There’s a debate this year about whether the Pittsburgh Pirates have a quality bullpen. Some argue that the bullpen is very talented, with a lot of hard throwers who have put up quality ratios throughout their careers. Others point out the question marks. They believe in the “Proven Closer” theory, which discounts anything Jason Grilli has done. They don’t believe Mark Melancon will bounce back. They want the comfort of relievers with experience and results, rather than just talented relievers who aren’t established yet in the majors.
The Pirates do have a talented bullpen heading into the year. Jason Grilli hasn’t closed yet, but he was a dominant reliever the last two years. There’s no reason to think that will change. Mark Melancon is coming off a down year, but all of the secondary numbers suggest that was bad luck. Guys like Justin Wilson and Chris Leroux don’t have a lot of major league experience, but both have good stuff and strong ratios. And the big issue seems to be that relievers don’t have experience throwing in certain innings, which doesn’t seem like an issue at all, unless you believe there’s some magical attribute needed to have success in those specific innings.
“It shouldn’t be an issue at all, for anybody,” Ray Searage said on the subject. “Basically what you want to do is, you need to throw strikes, quality strikes. No matter where you are and what point in the game you still need to get three outs in that inning. That’s the mindset that they should have. It doesn’t matter whether you come in, in the sixth inning. It doesn’t matter whether you come in, in the eighth inning. You still gotta get three outs.”
Fortunately, the relievers the Pirates have also subscribe to this theory that you just need three outs no matter what inning you’re pitching in. That mindset starts with new closer, Jason Grilli.
Jason Grilli had a dominant season in 2012. He put up a 2.91 ERA in 58.2 innings, with the impressive part being his 90:22 K/BB ratio in that time span. The Pirates originally added Grilli as a minor league free agent in 2011. Any team who wanted him could have added him. He was with the Phillies’ Triple-A squad, and had a clause in his contract which forced the Phillies to either release him or add him to their major league team if another team made an offer. The Pirates made an offer, the Phillies didn’t match it, and Grilli joined Pittsburgh.
Perhaps that chance was why Grilli chose to sign with the Pirates this off-season for two years and $6.75 M. After the Joel Hanrahan trade, Grilli became the team’s closer. For those who only look at the numbers, and don’t believe that the ninth inning takes a special attribute, Grilli has what it takes to close. Grilli seems to fall into that category, believing that success in the eighth inning can carry over to success in the ninth inning.
“I love when people say you can’t do anything. I haven’t tried yet,” Grilli said. “And I think I’ve made a good claim to see why I’m capable of doing it. There’s no reason why…to me the eighth and ninth inning, it’s just a different number. That’s how I look at it. You’ve still got to get three outs, and I’ve done that many times over.”
If you’re only looking at the numbers, there’s no reason to think that Grilli will struggle as a closer. Last year only three qualified relievers had a better K/9 ratio. They were Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, and Antonio Bastardo. That’s good company to be in.
“I’m just going to go out there and give it hell just like I did last year,” Grilli said. “I think I’ve earned the stripes to, and obviously the organization sees a lot in me. You just don’t get handed a job like that without having some tenacity and some clout behind it.”
The Pirates added Mark Melancon as one of the key pieces in the Joel Hanrahan trade to the Boston Red Sox. A year ago, the Red Sox traded Jed Lowrie and a pitching prospect to get Melancon when he was coming off a big season with the Houston Astros. However, the reliever saw his numbers and value take a dive in Boston.
Ironically, Melancon looks very much like Hanrahan did when he came over in a trade in 2009. Hanrahan entered the 2009 season looking like a promising reliever. He struggled in the early part of the year and lost the closer’s role in Washington. A look at his advanced numbers showed that he was very unlucky that year. Almost immediately he saw a turnaround and became a dominant reliever again.
Melancon also had stats that looked unlucky. The highlight was a 22.2% HR/FB ratio. That was mostly due to five homers in two innings combined over his first four outings. He was sent to Triple-A, then came back after about two months. After his return to the majors he gave up just three homers in 41 innings.
“Coming out of Spring Training my curveball wasn’t quite as sharp as I wanted it to be,” Melancon said about the home runs. “I was up with my fastball. The last half I really had a good attitude going into games. A good level of energy. That kind of changed my approach going into the game a little bit.”
The Pirates have been working with Melancon on some minor adjustments to his mechanics. Specifically they’re focused on him getting his hands out of his glove sooner, and also working on his leg kick to allow him to get to his backside.
“There’s a couple of mechanical things that I’ve been working on, which have been great,” Melancon said. “Because the last couple of years I haven’t really touched my mechanics too much. Ray and Jim [Benedict] have been very good as far as with the knowledge part of it, and helping me pinpoint a few things that can really help.”
Melancon added a cutter in 2011, and gradually started using the pitch more often. According to PITCHf/x, he threw the cutter 41.3 percent of the time in 2012, while throwing his fastball 28.3 percent of the time. The latter was down from 59.9 percent in 2010. Some of that could be a charting error, since Melancon’s four seam can have some cutting movement. He also throws his cutter like a fastball, and it has similar velocity, so it could be easy to get the pitches mixed up.
“I don’t know about the numbers. They might be close to that,” Melancon said. “I know my four-seam tends to cut a little bit naturally. The cutter’s been a great pitch for me. I’m consistent with it, I can locate it, and it’s gotten me out of a lot of jams.”
“It definitely is a good pitch, and the curveball is a good pitch too, and his fastball is a good pitch,” Searage said about the cutter. “I’d rather not see him fall into just cutters. That’s what we’re working on right now, to make sure that he’s got the weapons that he has, that he’ll be able to use them at any given time in different situations depending on the hitter.”
The Pirates will be depending on a big season from Melancon. If his 2012 season was just a result of bad luck, then the Joel Hanrahan trade will look good. They will have replaced Hanrahan with a strong late inning reliever who is under control for four seasons, plus three other young players as a bonus. Looking at Melancon’s numbers — specifically the numbers after he returned from Triple-A — he may have already bounced back.
“The last half was really good. The last quarter was excellent,” Melancon said of his 2012 season. “If I can build on that and continue to do that, things are going to be good. And I know that I can do that. I showed it last year. And I changed a couple of things, and I’ve changed a couple more in this Spring Training.”
“He’s got all the tools. He’s got talent,” Searage said. “I think that with his pitches, he will be successful for us. He’s got a real good mindset right now. Good attitude. We’re going to continue to build on that.”
A few years ago, Jared Hughes was stuck in Altoona as a starter. He had thrown at the level for three straight years before moving to the bullpen in 2011 with Indianapolis. He made his major league debut in 2011 as a reliever, and one year later he led the bullpen in innings with 75.2. In the span of two years, Hughes has gone from a Double-A starter to the anchor of the middle innings in the major league bullpen. The change shouldn’t affect the right-handed reliever.
“The mindset, it stays the same,” Hughes said. “The experience or not, the big thing is just getting competitive.”
Getting competitive is something Hughes doesn’t have a problem with. When he takes the mound, he can be seen huffing and puffing, which combined with his 6′ 7″, 245 pound frame is an intense look.
“I approach everything in terms of pitching the same way, and that’s just getting aggressive,” Hughes said. “That was part of the switch a couple of years back was just flipping that mindset from ‘I’ve got to pace myself for nine’ to ‘I may only have one pitch today, so I better go out there and throw it as hard as I can.’ So it’s kind of the aggression and the competitiveness is what I base myself on.”
The right-hander worked over the off-season on throwing inside to left-handers, plus controlling the running game.
“I think the inside to lefties is that I’m predominately a sinker ball pitcher, and I have to make sure that they respect that side of the plate,” Hughes said. He noted that the approach had been working for him in the Spring, and he’s ready to carry it over to the season.
Grilli will close, and Melancon will handle most of the set-up duties, but Hughes could be called upon for late innings this year. That’s a role he’s ready for.
“I’m ready to go. Game on the line, I’m ready to rock and roll,” Hughes said. “But honestly, I just want to get in there and pitch.”
Tony Watson is a similar story to Hughes. He was a starter in the minors, switched to relief and made his debut in 2011, and now he’s one of the most experienced arms in the bullpen. Last year Watson made 68 appearances, which was the most on the team. With Grilli and Melancon handling the late innings, Watson and Hughes will be expected to hold down the middle innings, with some late inning help.
“Grilli and Melancon have both pitched in the back innings of games. [Hughes] and I will just try to fill in where we can and some other guys will step up,” Watson said. “We’re excited. We’re ready to go.”
One issue for the left-hander coming into the season is that he’s been hit hard in Spring. Watson missed a few weeks with some minor soreness, but more importantly to work on some mechanical issues. One issue was throwing extension fastballs inside to right-handed hitters. After his return, the left-hander was hit hard in his first two outings. The struggles continued in the Spring Training game with Altoona, when he gave up a grand slam to Starling Marte. That will be something to watch early in the season, especially since Watson is being relied upon as the top left-hander and one of the most experienced relievers.
The Pirates originally claimed Leroux in September 2010 from the Yankees. In 2011 they worked on lowering his arm slot, and the early results looked promising. In his limited time in the majors with the Pirates, Leroux has combined for a 3.95 ERA in 41 innings, with an 8.2 K/9 and a 2.6 BB/9. Last year he had an inflated ERA, despite strong ratios across the board. That could have been due to a strained pectoral injury, which lowered his fastball velocity and forced him to use the slider more often.
“We’ve seen what he can do before his injury happened early last year,” Ray Searage said. “He’s come back and he’s still got the good sink and the good slider. And also the changeup that he uses occasionally.”
Leroux is back to using his fastball the majority of the time, rather than leaning more on the slider. He feels stronger than he did last year, and Searage said that the velocity has seen an increase.
“It has come up,” Searage said. “It’s not where it was before, but it has come up and that’s going to take time. Who knows? It might be there in May, it might be there in June. But overall we’re being patient.”
Wilson made a few appearances in September last year, but will get his first real shot at the majors out of the bullpen this year. The left-hander has struggled with his control in the minors, both as a starter and as a reliever. He’s countered the control issues with a high strikeout rate and a low BAA. Those numbers are a result of his stuff. Wilson throws a fastball that sits in the 94-96 MPH range, and pairs that with two good breaking pitches. He also throws a changeup well.
Normally when starters move to the bullpen they see an improvement. In Wilson’s case, he’s the same pitcher, just in shorter appearances. His control doesn’t improve in the move to relief, and that’s the one thing that holds him back. He has seen a velocity increase in the past as a reliever, but that didn’t show up last year. Because he has four pitches that he throws well, Wilson could be an option for multiple innings out of the bullpen.
Gomez has been your typical fifth starter in the majors. In his career he has a 5.18 ERA in 206.2 innings, with a 4.9 K/9 and a 3.1 BB/9. He’s a sinkerball pitcher, with a ground ball rate that is well above average. He hasn’t pitched in relief a lot in his career, so it’s hard to say whether he’d see an improvement with his results with a move to the bullpen. His major league career is limited to seven innings in relief, giving up one run and striking out five. The Pirates have a good track record of taking guys like Gomez — who seemingly have very little value — and turning them in to quality relievers. That’s not necessarily a guarantee with Gomez, but he’s also the last guy in the bullpen, and the most likely to take the meaningless innings. Any improvement that comes from moving to relief would be a bonus.