Are they giving it all they have—or do they have nothing left to give?
Is something broken that needs to be fixed?
Or are National League teams adjusting to their pitching-to-contact by actually hitting to contact?
Might it be that they are not conditioned to meet the demands of a long, grueling season?
Likely, and to varying degrees, it's a combination of all of the above.
The very fact that this staff performed so admirably during the first half of the season proves that the talent is definitely there. It was the pitching that carried the Pirates to the top of the Central Division in late July. Observing it all unravel during the ensuing month of August has been painful for the team, and for fans alike.
While it's fair to ask if proper conditioning is a factor, fatigue may indeed be the major culprit for some, even leading to injury in the cases of Kevin Corrreia with a strained oblique and Paul Maholm with a shoulder strain.
Often, the signs were there as ERAs climbed, quality starts became less numerous and pitch counts soared in the early innings.
Manager Clint Hurdle has been known to leave an obviously-struggling starter in for a batter or two too long, which has hurt the Pirates on a few occasions.
Hurdle is an advocate of "pitch to contact," a system that allows the opposing team to hit the ball, but pitch in a way as to keep the ball in play and rely on the defense to make the outs. Trouble is, pitch to contact still requires some degree of control and, if it isn't there, the "contact" often winds up bouncing against the outfield wall or over the fence.
If it seems that Hurdle may be relying on his starters a bit too long every now and then, it's likely because of what happens when he hands over the ball to his relief staffers.
The bullpen has become a roll of the dice in recent games: a smattering of occasional brilliance surrounded by a baffling and disturbing lack of control and composure for reasons that are completely unknown.
Pirate relievers have been overworked and plagued by inconsistency throughout August, blowing leads on numerous occasions. The Pirates never know what they'll get when they pull a starter, and often great relief efforts are offset by one disarmingly lousy inning.
And it's totally random.
Hurdle has been bitten numerous times lately by poor performances from just about any one of his relievers, including the usually reliable Joel Hanrahan.
With the offense struggling mightily, no lead ever appears safe—even in the late innings.
An occasional rest may have helped rejuvenate some of the starters who bore heavier loads earlier in the season. Perhaps this may be the best solution for the weary staff.
Jeff Karstens is scheduled to skip a start in a welcomed attempt to refresh an aching shoulder, a result of pitching into uncharted territory late into the 2011 season. In 24 starts, Karstens has pitched a personal-high 152 major league innings. Since July 20, Karstens' ERA has risen over a full point to 3.32.
The signs of Karstens' fatigue have been there for a few weeks and only now are the Pirates addressing them. By not acting on them sooner rather than later, as well as those of other starters such as Correia, it may be costing the Pirates some victories. (Obviously, better offensive support would be beneficial as well.)
Skipping a start every now and then—not only for Karstens, but for other members of the staff as well—might go a long way toward a little healing and lot more success, even preventing injury.
The Pirates need to heed the warning signs a little sooner and act accordingly.