.

While the rotation’s 5.16 ERA since the start of 2019 is certainly not impressive, what does stand out about the Pirates is their list of former pitchers who have gone on to have much greater success elsewhere.

Gerrit Cole


While the Pirates have had a number of pitchers go on to have much greater success elsewhere, none are more notable than Gerrit Cole. While Cole wasn’t horrible during his time with the Pirates, he has certainly been much better since his departure from Pittsburgh following the 2017 season.

During his time as a prospect, Cole was always thought of as a pitcher with high upside. The upside with Cole was so high that the Pirates made Cole the number one overall selection in the loaded June 2011 draft and he was thought of as one of the top prospects in all of baseball during his brief minor league career.

After being called up to the Pirates active roster in June 2013, Cole was solid over his 5 seasons with Pittsburgh. It was clear, however, that Cole wasn’t living up to the potential many thought he had during his college and minor league career. Prior to the 2018 season, Cole was traded to Houston for a return package that was somewhat surprising at the time, although in hindsight the Astros are very happy they made this trade.

Immediately upon his arrival in Houston, Cole started pitching much better and even started living up to potential that many thought he was capable of during his time as a prospect. Cole was so good during his two seasons in Houston that the Yankees awarded him by making him the highest paid pitcher in Major League Baseball history with a nine-year $324 million contract in December of 2019.

The changes made in Cole’s pitch mix and pitch location upon his arrival in Houston have been well documented: more four-seam fastballs up in the zone, more breaking pitches and less sinkers.

Given the fact that his four-seamer is among those with the most rise in all of baseball, it certainly makes sense for him to be pitching more at the top of the zone with this pitch.

While the changes in Cole’s arsenal and the emphasis on throwing more four-seamers up in the zone certainly helped, the velocity and spin rate’s on all of his pitches immediately increased following his arrival in Houston.

One of the other changes Cole made upon his arrival in Houston was in his delivery. During the 2018 season, Cole started throwing with a higher (and more consistent) release point.

Gerrit Cole Four-Seam Delivery September, 2017
Gerrit Cole Four-Seam Delivery September, 2018

The adjustments to Cole’s delivery (and his phasing out of the sinker) led to Cole being more focused on pitching north-to-south and the spin axis on most of his pitches, while slight differences, also reflected this.

Overall, these changes led to Cole immediately getting more whiffs and pitching to much better overall performance.

While offensive production across the league has been down this season and the sample size is still small, Cole has been putting extremely impressive numbers even by his standards (33 ERA-, 28 FIP- through his first 52.2 innings), is striking batters out a higher rate (40.8 K%) and walking less (1.6 BB%) than he ever has at the Major League Level.

Tyler Glasnow

Pirates141.1 IP5.794.909.75.8
Rays223 IP3.113.2712.33.0

The next former Pirates starter that has gone on to have much greater success elsewhere is Tyler Glasnow. Glasnow was originally a 5th round pick of the Pirates back in 2011 and started his ascent up prospect lists during his first couple seasons in the minor leagues. While many evaluators were impressed with Glasnow’s stuff during his time in the minor leagues, there were some mechanical concerns and resulting control/command issues that kept many from thinking of him as an elite prospect like Cole.

Glasnow struggled over his parts of 3 seasons in Pittsburgh before being dealt to Tampa Bay along with Austin Meadows and Shane Baz in a infamous trade at the 2018 trade deadline.

Since his time as a prospect, Glasnow has refined his delivery to improve the control/command concerns and has started locating a higher rate of his pitches in the strike zone than ever before over recent years. It is also clear that he uses all of his 6’8″ frame to his benefit. While ranking in the 96th percentile in fastball velocity, Glasnow is near the top of the league leaderboard in average extension meaning his pitches look faster to opposing hitters than what the reading on the radar gun is telling us.

PlayerAvg. Release Extension (ft.)
Bailey Falter7.6
Steve Chishek7.52
Brandon Workman7.39
Bernardo Flores Jr.7.33
Tyler Glasnow7.32
2021 MLB Avg. Release Extension

While more extension shouldn’t always be viewed as a positive due to some pitchers seemingly ‘selling-out’ for extension and losing some of their actual velocity as a result, this is not the case with Glasnow.

Upon his arrival in Tampa, Glasnow started working more up in the zone with his four-seamer, which allowed him to use the vertical depth of his curveball more effectively off of it as a result.

The curveball features an average spin rate of around 3,000 RPM’s and featured one of the steepest vertical approach angles of all curveballs in the league last season. These factors contribute to the pitch being a very effective one for him, one that he uses to generate swings and misses at a greater than 50% clip.

While Glasnow worked primarily as a four-seam/curveball guy his first few seasons in Tampa, he has (re)added a slider to his arsenal this season. The slider has replaced his curveball as his most frequently used breaking pitch and he has shown the ability to throw it to both lefties and righties.

This slider gives Glasnow another weapon to keep opposing hitters guessing and has contributed to opponents making less contact against him, both inside and outside the strike zone, at the lowest rate in his career. This has contributed to the good results Glasnow has gotten this season as he has pitched to a 60 ERA- while also striking batters out at the highest rate of his career.

Joe Musgrove


Musgrove, originally a 2011 draft selection by the Toronto Blue Jays, spent his first two Major League seasons with Houston before being traded to Pittsburgh as part of the return package in the previously mentioned Gerrit Cole trade. Musgrove pitched the next three seasons in Pittsburgh before being dealt to San Diego as part of a three-team trade this past January.

Almost immediately upon his arrival in San Diego, Musgrove caught the attention of the national baseball audience with his no-hitter against the Texas Rangers on April 9th. Outside of throwing the first no-hitter in San Diego Padres history, Musgrove has been very good this season, pitching to a 79 ERA- through his first 39 innings.

While his sinker usage immediately increased upon his arrival in Pittsburgh in 2018, he has almost completely ditched that pitch in the early days of his Padres career while also throwing his four-seam fastball less frequently. To compensate, Musgrove has begun putting more of an emphasis on throwing his slider and cutter, two distinct pitches that tunnel very well off of one another.

While Musgrove’s slider has placed more of an emphasis on using its 7:45 tilt and 2700+ RPM’s spin to generate horizontal movement (-3.5° average HAA in 2020), his cutter featured a -7.3° average VAA last season and one of the largest differences in measured vs. inferred axis of all cutters in the league due to its low spin efficiency.

While Musgrove was typically viewed as more of an innings eater/swingman type early in his career, he has been working on changing that perception of him. Over recent years he has made noticeable adjustments to his arm action and has also been working on developing a curveball, both of which have helped him become more deceptive and more effective when pitching later into games.

Joe Musgrove Delivery 2018
Joe Musgrove Delivery 2021

While Musgrove began showing signs he was a much improved pitcher during his final season in Pittsburgh, much of what he has been working on for years now has started to fully come together for him in the early parts of this season. The velocity and spin rates are up a tick for Musgrove this year, he has also seen a slight increase in his strikeout rates and the walk rate has been cut in half from his final season in Pittsburgh.

Charlie Morton


Originally a 2002 draft pick of the Atlanta Braves, the now 37 year-old Charlie Morton has pitched for 5 different Major League teams over the course of his 14-year career. Morton spent a majority of those 14 years in Pittsburgh where he pitched from 2009-2015. Outside of the two separate seasons in Atlanta which have bookended his career, Morton pitched the worst during his time in Pittsburgh.

Morton is a two-time all-star, with both appearances occurring in 2018 and 2019 when Morton was in his mid-30’s and his time in Pittsburgh was long over.

Morton’s breakout coincided with a decreased emphasis on his sinker. Morton threw his sinker for more than 40% of his pitches every season from 2011-2017, despite the poor results he got with this pitch. While he did cut back on his sinker usage during his first season in Houston in 2017, he greatly decreased his use of the pitch in 2018 and started pitching the best he ever had in his career.

All statistics and data provided by Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant and Fangraphs.com

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