A Lot Being Asked of Pirates’ Bullpen

Consistency has been a problem for the Pirates this season. The offense needed more than a week to find its stride and the starting pitching (outside of A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez) has been hit and miss. One aspect of Pittsburgh’s club that actually has been consistent has been the strong work put in by the bullpen.

Photo credit: David Hague

Justin Wilson is on pace to throw 108 innings this season. Photo credit: David Hague

Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Justin Wilson, Jeanmar Gomez and a few others have combined to be one of the best relief pitching units in Major League Baseball through the first three weeks of the season, but the amount of innings that group is pitching is starting to add up at an alarming rate.

Those six relievers — Grilli, Wilson, Melancon, Hughes, Watson and Gomez — have combined to throw 57 2/3 innings through the first 18 games (11 percent of the season). That puts them on pace to pitch 519 innings this season. As good as the bullpen relief has been, it can not last at that rate.

Many of these players are in new roles this season, but all of them (with the exception of Hughes) are on pace for a large increase in their workload compared to last season. That is due to the starting pitchers having to leave games earlier than the Pirates would like and having to use the bullpen for four, sometimes five innings.

Grilli has established himself as the star of the Pirates’ bullpen and has settled into the role of closer with gusto — collecting eight saves in eight attempts through 18 games. Last season he served as a set-up man for then-Pittsburgh closer Joel Hanrahan, appearing in 64 games and pitching 58 2/3 innings. This season he’s on pace for 81 appearances and 72 innings pitched.

Grilli has only topped 70 innings pitched in a Major League season twice. In 2007 he posted a 4.74 Earned Run Average and pitched 79 2/3 innings with a 62:32 strikeout to walk ratio for Detroit. He split 2008 between the Tigers and Colorado, appearing in an even 75 innings with a 69:38 strikeout to walk ratio and a 3.00 ERA.

Melancon is on pace to more than double his innings pitched from 2012 in Boston. Last season he appeared in 41 games for the Red Sox, pitching 45 innings. This season he’s already been thrown 11 innings in 11 appearances — a pace that would have him pitching 99 innings this season. Melancon did add 21.1 innings in Triple-A last year, but his current pace would still put him more than 30 innings beyond last year’s total. Watson also is on pace to make a big jump this season. He appeared in 66 games in 2012 and pitched 53 1/3 innings while in 2013 he’s on pace for 81 appearances and 75 innings pitched. Jeanmar Gomez is the one from the group of six pitchers that is actually on pace for less work in 2013. Gomez pitched 90 2/3 innings last season in Cleveland (though it’s worth noting he spent the majority of 2012 as a starting pitcher) and is on pace for 84 innings this year.

Justin Wilson is an interesting case. Last season he only appeared in 4 2/3 big league innings, but logged more than 135 innings on the mound for Triple-A Indianapolis. This season he’s pitched 12 innings in six appearances — putting him on pace for 108 innings in 54 appearances. He’s shown the ability to log that many innings, but not at the major league level so it will be interesting to see how much Clint Hurdle works him through the summer.

** There are other pitchers (Chris Leroux, Bryan Morris and Vin Mazzaro for example) that have appeared in games for Pittsburgh this season but have such a small sample size I did not think it would be a fair representation of their roles to include them in this. **

So what does all this mean? Well, it could ultimately mean very little. The starting pitchers could start going deeper into games and putting less stress on the bullpen. Injuries could force some guys to move to different roles that could drastically increase or decrease the amount of innings they put on their arms this season. What it means in the present, however, is that the Pirates have been fortunate to have gotten excellent work from its bullpen with as much as has been asked of them in the first 18 games.

It’s a relatively small sample size but it is an interesting trend that has developed and is worth keeping an eye on as Pittsburgh goes forward from April into the summer months.

Author: Tom Bragg

Tom Bragg is a beat writer and analyst for PiratesProspects.com. He is the former sports editor of the (Fairmont) Times West Virginian and has worked at the Charleston Gazette, Charleston Daily Mail and the (Ashland, Ky.) Independent. His freelance work has appeared in newspapers all over West Virginia and he has written for The Associated Press with stories posted to several major media outlets (ESPN.com, SportsIllustrated.com, FoxSports.com). Tom graduated from Marshall University in May 2010 with a degree in Print Journalism. Follow Tom on Twitter: @TomBraggSports

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  • leadoff

    I am sure the Pirates are aware they could wear the bullpen out.
    Of course there is another way of looking at it, they might wear the bullpen down true, but they might preserve the starting pitchers, thus have them around in Sept. something they did not have much of last year, after all very few starters are going to pitch more than 100 pitches in a game no matter when they throw them.
    I believe the Pirates can replace bullpen pitchers a lot easier than they can replace starters.
    As far as Grilli and Melancon are concerned, they are the by-product of a team ahead in the late innings, the Pirates are going to work them hard if they continue to be ahead late in games, that leaves 5 bullpen pitchers that they are worried about wearing out, they have more than 5 replacement talents to replace them if necessary.
    Just a few that I can think of.
    1. Morris
    2. Black
    3. Welker
    4. Locke
    5. McPherson
    6. Oliver
    IMO, they probably will wear couple of them out but they can easily replace a couple of them. IMO, in the big picture I don’t see them wearing out the bullpen when you take into consideration that there are other pitchers that could be part of the bullpen that are not even here.
    The only pitchers in the bullpen I would worry about are Grilli and Melancon, those two would be tough to replace and you can’t really preserve them if the Pirates keep getting ahead in games.
    I believe if I am the Pirates my biggest concern with the starters is their efficiency, they can’t get caught up in 30 pitch innings and foul ball hitters costing them many pitches, they might end up with good ERA’s but they might wear everyone out in the process.

    • joe g.

      Not sure of the exact rules but my guess is that they use the disabled list if needed to rest some of these guys and take advantage of their depth. Morton, Liriano, Karstens, Cole are part of the depth equation as well.

  • Ecbucs

    I imagine they are doing this, but the club needs to make sure no one at Indy or Altoona that is a possible call up gets overused even for a short stretch.

  • https://profiles.google.com/101510909979106143098 David Lewis

    It’s way too early in the season to use the “at this pace” extrapolation. Grilli has only topped 70 IP twice – but of the 30 pitchers with the most saves last season, only 8 topped 70 IP, and six of those were not closers for the entire season. Only two pitchers who were their team’s closers for the entire season topped 70 innings – it’s not a common occurrence.

    Of course, one of those two was Jason Motte, who is headed for TJ surgery, so…

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.beam.16 Matt Beam

    Why does Clint continue to run Jared Hughes out there for the 7th inning? He has been less than stellar so far this year