On June 10th, Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said the magic words many have longed to hear: “We’re going to use the bullpen to win games, not count saves.”
To borrow a classic sitcom cliche: “who are you, and what have you done with Hurdle?” He has been incredibly guilty over the past few years of counting saves. How many times has the Pittsburgh Pirates manger put a middle reliever in the ninth and then going to Mark Melancon with two outs and the tying run on-deck? That’s beyond counting saves. That’s creating saves.
Still, this change, whether done through initiative or desperation, is a good one. It’s playing the percentages, but as we all know, the percentages can sometimes bite you.
Within a week of him saying that, the Pittsburgh Pirates may have be burned by not simply going with the process. On paper, going with Felipe Rivero in the eighth Friday night was the right call. The Pirates needed six outs to win, and he got what was viewed as the harder three, facing Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber. Juan Nicasio just couldn’t do his part of the deal, but it wasn’t because it was the ninth.
“To me, it doesn’t change anything,” Nicasio said on the difference between pitching the eighth and ninth. “To me it’s the same thing, same hitters that I’m facing, and the same mentality I’ve got to go out there with.”
The biggest difference between the Pirates of 2013 and 2015 is the bullpen. Hurdle no longer has the luxury of letting games get close to create save chances, so he needs to get the most out of his best relievers: Rivero and Nicasio.
The Pirates are going to need more than two reliable arms going forward. So let’s have a quick state of the union for everyone who can help, especially late.
Meet the new late inning guy, same as the last late inning guy
Tony Watson and Daniel Hudson were supposed to be the 1-2 punch at the end of the bullpen, but that obviously has not gone as planned. Hurdle has demoted both to lower leverage opportunities this year, but their pedigrees will give them another shot.
Relocating Watson to the eighth inning is easier said than done. Hurdle could not boot him from the closer’s role and then go back to him next week. It’s burning a bridge with one of the best southpaw relievers in franchise history. He had to be absolutely sure it was the right call.
A lot of the problems he has this year- a diminishing heater, less value on his sinker- were present in 2016 when he was setting up Melancon. It didn’t just start when he took over the closer’s role.
Watson has had some rotten luck at points. Three of his six home runs allowed have traveled 359 feet or less. Hardly moonshots. Then again, he’s over performing compared to his 5.30 FIP. Hurdle loves talking about trusting the back of the baseball card. Watson has a great track record to back him up, but that card is looking worse and worse.
Hudson has strung together a good stretch, only allowing a run in two of his last 14 outings. A lot of those outings were in low leverage situations, though. Getting a chance to rebound down there has been beneficial for him.
“It’s just getting more game reps and getting in situations where every pitch doesn’t mean the game,” Hudson told me May 31st. “Focus on competing.”
Hurdle offered different reasons for his success: nailing his release points and shortening his slide step. “We’re trying to get him off and underway about 1.3 seconds release time. It’s worked extremely well…that’s what we’ve seen for most of the month,” he said June 14th.
PBD’s Jason Rolinson has already done a fantastic writeup on Hudson, his drop in velocity and his pitch selection, so there’s nothing new I can add on that front. The Pittsburgh Pirates banked on him being a back of the bullpen arm and perhaps a closer. It’s rapidly becoming time to see if the mechanical fix going will make that possible again or if he just lacks the mentality.
Hudson is currently ranked 107th in terms of “clutch” among relievers according to Fangraphs (-0.28). He’s 160th in WPA (-0.77). The two games Hudson also allowed a run in were higher leverage than he has pitched lately. Granted that was the poor mechanics Hudson, but it’s a bad foundation of stats to build off of.
The rookies and misfits
Wade LeBlanc’s value comes from being able to go multiple innings, so he should not be a late inning candidate. Edgar Santana is pitching like a rookie. Dovydas Neverauskas has made a couple cameo appearances this year, but he isn’t ready to pitch high leverage innings yet either. Every bullpen needs inning eaters, and they have done a good job so far.
Antonio Bastardo is still doing his rehab assignment in AAA. The Pirates have moved his locker since he went to the DL, so I would interpret that as they are planning to give him another shot. If they weren’t, why go through the trouble of moving it? (This is just speculation on my part, but I doubt this is a that hot of a take.)
Bastardo’s fastball velocity dropped over a mile per hour from his time in Pittsburgh last year, which was a mile slower than he sat at in 2015. His swings and misses have dropped too. A trip to the DL helped Arquimedes Caminero last year. There’s not a lot of reasons to be optimistic for Bastardo, but perhaps that is one.
Jhan Marinez has very quietly had a good run with the Pirates, posting a 2.93 ERA, 54.5% ground ball rate and 8.2 K/9.
The reason for Marinez’s success has been his slider. Fangraphs’ pitch values pegs it at being 4.9 runs above average already, which is surprisingly 12th among all relievers. What is almost as surprising is he has thrown it less as a Pirate- 20% compared to 28.7% with the Brewers. Batters are only hitting .197 against his snapper with no extra-base hits. He should go back to throwing it more often, assuming his walks climb back up again.
The Pirates are probably going to pick up a player or two at the trade deadline if they are still contenders. It is just as likely that Watson gets dealt, the same way Mark Melancon was last year. Nicasio may be another trade candidate since he is in his final year of team control.
The most desirable bullpen arms are probably going to go to Washington, so throw out hopes for a Roberto Osuna, Alex Colome or Kelvin Herrera. Fortunately, it looks like a dense market, especially for middle relief and potential set-up men.
The best type of relievers to go after the ones with team control but not a lot of guaranteed money. Bullpen arms are too volatile to put too many eggs into the basket of one out of seven. Guys like Sean Doolittle of the A’s and the White Sox Nate Jones are the best matches for this description. They both have a guaranteed deal in 2018 and then multiple options afterwards. The catch is they are both often injured and the prospect price tag may be too high.
There will still be buy-low options available to round out the bullpen if necessary, like Joaquin Benoit, Drew Storen and Joe Smith. Getting someone comparable to them may be necessary just to finish the year if they trade Nicasio and/or Watson.
So take your pick
Personally, I would try to ease Marinez from mop up duty to higher leverage spots and see how he responds. Even if he takes to the new role and becomes a seventh or eighth inning guy, buying a reliever is going to be a necessity for them to compete.
Hudson is probably the most likely pick to get late innings again. If he struggles, it probably will be Tony Watson.
Any way it’s sliced, the bullpen can’t continue to rely on just Rivero and Nicasio. Entering play Friday, their 58.1% first strike rate was 22nd in baseball. -1.08 WPA was 23rd. Only 11.3% of swings were misses, which is 17th overall. It’s a far cry from the shark tank days.
But it’s not beyond saving. Let Marinez throw more sliders. Get a reliever or two at the deadline. Don’t let Hudson get into bad habits again, and if he does, put him back in lower innings. Cross your fingers for Watson and Bastardo. It may not be the model of efficiency the Pirates have shown off the last few seasons, but it can be a strength again.
Photo credit – Daniel Decker Photography