Deception gives George Kontos an inside track to a 2018 bullpen spot

The Pittsburgh Pirates gave George Kontos an extended look as the 2017 season wore down, and there is a good reason why.

The Pittsburgh Pirates long for the days when their bullpen was a weapon.

From 2013 through 2015, the club’s relief unit had the third highest fWAR in the National League with 11. The group carried the highest Left On Base percentage and ground ball rates in the senior circuit with 78.4 and 50.4 percent, respectively.

The Pirates’ relievers during those three years were not particular dominating in a classic sense — the team’s relievers posted a mediocre 7.79 K/9 — but they kept the ball in the park and did not allow much traffic (the team’s relief pitching was tied with the San Francisco Giants for the lowest WHIP at 1.19).

2016 saw cracks start to form in the pen, and the biggest shark left the tank when Mark Melancon was traded away. Suddenly what was a weapon became a liability. We’ll spare you all the gory details, but the team’s reliever fWAR plummeted to 1.6, good for 12th in the NL.

The Pirates’ relievers rebounded a bit in 2017 on the backs of solid season-long performances from Felipe Rivero and Juan Nicasio, yet no one would confuse them for the battle-tested group that led the Pittsburgh Pirates to the second-most wins in baseball from 2013-2015.

Despite the encouraging rebound, the Pirates’ pen still lacks in a vital area. The current trend in baseball is one of high strikeouts and high power. In 2017, the Pittsburgh bullpen lacked in both strikeout ability as well as the building blocks of said strikeout ability:

Pirates Bullpen Strikeout & Deception Ability

StatFigureNL Rank
O-Swing %27.5% 15th
SwStr %10.7%12th

So not only did the 2017 Pittsburgh Pirates relievers lack in piling up strikeouts, they also could not fool anyone into swinging at pitches outside of the zone, and didn’t get many swings and misses in general.

And that is exactly why George Kontos has an inside track to claiming a spot in the team’s 2018 bullpen.

A short audition, but an effective one

Before he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kontos had a nice run of things in San Francisco.

He won two World Series championships with the Giants, and pitched to a 3.64 FIP over 250 appearances. His K/9 of 6.9 over his Giants years may not seem impressive on the surface, but it is worth noting that he enjoyed a considerable rebound in 2017 to the tune of 9.5 punchouts per nine with the Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates combined.

Though his “audition’ for 2018 was a short one at just 14.2 IP, Kontos was able to post a 0.3 fWAR in that short amount of time, as well as a 2.61 FIP and a 9.2 K/9. He had a swinging strike rate of 16.2 percent, and his O-swing was a respectable 33.7 percent.

Talk about checking off some boxes.

Kontos got there by still heavily favoring his trademark cutter, which has long been his go to pitch. However, since joining the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kontos has seen more sink on his pitches, enough to confuse the hell out of most tracking systems. Here’s how Brooks Baseball saw his usage in 2017:

Call it a cutter if you want, call it a sinker if you prefer but one important thing to note is that the change in usage happened in September. The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Kontos in mid-August. That’s important when you recall that pitching coach Ray Searage likes to see a bit from any new pitcher to the club before making any serious adjustments. Kontos pitched five innings for Pittsburgh in August before finishing the season on a strong note.

Though the confusion in identifying his pitches can be annoying for writers like this one, the confusion batters face when trying to track Kontos’ pitches is likely greater, especially when it has a fair amount of late breaking action, as seen here:


And also, here:



While neither of those pitches are what anyone would specify as fall-off-the-plate late breakers, there is enough deception in there to form as the building block of a pitcher who can post a fair amount of strikeouts.

And that is exactly what the Pittsburgh Pirates’ bullpen needs.

Through some magnificent numerical gymnastics, Kontos will enter his first arbitration year next season. He’ll get a raise. He’s earned it. But he is still an affordable, attractive option for the Pittsbugh Pirates to throw in their ‘pen, and his performance last season has at least given him the inside track towards returning to Pittsburgh.

Featured Photo Credit – Flickr Creative Commons

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Jason Rollison

Jason Rollison has been analyzing baseball and the Pirates in one way or another for 4+ years. Jason's previous stops include, 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)