Positional Breakdowns: Relief Pitcher

The 2009 season wasn’t exactly a good one for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ bullpen. Pirates’ relievers combined for a 4.61 ERA, ranking 26th in the majors. Their .259 BAA ranked 23rd in the majors. The bullpen blew 17 saves, which was one of the ten fewest in the majors, but that’s because they only had 45 save opportunities, the third fewest in the majors. Overall, their 62 percent save ratio ranked 24th in the majors.
The 2009 Season
The numbers looked bad for the Pirates, but that’s not saying they didn’t have good relievers in the pen. Jesse Chavez was a big surprise, with a 4.01 ERA in 67.1 innings pitched, along with a 6.3 K/9, 2.9 BB/9 and a 1.5 HR/9 ratio. Chavez barely made the opening day roster, and was considered the first in line to be demoted, but ended up surprising everyone and becoming a fixture in the bullpen going in to next season.
Evan Meek, last year’s Rule 5 draft pick, had a great season in his first full year in the majors. Meek put up a 3.45 ERA in 47 innings pitched, with an 8.0 K/9, 5.6 BB/9, and an 0.4 HR/9 ratio. Walks have always been a concern for Meek, and that was no exception this year. There’s also cause for concern, as Meek’s .261 BABIP was on the lucky side. That means the hits should increase, but he can maintain this current level if he cuts down on the walks.
The Pirates traded for Joel Hanrahan mid-season, and Hanrahan looked great in his time with the Pirates. I went in to full detail on Hanrahan’s season in my breakdown of the Nyjer Morgan trade.
Steven Jackson was a big surprise, after being an early season waiver claim from the New York Yankees. Jackson put up a 3.14 ERA in 43 innings pitched, which ranks second best in the 2009 bullpen outside of Hanrahan’s time with the Pirates. Jackson had a 4.4 K/9, a 4.6 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 ratio on the season. From August to the end of the season he put up a 2.92 ERA in 24.2 innings pitched, with a 13:11 K/BB ratio and no homers allowed. Jackson doesn’t strike out a lot of guys, but he gets a lot of ground ball outs, and limited the walks at the end of the season.
Phil Dumatrait pitched briefly, and is the only left handed option the Pirates have right now, although his poor performance raises a question of how important it is to have a left handed pitcher, especially when he only has a .267/.369/.438 line against left handed hitters in his career.
John Grabow was a solid all around arm in the back of the bullpen before the trade to the Chicago Cubs late in the season. Grabow was set to be a free agent following the year, although the Cubs could try to lock him down before he reaches free agency. Grabow posted a 3.42 ERA, with a 7.8 K/9, 5.3 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9. Similar numbers to Evan Meek, although Grabow allowed more hits.
Sean Burnett was probably the best option against left handers that the Pirates had, with a .186/.273/.340 line against left handed hitters this season. In my breakdown of the Morgan trade I detail why Burnett was lucky this year, and why I don’t think he’s as good as his numbers indicate this year.
The biggest problem in the bullpen was Matt Capps. Capps had a 5.80 ERA in 54.1 innings pitched, with eight losses, five blown saves in 32 opportunities, and poor home run numbers. That’s a huge downgrade from his 2008 season where he had a 3.02 ERA in 53.2 innings, three losses, and five blown saves in 26 opportunities. I’ll go in to detail with Capps a little later.
The Prospects
The big issue with the bullpen right now is the lack of left handed relief. The Pirates have a few options available in the minors. Daniel Moskos and Kyle Bloom both were pitching in AA this past season, both in starter roles.
Moskos had a 3.74 ERA in 149 innings pitched, with a 4.7 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, and an 0.7 HR/9. Moskos didn’t fare well against left handers, with a .279 BAA, although he had a .224 BAA last year versus left handed hitters, so it’s hard to tell which season is legit. Moskos should improve his strikeout numbers in a relief role, which is what he seems destined for.
Bloom is another guy who could be destined for the bullpen, and who is only getting starts to see the maximum amount of innings possible. Bloom had a 4.05 ERA with a 6.1 K/9, 4.9 BB/9, and an 0.3 HR/9. He had a .186 BAA versus left handed hitters in his second season in AA. Last year he had a .216 BAA.
Donald Veal is also a future option, although the 2009 Rule 5 pick will be used as a starter next year, and might not be penciled in to the bullpen just yet.
On the right handed side, Jeff Sues entered the season as a top prospect, but had a down season. Sues posted a 4.46 ERA in AA, with an 8.5 K/9, 4.2 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 ratio in 78.2 innings pitched. He moved up to AAA and didn’t have any success there. Looking at his ratios, there’s not much wrong with his AA numbers, as he put up similar ratios to what we saw in 2008 when he had a 3.77 ERA in 43 innings pitched at AA. I’m not counting him out yet, although his time is short, as he turns 27 next year.
Ramon Aguero is a very promising bullpen prospect, throwing 95-96 MPH consistently in his outings. Ronald Uviedo could be a future major league closer, after working all season in the Lynchburg bullpen. Aguero and Uviedo were the late innings guys for the Hillcats in their championship run, with Uviedo acting as the closer the majority of the time.
The Future
It’s extremely hard to predict a bullpen, as you can find bullpen arms anywhere. Who would have thought, going in to the season, that our top bullpen arms at the end of the year would be Jesse Chavez, Evan Meek, Joel Hanrahan, and Steven Jackson? Maybe a few people expected Meek to do something, but the other three were total surprises.
I will focus on the future of the closer’s role. Capps had a down season this year, but let’s compare this year with last year:
Capps 2008: 53.2 IP, 3.02 ERA, 6.54 K/9, 0.84 BB/9, 0.84 HR/9, .272 BABIP
Capps 2009: 54.1 IP, 5.80 ERA, 7.62 K/9, 2.82 BB/9, 1.66 HR/9, .370 BABIP
Capps had a ridiculous walk rate in 2008, although that wasn’t totally out of line with his walk ratios in previous seasons, which included a 1.82 BB/9 in 2007, and a 1.34 BB/9 in 2006. He also had a low BABIP, although he had a .271 BABIP in 2007, and a .287 BABIP in 2006. The biggest difference was the BABIP in 2009. The .370 line was almost 100 points higher than his 2008 numbers. He also doubled his home run ratio.
So what caused this? Capps mentioned that he didn’t throw as many fastballs this year as he did last year, and that was the source of his problems. That is confirmed by his numbers, as Capps threw fastballs in 78.6 percent of his pitches last year, compared to 68.7 percent of his pitches this year. The big difference was that he went from throwing his slider 14.8 percent of the time to 25 percent of the time this year. The only other year Capps had a similar breakdown with these two pitches was in 2006, when he put up a 3.79 ERA, his worst season before this year.
Going in to next season the Pirates have two options, in my opinion. They can either try and trade Capps in the off-season, or they need to give him the job. Capps will be making a lot through his second year arbitration raise, possibly aroun

d $4 M, and the Pirates can’t afford to pay that much for a set up man.

Personally I’d like to see Capps dealt. It’s not that I don’t like Capps. I think he had an unlucky year, and will bounce back next season once he goes back to throwing fastballs more often. I just don’t value relief pitching that much. The Pirates have a few closing options in the pen, with the top candidate in my eyes being Joel Hanrahan. The big thing is that these options don’t cost $4 M, which frees up that money to be used elsewhere. His trade value increases if he finds success in the closer’s role again.
The other big issue is the issue of left handed relief. I went over this in detail yesterday in my breakdown of the Grabow trade, so I’ll keep it short here. Basically, as long as a pitcher can get a left handed hitter out, I don’t care what hand the pitcher throws with. The Pirates have one left handed reliever who can’t get left handers out (Dumatrait) and two right handed relievers who are great against left handers (Chavez and Jackson). I’d like to see another lefty brought in, and I wouldn’t mind seeing Kyle Bloom added to the 25-man roster as a LOOGY, but I don’t think the Pirates’ issue with left handed relief is as serious as it’s made out to be.
As for the prospects, I mentioned a few guys above, but I don’t want to go too deep in to projections with bullpen arms, for reasons stated several times. I did see a lot of Aguero and Uviedo, and I was impressed with each pitcher. I could see both pitchers on the fast track, possibly up by the start of the 2011 season, assuming they have success in AA and AAA.
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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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