Tom Gorzelanny: Pittsburgh Pirates Dumped a Gem Last Year

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Tom Gorzelanny: Pittsburgh Pirates Dumped a Gem Last Year
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Watching former Pirate Tom Gorzelanny pitch for the Chicago Cubs the other night against the New York Mets was heartbreaking. And that was in spite of the fact that he lost (two of the four runs scored against him in 5.2 innings were unearned).

Gorzelanny is a pitcher in the Ross Ohlendorf-mold: cerebral and skillful, but more prone than the average Pirate to injury. "Overwork" in 2007, his second year, clearly hurt him. So he has to be used judiciously and pitches fewer innings than his teammates.

But those are (mostly) quality innings, which is more than can be said for the members of the starters' "committee" filling the lower reaches of the Pirates rotation.

Pittsburghers like their men, generally, and ballplayers, particularly, to be "rough and ready." The Steelers' quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who errs on the side of being too "manly," is the archetype.

That's why the Pirates went for Charlie Morton, who's "aggressive" at the plate and has "filthy" stuff (both of which sometimes backfire). Kevin Hart, with his can-do attitude, is another example, as is Dan "Do-or-Die" McCutchen.

And that may be a large part of the reason why the Pirates traded Gorzelanny for Hart last year (although they got prospect Josh Harrison in the deal). Gorzo had the quiet competence that Pittsburgh needed, but not the swagger they wanted.

But it was General George Patton whose point was not to die for your country (or team), but to make the other fellow die for his.

On paper, it didn't look like too bad a trade. Hart had a 5.44 ERA last year compared to Gorzelanny's 5.55 (after his rehab in the minor leagues).

Hart also had 4-2 winning record with the Cubs at the time he was traded. On that basis, trading one for the other, and getting a prospect to boot, seemed like a good deal.

But that was misleading, because last year, Gorzelanny also had a FIP (sabermetric ERA) of 3.97, hinting at better things to come. Meanwhile, Hart's FIP of 5.36 fully supported his weak ERA. (These numbers were similar to the metrics in place at the time of the trade.)

FIP measures the controllable factors of a pitcher's performance: home runs, strikeouts, and walks, and formulates his ERA by assuming a constant BABIP (batting average of balls in play).

An ERA much higher than a FIP can be due to one of two things: 1) statistical variation (of BABIP) due to small sample size or 2) an unusually high BABIP due to soft-tossing, usually by an injured player such as the New York Yankees' Chien-Ming Wang or the Pittsburgh Pirates' Charlie Morton, with his apparent vision problems at night.

I believed that Gorzelanny's admittedly high ERA (over five) was a short-term statistical aberration. Having put him in the minors for almost a year, the team should at least have tried to recoup the investment.

Management may have believed in his soft-tossing, coming off an injury-plagued 2008. They admitted as much when they said, "This trade could hurt us," (that is, if Gorzelanny's long-term ERA was actually below 4.00, versus above 5.00).

Gorzelanny is, in fact, finally living up to the potential he showed in the minors, an ERA below three. This indication is well supported by his FIP of 2.40 (I look at this figure to decide if the ERA is valid).

In his better years with the Pirates, that metric was around 4.00, still good by Pirates standards. Even the higher (worse) figure is about a whole run better than the Pirates can reasonably expect from Hart, given Hart's history.

If Gorzelanny's ERA finally ends below 3.00, he would be the true front-of-rotation hurler the Bucs need. Put another way, they traded a potential first starter for a fifth starter and a second base prospect.

Gorzelanny was let go at season's end last year to cap an orgy of trading. Some of the trades made earlier in the season were good (i.e. Nate McLouth for Charlie Morton and two prospects), as were some in the previous year (i.e. Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte for Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens and two prospects).

But the ones made at the end of the season, just before the deadline were highly suspect. Another suspect example was the 2008 trade of Jason Bay at deadline with, literally, a second (or two) to spare.

For their flagship player, the Pirates got third baseman Andy LaRoche, a subpar year from Brandon Moss, and two pitchers (Craig Hansen and Bryan Morris) who aren't likely to amount to anything.

Take it from a former Wall Street trader whose boss once told him, "If you're pushing trades, you're probably doing bad ones." A wily veteran once said a similar thing to a young (and then green) T. Boone Pickens.

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