Pittsburgh Pirates: What Happened to All the Good Young Pitchers?
It's October 3, 2004. Oliver Perez just threw six shut-out innings in a 2-0 win over the Reds. In the process, he won his 12th game of the year and lowered his earned run average to 2.98. It had been three-and-a-half months since his ERA was above 3.25. Perez would strike out 239 batters that year.
Fast-forward two years. It's now June 29, 2006. Perez pitched his final game for the Pirates three days earlier, but now heads to the minors after the Dodgers shelled him for seven runs in three-plus innings.
How did Perez fall so quickly? The southpaw went from showing the potential of being our generation's best left-handed hurler to a dud. Better yet, how did Perez, Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, and Bryan Bullington go from being future stars to massive busts?
At one point, Baseball America rated Zach Duke and Bryan Bullington the Pirates' top prospects. Bullington was even considered one of the top prospects in the game after being the first overall draft pick in 2002.
Zach Duke spent four seasons in the minors before getting the call up to the Big Leagues in 2005. He threw 22 consecutive scoreless innings in his first month in the majors. 14 starts later, Duke finished his rookie campaign with a sub-two ERA and garnered enough votes to finish fifth in Rookie of the Year voting.
In the three seasons since, Duke is 17-28 with an ERA around 4.50. Duke's undoing has been his 3.98 K/9 since the start of the 2006 season. More balls in play means more hits allowed. He led the National League in hits allowed in 2006 with 255.
Fellow top prospect Bryan Bullington never once saw success with the Bucs. The 2002 top pick has spent the majority of the past six seasons in the minors dealing with arm trouble. He missed the entire 2006 season with a right shoulder injury. The years before and after 2006, Bullington compiled an 0-3 record and 5.89 ERA with the Pirates.
It looked like Bullington might finally get a chance in the majors in 2008 despite awful numbers for Triple-A Indianapolis when he recently got called up to the big club.
But manager John Russell didn't use him once in over two weeks, prompting the Pirates to designate him for assignment. His tenure in the Pittsburgh organization may be over for now, as the Pirates have ten days to trade him, release him, or send him back to Indianapolis if he clears waivers.
He could finish his Pittsburgh career without ever winning a game for the team who drafted him No. 1 overall.
Bryan Bullington's polar opposite is Ian Snell. Snell waited over 25 rounds to hear his name called in the 2000 draft. Nobody except Snell and his closest fans should think a guy drafted in the 26th round of the MLB draft will make the Big League club and be expected to potentially be a stud for years.
That's what quickly happened, though. In 2003, Snell tore minor league hitters to pieces on his way to being named the Pirates organization's Pitcher of the Year.
After spending some time with the Pirates in 2004 and 2005, Snell finally clinched a spot in Pittsburgh's rotation and began to flourish.
Snell tallied 14 wins in his rookie year and posted a 3.76 ERA the next season, in 2007.
This season has been a very different story.
Ian Snell can't find the strike-zone, nor get hitters out. His WHIP is approaching two. The Pirates attributed his struggles to elbow problems, and they placed Snell on the disabled list in June with a right elbow strain. He's supposed to return Tuesday against Houston.
Tom Gorzelanny reached the majors in about two years after the Pirates drafted him in the second round of the 2003 draft.
He began 2006 back in the minors, but would later be called up to replace the struggling Oliver Perez.
Gorzelanny showed potential in 2006 despite his 2-5 record. His ERA was just 3.79 and he allowed only three home runs in over 60 innings.
2007 would be Gorzelanny's break-out season. He tallied 14 wins and posted another sub-four ERA, but began to show signs late in the 2007 season that he might struggle in 2008.
Opposing hitters rocked Gorzelanny for a .338 batting average over his final nine starts, which translated to a 5.61 ERA.
This season certainly hasn't been any better for Tom Gorzelanny. He lasted just 17 starts before being demoted to the minors. Just six of his 17 appearances were quality starts and he didn't make it through the fifth inning four times.
The Pirates' pitching problems began with Oliver Perez. He walked 70 hitters in 103 innings in 2005. An angry tirade after a poor pitching performance landed him on the DL. Perez continued to search for the strike zone in 2006, but couldn't consistently come close.
His days in Pittsburgh quickly came to a close; his Pirate career ended as Tom Gorzelanny's began.
The 2006 trading deadline saw Pittsburgh ship Perez off to the Mets for Xavier Nady.
But what's causing the demise of so many young Pirate pitchers?
Maybe there's some supernatural force caused by meeting of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers to form the Ohio River which is preventing the Pirates' pitchers from developing.
Or maybe its something hidden in the box scores.
All five pitchers have flirted with two dangerous areas for pitchers: not striking enough batters out and walking too many batters. Ian Snell and Oliver Perez have both over their careers walked batters at a clip of at least 3.75BB/9. Zach Duke doesn't strike anyone out (remember his 3.98k/9). Tom Gorzelanny and Bryan Bullington walked too many and struck too few out.
Part of the Pirates problem may lie in the stability of the coaching staff. Three different pitching coaches (Spin Williams, Jim Colborn, and Jeff Andrews) have worked with Pirates pitchers, but none with a lot of success since 2005. The latter two don't have a great track record in the Major Leagues, while Spin Williams has been successful as a pitching coach for the Pirates earlier this decade.
Pittsburgh needs to fix their problem soon. Small market teams like the A's, Brewers, and Twins have consistently developed young talent (even if they didn't draft the players) and become successful with home-grown talent.
If Pittsburgh is ever going to succeed in today's game, they are going to need to straighten things out and get Ian Snell, Zach Duke, and Tom Gorzelanny back on track.
A top flight pitching coach, a few smart trade deadline moves, and some renewed confidence in its pitchers could have Pittsburgh fighting for a playoff spot sometime soon.
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