(Photo Credit: David Hague)

Three Situations the Pirates Bench, Bullpen Could Prove Crucial

Gaby Sanchez

Gaby Sanchez’s performance against lefties is dramatically better than Justin Morneau’s. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Bench play and bullpen performance has had almost zero impact on the Pirates’ 2013 postseason. That’s because their three scores have gone 6-2, 9-1, 7-1 in October.

No team can count on blowouts throughout the playoffs, though. Eventually there will be late-game situations of impact, which will bring to the forefront the reserve players for the Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals.

If we knew what would specifically happen with the rest of this series, we would be in Las Vegas instead of PNC Park. That said, let’s look at three potential situations where the Pirates’ bench, bullpen and manager decisions could turn the series.

1. Gaby Sanchez or Justin Morneau vs. Lefty Relievers

Morneau’s lineup spot has come up three times against left-handed relief pitchers this postseason, and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has elected to keep him in each time instead of pinch-hitting the righty Gaby Sanchez.

The results: Walk, Single, Ground Ball Double Play. Of course, each situation has been with Pittsburgh leading by three runs or more, not exactly a high-leverage spot.

“What I’m looking to do is get Gaby in play when there’s an opportunity to tie a game or get ahead of the game,” Hurdle said. “If we have a cushion and get on top, I’m pretty mindful of keeping Morneau in play.”

That’s likely because Morneau is a strong defensive first baseman, even though Sanchez is quite good himself. Remember these numbers when it comes to using Sanchez against lefties.

Numbers vs. Left-Handed Pitchers Since Start of 2012

  • Gaby Sanchez: .288/.394/.470 with 141 wRC+ in 237 plate appearances
  • Justin Morneau: .221/.260/.289 with 49 wRC+ in 392 plate appearances

Performance gap.

2. Who’s Ready to Run?

Josh Harrison

Josh Harrison is a pinch-hitting option against lefties, but his real value is speed and versatility. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

For Game 3, the Pirates’ bench will be composed of: John Buck, Josh Harrison, Garrett Jones, Jordy Mercer, Gaby Sanchez and Jose Tabata.

Your likely pinch-running candidates will be Josh Harrison and Jose Tabata. This works out very well for the Pirates. Not only can both players swipe an important base in close games, they provide versatility if they have to remain in the game. Tabata can capably defend any outfield spot, and Harrison has played every position in the Majors except catcher, first base and center field. (Yes, even pitcher).

Harrison has been deployed as a pinch-runner before. In his career, he is 13-for-17 stealing bases (76%). Tabata was much more keen to base swipes early in his career but had only four stolen base attempts this year. Over his career, Tabata is 46-for-73 (63%) and would likely be used to pinch-run only if Harrison is ineligible.

An extra base can be crucial in close games. For example:

  • Bottom 9th, Tied Game, Runner on First base, No Outs — 71% win expectancy
  • Bottom 9th, Tied Game, Runner on Second Base, No Outs — 81% win expectancy

3. Will Mark Melancon Show Up With Runners On?

Mark Melancon Pirates All-Star

Mark Melancon was one of the NL’s best relief pitchers in 2013, but mostly in full-inning outings. (Photo by: David Hague)

The late-inning structure of Clint Hurdle’s bullpen appears to be clear, at least when leading: Tony Watson in the 7th, Mark Melancon in the 8th, Jason Grilli in the 9th.

As we pointed out in the series bullpen preview, though, Melancon should be made available for more than just an 8th-inning lead. His All-Star season included a 60.3-percent ground ball rate, 6th-highest among all National League relievers. Melancon’s cutter kills gophers. And his manager is not concerned about a few September hiccups and blown saves.

“It could have been just a little lull in the action,” Hurdle said earlier this series. “It could have been the wear and tear of 70‑plus appearances that maybe got him a little bit out of sorts over a seven-day period.”

If the Pirates are facing a close-game situation where the Cardinals have runners on base and no outs or one out, Melancon should be prepared to go. He gets swings-and-misses and ground balls at a very high rate, making him almost the perfect pitcher for the key strikeout or double-play situation.

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James Santelli

James covers the Pirates beat for Pirates Prospects. He is a Broadcast Journalism student at USC and has written for such outlets as, Pittsburgh Magazine and the official websites of the Los Angeles Clippers and Pittsburgh Penguins. James previously covered the Pirates for Pittsburgh Sports Report. He also broadcasts play-by-play for the USC Trojans baseball team and was awarded the 2013 Chick Hearn Memorial Scholarship and Allan Malamud Scholarship. James dispenses puns at his Twitter account (@JamesSantelli) where he promises to write in first-person. Google

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Pirates Take 2-1 Lead Over Cardinals: Five Key Moments From Tonight’s Win

  • NHPirateFan

    Pretty spot on with this. I did not agree with Hurldle on may decisions, but they seemed to work pretty well.

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