Entering the start of the 2023 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates looked poised to receive significant contributions from a handful of their young starting pitchers.
After impressing in 2022, Roansy Contreras and Luis Ortiz seemed slotted to be two mainstays in the Pirates’ rotation, at least for a large portion of the season.
Waiting in the wings in Triple-A Indianapolis were Quinn Priester and Mike Burrows, with both pitchers on track to make their big league debuts at some point this year.
Burrows, however, underwent season-ending elbow surgery in April. The injury will sideline Burrows through at least the middle of next summer.
While it was an unfortunate break for Burrows and the Pirates, the other three mentioned have all seen time in the major leagues this season.
The problem, however, is that all three of Contreras, Ortiz and Priester have pitched well-below expectations.
Contreras began the season in the Pirates’ rotation but was moved to the bullpen before ultimately being optioned to Triple-A amidst his struggles.
In 19 appearances (11 starts) with Pittsburgh this year, Contreras has gone 3-7 with a 6.59 ERA.
Unlike Contreras, Ortiz didn’t begin the season with the big league club, but was recalled in May to step into the rotation.
Like Contreras, he didn’t produce good results. Ortiz made 11 appearances (10 starts) prior to being sent back to Indianapolis and went 2-3 with a 4.86 ERA/6.17 FIP. The right-hander only struck out 34 batters in 53.2 innings.
Priester is the most recent of the trio to pitch with the Pirates, but he hasn’t been able to find his footing in his first taste of the big leagues yet.
After allowing six earned runs in 5.0 innings on Monday night against the New York Mets, Priester owns a 9.10 ERA through his first six starts.
In all three cases of the right-handers’ struggles this season, there is a common theme that’s hard to ignore. Contreras, Ortiz and Priester have all seen their velocity drip significantly.
Contreras averaged 95.6 mph on his fastball a year ago and was often sitting in the mid-to-upper 90s. This year, Contreras averaged only 94.4 mph on his fastball and it’s seemed to dip even more as the season has progressed.
On more than one occasion last year, Ortiz would hit 100 mph on the radar gun and averaged 98.5 mph. His velocity has dropped by more than two points this season, with an average of 96.1 mph in 2023.
Priester’s fastball was reaching as high as 97-98 mph in 2021 as he continued to mature and add strength. In his six starts with the Pirates, Priester has mostly sat in the 92-93 mph range.
It’s a troubling trend for three of the Pirates’ top pitching prospects over the last couple of years that will need to be addressed.
The big concern is that there’s not necessarily a black-and-white answer as to why all three have seen dips in their velocity.
Contreras and Ortiz have both been searching for their fastball back in the minor leagues and at this rate, Priester could be next.
In his last start, Ortiz seemed to have added a bit of punch on his fastball, but he’s still not where he was in 2022. Contreras is still sitting around the same spot as where he was with Pittsburgh, though he did add a new pitch to his repertoire.
The good news for the Pirates is that Contreras (23 years old), Ortiz (24) and Priester (22) are all still young and have time to try and search for remedies — both the rest of this season and in the offseason.
In the same breath, the fact that three of the Pirates’ top young arms at the start of this year have all had the same issue — and the same subpar results — should sound the alarm bells.
If the Pirates can get all three back on track, a current weakness could turn into a key strength, but that’s a considerable if.