Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle throws Felipe Rivero early and often. Should he ease up a bit?

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has a finely tuned weapon in his bullpen, and he knows it.

Right now, Felipe Rivero is pitching at the height of his abilities. He has posted a 1.0 fWAR to date — an incredible feat for a reliever 2.5 months into a season — and leads the team’s relief corps in many key metrics. His K/9 of 9.87 is amplified by his BB/9 of 1.82. His BABIP of .195 might give the illusion of good luck, but one can easily say that he’s earned that low figure via a 63.9 percent ground ball rate. That rate is likely brought on by soft contact, done so at a 29.8 percent clip, good for best among all MLB relievers with at least 30 innings pitches as per Fangraphs.

What is most excited about Rivero is that he seems to be fully grasping how to pitch in the major leagues.

With all that being said, Hurdle has given into the temptation to use Rivero early and often, many times for more than just the customary “one inning” of relief. Seven of Rivero’s 34 appearances have seen him retire more than three batters. On the other side of the spectrum, Rivero has retired less than three batters in five outings. Both of these factors show that Hurdle regards Rivero as that weapon to be used in the bullpen. With all the superlatives we outlined at the top, why wouldn’t Hurdle want to use the reliever in a ton of games?

There are not many reasons to shy away from utilizing Rivero in many different relief situations, but there does loom one large cautionary tale that Hurdle might want to keep in mind as the 2017 season wears on.

A Cautionary Tale

Midway through 2016, we documented the extreme usage that Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Tony Watson saw from 2012 through 2015. Here is what we said back then:

The biggest issue looming for Watson and his success is his usage. Over the course of his career, dating back to his first full season with the Pirates in 2012, Watson has thrown in 315 games. He’s averaging nearly 79 appearances per season. Those appearances are usually high leverage coming in as the set-up man for All-Star closer Mark Melancon.

It is difficult, if not outright impossible, to measure the cumulative effect of such usage on a relief arm over the course of multiple seasons. Logic tells us that any reliever pitching those amount of innings could be subject to breaking down. “Dead Arm” is a very real thing. Melancon himself dealt with something similar prior to 2015, and many hurlers have had to unplug for periods to compensate.

Hurdle has given into the temptation to use Rivero early and often

Skeptics to reliever overuse will point to the fact that many relievers pitch one inning or less.

While technically true, many do not take into account the taxation that goes into being a relief pitcher. Getting up in the bullpen at a moment’s notice, finally getting warmed up only to sometimes be shut down again, pitching in high leverage “stress innings” and more add up to an unseen effect that takes a toll on even the sturdiest relief arms.

The fact is, Rivero has shown to be very good on zero days rest. 12.1 of his 34.2 innings have come on a back to back night, and he has allowed a lone earned run – a solo home run at that. He carries a .811 WHIP while striking out 9.5 hitters per nine in this scenario.

Clearly he can handle it.

But the Pittsburgh Pirates might want to take a hard look at the next four years that they have Rivero under contract for and learn their lesson from the last left-hander whose usage could kindly be described as “liberal.”

And the simple reason for that is this: This current shiny new toy trumps the last one in natural talent. To get the most out of that talent for years to come, the club might have to leave Felipe Rivero on the shelf from time to time.

Photo Credit – Daniel Decker Photography

Jason Rollison

Jason Rollison has been analyzing baseball and the Pirates in one way or another for 4+ years. Jason's previous stops include rumbunter.com, Pittsburgh Sporting News, Call To The Pen and several print publications. He also covers the State College Spikes for the Centre County Gazette (State College, PA) When it comes to analyzing baseball, he likes to take a middle-of-the-road approach, with one foot on the analytics side of the fence and the other on the old-school side. Having said that, he is a sucker for pitchf/x. Jason has appeared as a phone-in and in-studio guests in numerous outlets, including Trib Live Radio and 93.7 The Fan (CBS Sports Radio)