Watching Jose Veras closing out the ninth inning in yesterday’s game gave me an all too familiar feeling. It was the same feeling I got at times when Matt Capps was on the mound. It was the same feeling that I got when Mike Williams was the closer for the Pirates. Jose Mesa, Salomon Torres, and more recently, Octavio Dotel have all brought this feeling. That feeling is that you’re watching someone walking on a high wire, with no safety net below.
There is some debate over how good the bullpen actually is this year. Jose Veras gets a lot of criticism. Meanwhile, he’s got a 3.49 ERA in 28.1 innings, with a 34:16 K/BB ratio. The ERA isn’t the best stat to use for relievers, and the walks are high, but it’s hard to argue that Veras isn’t getting the job done. In 33 appearances this year, he’s only allowed earned runs in seven games. In those seven games, he’s cost the Pirates two wins, and the team has bailed him out twice. But what about the other 26 games? Do we ignore those games because of two losses?
Then there’s Chris Resop. Resop has a 4.20 ERA. He’s had a few times this year where he’s struggled, with most of it limited to a bad week where he allowed eight runs in five innings spread out over five appearances. He was excellent prior to this stretch in early May, and he’s been fine since, outside of allowing two runs in a close game against Arizona last week.
Next, we have Daniel McCutchen. He’s been a surprise with a 2.34 ERA in 34.2 innings this year. However, after allowing just one earned run in his first 19 appearances, he’s allowed eight runs in his last nine appearances. That’s not to say that his performances have all been bad. He had a great outing on Wednesday, pitching three shutout innings, taking a two runs lead in the sixth and carrying it over to a four run lead in the ninth.
These are guys who have made mistakes this year, but does that make them bad relievers? The more appropriate question might be, how much are these relievers being hurt by Joel Hanrahan? Hanrahan is having an amazing season. He’s got a 1.39 ERA in 32.1 innings, with a 29:7 K/BB ratio. When he steps on the mound, the game is all but over. He dominates opponents, whether it’s the middle of the lineup, or an easy 1-2-3 against the bottom of the order. Whatever feeling the previously mentioned former Pittsburgh closers gave us, Hanrahan gives the opposite.
The problem is that Hanrahan might be too good, at least for the fans. After pitching three games in a row, there were calls for him to come out tonight. We criticize guys like Resop, Veras, and McCutchen, who are all arguably having strong seasons, if they give up a run. Heaven forbid they give up runs twice in a week. Then we hear the “get rid of this guy” calls.
This problem isn’t limited to the bullpen either. The current rotation has a surprise pitcher at every corner. Jeff Karstens has a 2.66 ERA in 71 innings. Charlie Morton has a 3.21 ERA in 84 innings. Paul Maholm has a 3.12 ERA, while Kevin Correia has a 3.73 ERA, with both throwing 89.1 innings. Then there’s James McDonald.
On the season, McDonald’s numbers don’t look that strong. He’s got a 4.80 ERA in 75 innings this year. A closer look shows that the bulk of his damage came in April. In his first four starts, McDonald posted a 10.13 ERA in 18.2 innings, with a 12:12 K/BB ratio. Since then, he’s allowed a 3.04 ERA in 56.1 innings, with a 47:26 K/BB ratio. When talking about his poor early start to the season, it’s significant to note that he was injured coming out of Spring Training. He made the rotation, despite the fact that you could have argued he wasn’t fully stretched out.
McDonald hasn’t had his best stuff the last few starts. He allowed eight hits and three walks in six innings his last time out. Last night he allowed seven hits and four walks in 5.2 innings. However, he put the team in position to win. He got out of jams, he limited the damage, and he left with the lead in each case. It’s not like it’s been this way all year. He had a 2.86 ERA in 34.2 innings in May, with a 35:10 K/BB ratio, and 33 hits allowed.
Only a few months ago, we would have killed for the performances McDonald was putting up. We wouldn’t scoff at 2-3 runs allowed in six innings, even if the road to that result was a bit messy. So what happened? It’s simple: Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens. Those two have been a huge surprise, putting up great numbers, which combined with the strong performances from Correia and Maholm, have raised our expectations for the rotation. Karstens has pitched 13.2 shutout innings in his last two starts. Maholm has pitched 13 shutout innings in his last two starts, with just four hits allowed. Correia and Morton have had some rough starts recently, but their overall numbers have been so good that we’ve ignored it.
If you’re watching Karstens and Maholm mowing down opposing lineups, and then you see McDonald with a “quality start”, of course you’re going to be disappointed. Just like you’re going to be disappointed watching Jose Veras convert a messy save when you’re used to Joel Hanrahan being automatic.
It’s almost the Playstation numbers problem. Inevitably, if you play enough seasons in a franchise on a video game, you’re going to build a pitching staff with ERAs all under 3.00. Then, when you have a pitcher with an ERA of 3.98, you start looking for a replacement, because you’ve come to expect a sub-3.00 ERA. The numbers get so ridiculous that you start to lose touch with what a good pitcher actually is. You get spoiled by the good pitchers, and expect everyone else to play the same way.
A few months ago, we would have died to have performances like we’ve seen out of McDonald lately. We would have been thrilled to have relievers like Veras, Resop, and McCutchen. Now? We’ve lost touch with reality. We say that Veras, Resop, and McCutchen aren’t good relievers because they’re not lights out like Hanrahan. We say that McDonald is disappointing because he’s putting up “quality starts” when Karstens and Maholm are tossing seven shutout innings each. We have to step back and ask ourselves: is Veras a bad reliever, or is Hanrahan just incredibly good? Is McDonald really struggling, or are we just seeing some amazing pitching from Karstens and Maholm lately?
In either case, I don’t think the Pirates have a problem. How many teams would kill to have McDonald as their “number five starter”, putting up three runs in six innings? How many teams would love to have a guy like Veras pitching the middle-to-late innings, and serving as the emergency closer? In fact, how many teams have a guy like Veras as their closer? And let’s not ignore this fact: if the Pirates needed a closer four days in a row, then the problem of worrying about your emergency closer is a good problem to have.
If this is a problem, it’s a good problem to have. Last year, we couldn’t find a guy who could put up a “quality start”. This year we want to kick those guys out of the rotation. Last year we saw guys like Steven Jackson constantly getting time in the bullpen. This year we’ve got to find space for guys like Tony Watson and Tim Wood. We just need some perspective. The pitching staff has been outstanding, and in turn, that has raised our expectations. The proper perspective tells us that we shouldn’t be calling for the heads of guys like McDonald and Veras. Instead, we should appreciate just how good guys like Hanrahan, Karstens, and the rest of the rotation have been this year.