There’s such a sinking feeling in the lead-up to a ball game when a pitcher takes the mound for your team, and as a fan, you already know the team will be down a run or two by the end of the first inning. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh Pirates fans, it’s a feeling all too well known.
I got the idea for this piece as I watched Trevor Cahill struggle through another poor start on May 19 before exiting to injury. The list of rejects, also-rans, disappointments, past-their-prime pitchers the Pirates have trotted out to the mound over the past two decades is extensive. So, I set out to compile the worst starting rotation of Pirates pitchers since 2000 (minimum of five appearances) I could manage. The final selections are a brutal look down memory lane. All statistics are thanks to Baseball Reference.
Maybe selecting Trevor Cahill involves a bit of recency bias. But, hey, he’s the reason I decided to pursue this piece in the first place. Cahill’s time in the black and gold has not been pleasant. Before going on the IL, his record stood at 1-5 with a 6.81 ERA and a 1.486 WHIP. But those are the numbers. What’s really bothered me about Cahill’s time in Pittsburgh is the body language; he looks like he’d rather be anywhere else but on the mound in a Pirates uniform. Which, I mean, with this roster, I get it.
A trade-deadline dayparting gift in 2007 from GM Dave Littlefield before he was fired a little over a month later on September 7. Matt Morris came to symbolize, in my opinion, the deepest depths of despair a Pittsburgh Pirates fan could reach when a pitcher took the mound. Matt Morris once led all of baseball in wins, notching 22 for the St. Louis Cardinals and finishing third in Cy Young voting in 2001. By the tail-end of his career with the Cardinals, however, he was trending down before signing with the San Francisco Giants in 2005. After a poor one and a half seasons in the Bay Area, San Francisco found a willing trade partner in the Pittsburgh Pirates as Littlefield unloaded young outfielder Rajai Davis. Morris would go 3-4 with a 6.10 ERA for the 2007 Pirates before starting the 2008 season with four losses, no wins, a 9.67 ERA, and a WHIP of 2.149. He was released in late April and retired soon after. Rajai Davis would play over a decade longer in the majors and hit a memorable World Series home run for Cleveland in 2016.
The 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates are fondly remembered as the team that snapped the franchise’s 20 year stretch of losing seasons. Remembered not so fondly, if at all, is the brief, chaotic spell of Jonathan Sánchez in the Pirates rotation. Two numbers stick out from Sánchez’s brief time in the Steel City: 11.85 ERA and 2.415 WHIP. But it’s one outing in particular that caused me to personally remember Sánchez before looking at how bad his numbers actually were. On April 26, 2013, Sánchez took the mound against the St. Louis Cardinals. He didn’t get out of the first inning. In fact, Jonathan Sánchez failed to record a single out. He gave up back-to-back homers to Matt Carpenter and Carlos Beltran to begin the game. Matt Holliday singled. Sánchez then drilled Allen Craig and was ejected from the game along with manager Clint Hurdle. Within a week, Sánchez was DFA’d and then released. Thankfully, Sánchez’s brief tenure wasn’t a sign of things to come for the 2013 Pirates, who would go on to beat the Cincinnati Reds in the Wild Card Game before losing to the Cardinals in the NLDS in five games.
Including Jimmy Anderson here may elicit a sort of “meh” reaction from most. Was he really that bad? Probably not. But I selected Anderson here because his run in the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation came to define the mediocrity and ship-without-rudder approach of the early 2000s at PNC Park. Anderson pitched for the Pirates from 1999 to 2002 and posted an ERA above 5.00 each of the three seasons after his debut in ’99. The lefty did log over 200 innings for the 62-100 Pirates in 2001 but went 9-17 with a 5.10 ERA. Now, as I write about Anderson here, I keep thinking back to the first sentence I wrote about him. Nothing memorable. Nothing that immediately stands out. No strong, passionate reaction. Fitting for the Pittsburgh Pirates of the early 2000s.
What would a rotation of worst Pirates starting pitchers since 2000 be without a first-round bust? John Van Benschoten was selected eighth overall in the 2001 MLB Draft. A slugging first baseman at Kent State, Van Benschoten was selected by the Pirates with the idea of turning him into a power arm. Didn’t quite work out that way. He finished his brief career with a 9.20 ERA and posted a WHIP of 2.552 in 2008. Now, Van Benschoten did deal with some injuries and missed the entirety of the 2005 and 2006 seasons, but he also didn’t fare well in his rookie year of 2004 with a record of 1-3 and a 6.91 ERA. Draft busts once defined the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise, and Van Benschoten simply was never able to put it together on the mound for the black and gold.
So, there we have it. The worst Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation assembled from those that took the mound for the club since 2000. A few brief notes on others I could have included. Chris Archer was a candidate, but, I’m sorry, that’s just low-hanging fruit. Bryan Bullington was another first-round pick who never fulfilled his potential. Jeff Locke made the National League All-Star Team in 2013 but was never the same after. Trevor Williams was one of the worst pitchers in baseball in 2019 and 2020. And Jon Niese summed up the apathy of the Nutting-Huntington regime post-2015.
Featured photo: @pirates on Twitter