First Pitch: The Bullpen, The Depth, and The Regression
I’ve spent most of the day working on finishing up the draft rankings with John Dreker. We will be writing up the draft rankings article tomorrow, and recording the rest of the draft podcast. All of that will go up on Tuesday as we prepare for the MLB Draft on Thursday. Because I spent most of the day working on those rankings, I’m going with a “thoughts” article tonight.
**How great was the bullpen tonight? Ten shutout innings was huge in keeping the Pirates in that game, and then keeping the game tied until the offense won. That’s been the story all season. It’s almost to the point in extra innings where you ask “when will the Pirates win this game?” You just ignore the fact that the other team could score a run, mostly because that has rarely happened for the Pirates’ bullpen this year.
**On the flip side of things, the extensive use of the bullpen left them short-handed, and forced a few moves. Ryan Reid and Jared Hughes will both join the team in Atlanta, and we don’t know the corresponding moves yet. My guess is that a Jeanmar Gomez DL placement will be one of those moves. The other one could depend on the approach with Mike Zagurski. He hasn’t looked good so far, but he’s also made just two appearances. They will need a 40-man spot for Reid, so Zagurski could be a candidate.
Zagurski and Reid are similar stories this year. Both were added as minor league free agents. Both have been putting up amazing numbers with Indianapolis. Zagurski had a 2.14 ERA in 21 innings, with a 37:9 K/BB ratio. Reid has a 0.52 ERA in 34.2 innings, with a 31:9 K/BB ratio. Reid was also impressive in Spring Training, with a 1.13 ERA in eight innings, along with a 6:1 K/BB ratio.
I’ve talked a lot about the depth in Indianapolis this year, and as we’ve already seen, that depth gives players a short leash. In previous years the Pirates might have held on to Chris Leroux or Jonathan Sanchez a little longer to see if they could turn things around. They might not have sent Jared Hughes down so soon (he has given up one run in 13 innings since going down). They probably would have given Zagurski more time (and they still might). But they have so much depth now that they don’t need to give that extra time if someone starts struggling. If Zagurski doesn’t work out, they’ve got Kris Johnson and Andy Oliver as lefty options. If Ryan Reid doesn’t work out they’ve got Brooks Brown (who was great in relief, but struggled as a starter), Duke Welker, Brandon Cumpton, and Vic Black and Kyle Waldrop when they’re healthy.
That doesn’t mean the Pirates should just go cycling through arms with no concerns. But they’re in a situation where they can’t hold on to a struggling guy for a long time, and it’s easier to move on when you have so many options performing well in the minors.
As for Reid, I’ll be interested to see what he can do in the majors. He’s had some impressive numbers in Triple-A the last few years, with a 3.24 ERA in 169.1 innings, and an 8.6 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 ratio. As usual, he’s a heavy ground ball pitcher, with a 67% rate this year, up from 61.8% last year. Despite strong numbers throughout his minor league career, and an 88-92 MPH two-seam fastball that has gotten a lot of ground balls in his career, Reid has never gotten a shot. As I’ve pointed out in the past, the Pirates seem to have a good system in place with strong infield defense and ground ball pitchers. Reid plays into that system. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him come up and have success, just like Gomez and Mazzaro. Best of all, he can go multiple innings, which is what the bullpen needs in the short-term.
**We talk about regression a lot on this site, and often I’ll notice someone mention that 1-2 bad starts will even out the difference between a pitcher’s ERA and FIP. To give an example of how that’s not the case, let’s look at Jeanmar Gomez before and after today’s start.
Before: 2.30 ERA / 4.63 FIP / 4.27 xFIP
After: 3.07 ERA / 4.73 FIP / 4.41 xFIP
Difference: +0.77 ERA / +0.10 FIP / +0.14 xFIP
The ERA will go up, but so will the FIP numbers. Those don’t go up as quickly, but there’s still a big gap, even after a four run in one inning performance. But regression doesn’t mean that the ERA will eventually line up with the FIP numbers. A pitcher would have to be extremely unlucky for an equal period for that to happen, since that would counter the lucky numbers that originally suggested a regression.
When we talk about regression it’s about what a pitcher will do going forward if he keeps pitching the way he has been. Gomez had a 2.30 ERA, but if he continued pitching the way he was pitching, he would have had an ERA in the 4.27-4.63 range, depending on whether you trust FIP or xFIP more. Or 4.39 if you like SIERA. Or 4.65 if you like tERA. You know what? It would have been much higher no matter what.
Too often the focus is on the ERA, and how it will eventually reach the FIP numbers. That’s not what regression is. Regression just means that a pitcher will most likely put up the FIP numbers going forward. We may not see how that will play out with Gomez, but today was an example. There were several starts where Gomez was lucky in the first inning, didn’t allow many runs, or any runs, and then settled down the rest of his start. Today he wasn’t so lucky. If he continued on as a starter he would have more outings like today. He’d also have good outings. But he wouldn’t keep escaping jams like he was doing in the past.
**While on the subject of regression, there will be regression with the Pirates’ bullpen. That’s unavoidable. Eventually Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli will give up runs. We won’t keep seeing the Pirates combining for ten shutout innings, or however many shutout innings it takes to win. The good news is the Pirates will still have a good bullpen after any regression. The Pirates currently have the second best bullpen in the majors, with a 2.80 ERA. If we look at the xFIP numbers, the Pirates have the 6th best bullpen in the majors, with a 3.67 xFIP. So they’re one of the top bullpens, but if everyone keeps pitching the same way, and after everyone regresses, they’ll still be one of the top bullpens.
Links and Notes
**Check out the latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 6: The Battling Buccos, The Bullpen Usage, and The Pirates System.