First Pitch: It’s Time For the Pirates to Make a Switch at Closer

Earlier today, Max Fogle wrote about the struggles that Jason Grilli has been having this year, breaking down some of the key problems that might be leading to the poor results. It was actually an article that Max had written before today’s game, and was originally set to go up tomorrow morning. However, with the blown save this afternoon, it seemed like an appropriate topic to discuss sooner, rather than later.

Grilli isn’t looking good right now, no matter how you look at things. You can take the simple approach of looking at blown saves and ERA, or you can dig deeper and look at his strikeouts, walks, and advanced metrics. No matter what, this isn’t the Jason Grilli that was a dominant closer last year, and was a dominant reliever the year before.

One thing to consider here is that we’re only looking at a sample size of 18.2 innings. It was only about a week ago that Grilli had a 2.81 ERA in 16 innings this season, with a 17:7 K/BB ratio. The numbers get even better if you remove the two games right before his injury, which might have led to the poor results in those games. Then again, with his recent struggles, it gets harder to believe the “he might have only struggled because of an injury” theory.

Small sample sizes are a way of life for relievers. Even in a full season, a relief pitcher isn’t going to get a large enough sample size to remove the impact of a few horrible outings. Take Mark Melancon as a prime example. He had a 6.20 ERA in 2012 with the Red Sox. Most of that was due to his first four outings. After going down to Triple-A for a bit, Melancon returned and had a 4.19 ERA in 43 innings for the remainder of the season. But those first four appearances were enough to hide this.

In Grilli’s case, you don’t want to do something permanent like releasing him based on a few bad outings. However, that doesn’t mean that he needs to remain in the closer’s role. The Pirates have better options right now, with Melancon and Tony Watson leading the way for the late inning duties. Grilli could move to a lower pressure role for the short-term. If the current issues are only mental, or just a bad stretch, then the lower pressure role will give him a better chance to bounce back. If it’s a bigger issue, like a sudden decline for the 37-year-old, then he won’t be in a position to blow leads late in the game.

Grilli is only under team control through the end of the season. He doesn’t have any trade value right now, as is the case with any reliever posting his numbers and making $4 M. He’s not going to get the Pirates any compensation at the end of the year. His success in the past is appreciated, but it’s not going to help now. So there’s no reason to keep Grilli on as the closer.

It actually makes more sense to switch to Melancon. He still has two years of team control remaining, which means he could take over as the closer in future years if he works out this year. He’d be a better option in the short-term, since he has been putting up much better numbers than Grilli, both standard and advanced metrics. And if the Pirates wanted to consider trading Melancon in the future for help at another position, they’d get more value if he was established as a closer.

Grilli should stay on the team, but at this point there’s no reason to keep him as the closer. Meanwhile, there are multiple reasons to make the switch to Melancon. That’s a move that makes sense for the Pirates in the short-term, and in the long-term.

Links and Notes

**Prospect Watch: Tyler Glasnow Extends Shutout Streak, Bristol Loses Opener on Walk-Off Homer

**Breaking Down Jason Grilli’s Struggles

**2014 Bristol Pirates Season Preview

**Prospect Highlights: Mel Rojas Jr. Showing Off Some Tools

**Minor League Schedule: Eight Teams and Nine Games For Friday

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Y2JGQ2

    disagree. we all are entitled to our opinions though, lets keep everything as is

    • Lee Young

      I disagree with your entitlement.

      :) :) :) :) :) :)

      • glassers

        Your such a rebel !

  • Jojo V

    I agree with Melancon getting the call in the 9th. You also mention Watson, who has been very good this season and may be able to be a closer, but that leaves a struggling Wilson as your only lefty to use in pre-9th inning relief. I don’t think that is a good move right now.

  • Sandoz

    I don’t think Grilli’s ego will allow him to accept a diminished role.

    • bucsws2014

      I don’t know if it’s so much Grilli’s ego as it is the entire chemistry of what’s now become the Guppy Tank. I think it might be a better move to identify a phantom injury, sideline him for a bit and then give him a few rehab appearances before reintroducing him into a lesser role.

      • Bob Ross

        They already did that though this year.

        • bucsws2014

          Yeah, but that first time they really thought something was wrong :-)

      • lonleylibertarian

        MAybe he could claim hand injury due to book signings

  • emjayinTN

    Last 4 games 2.2 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 3W/0K, 13.50 ERA. When you only throw 93, your Command has to be pinpoint, and you have to be able to throw more than one pitch for a strike. He has lost that edge that a Closer needs. Melancon and Watson have earned the opportunity, and Andy Oliver has put up some impressive numbers as a Closer at AAA.

    • bucsws2014

      Oliver scares the crap out me. His BBs are down, but still over 5 per 9IP. Wilk might be the better option for a lefty out the pen. He looked very good in ST. He’s OK as a starter in Indy, but is probably better suited to relief.

      • Doug

        5 BB’s per 9 innings is a better ratio then what top prospect Tyler Glasnow is putting up. I think Oliver is worth a shot.

        • bucsws2014

          The difference being Glasnow is still a prospect in the learning stages. Oliver is bordering on ancient for a minor leaguer. If he hasn’t mastered command by now, it’s hard to believe he’ll master it at the ML level. At any rate, not a guy I’d want in high leverage situations. I don’t think he’d be any better than Wilson at his worst. Just my opinion.

          • emjayinTN

            For the record, Oliver has been excellent since being moved into the Closer role. He currently has 7 Saves on the season and that is in the last 10 or 11 games. In his last 10 games he has pitched 11.1 Innings, 5 H, 0 ER, 6 Saves, 2W/15K, 0.00 ERA, .128 Avg against, 1.38 GO/AO, and is in his age 26 season.

            • lonleylibertarian

              Don’t confuse folks with facts – they all think Pedro is the worst defender in the Bucs infield – a quick look at UZR shows walker and Davis are both having awful years defensively. And the WORST defensive stats on the team belong to the MVP ;-)

    • Y2JGQ2

      Jamie Moyer out of retirement would be a better option than Oliver- are you his agent or something?

      • emjayinTN

        Are the numbers correct? This kid was drafted by Detroit in 2009 as a 21 year old out of OK St, paid $1.5 mil, and then they completely bypassed the lower levels of development altogether. I do not think he pitched in 2009 and then started 2010 in AA for 14 starts, then to AAA for another 9 starts, and then into the majors with Detroit for 5 more starts – all in his first full year of professional baseball!

  • mam995

    I think the WHOLE bullpen has been inconsistent and has hurt this teams record. No reliever more than Grilli. He’s killed them. He’s been good for the team as a person, but in the end…you STILL have to produce. He’s obviously lost arm strength. His fast ball has flattened out. His breaking stuff has lost its’ bite too. It’s like freaking batting practice for the opposing hitters. Saw the same thing happen to the great Goose Gossage. Sad. I don’t see ANY role that he could be slotted in where it would NOT be a high leverage situation, except maybe mop up. You already have Jeanmar Gomez in that role. I don’t think that Grilli’s ego or competitiveness or past performance should (or will ) be a factor at all, when the Pirates brass makes a decision on what to do with him. Just listening to Hurdle say after the game say so cryptically,”We’ll make a decision oh him (meaning Grilli) after we huddle with management” doesn’t bode well for him. Normally, Hurdle would just demote to a lesser role. I think that they’re going to cut him. Just a hunch.

  • Scott Kliesen

    If Grilli is demoted to a set-up role, it will take a brilliant job by CH to restore his confidence simultaneously. Grilli has poor body language on the mound probably because he knows his arm isn’t where it was pre-injury 2013.

    I believe Pirates need to think long and hard about letting him go. No matter what his role, if he can’t consistently get hitters out, he will only hurt the team.

    • wkkortas

      Agreed–about the only role you can trust him with right now is Gomez’ or Pimentel’s.

  • Lee Young

    7th – Hughes

    8th – Watson or MM

    9th – Watson or MM

    Grilli takes over Hughes’ role. IF he sucks, release him and bring up Mazzaro. OR, release him NOW and bring up Mazzaro.

    • leowalter

      How is Wilson to be used then given your scenario ? Wilson’s problems do not appear to be due to lack of velocity,probably a short term issue. And he has a lot better ” out ” pitch than Hughes ( who I pull for all the time ) when he has better command and control than he has shown the last week.

      • Kevin_Young

        Wilson hasn’t really been a problem. He could bring the walks down a touch, but his BABIP and LOB% are unfortunately awful.

        • leowalter

          If you read closely,you will realize that was my point

  • B Thomas

    I know relievers are a dime a dozen, but I wouldn’t mind the Pirates trading for a guy who can slam the door on opposing teams. Can you imagine if Aroldis Chapman was the Pirates closer? We would probably be at least 10 games over 500. right now hypothetically. Its depressing of how many games we lost this year when the bullpen has let us down.

    • Mary Boniey Casini

      Yep. We have blown 14 saves this year. I think we had 16 allof last year. If we could have prevented just half of those we would be sittin 4 games or so over .500 and in a tight race with the Brewers as some of those wins would probably come against them.

  • leadoff

    The Pirates have to make 2 roster moves because Walker is coming back and Cole is coming back soon, not to mention Liriano coming back. IMO, there is what the Pirates will do and what I think they should do. I think they will move him from the closer role for now and let him pitch in lower leverage situations until they have to make a move which will be in a week or so, they hope for Cole to come back somewhere around the 28th. IMO, the closer role is not Grilli’s problem, I think what has happened to him could happen in any inning, hanging sliders are usually a disaster. IMO, Hurdle will mix and match until they resolve the problem, possibly a trade, Melancon is a closer and has done okay in that role, I don’t think he is as dominate a closer as a guy like Huston Street, a guy I have always liked.

    • unfurious

      Hanging sliders happen but I’ve also heard his fastball described as straight and the velocity is down. As soon as his roster spot is needed, I’d DFA him and give him every opportunity to fix/reinvent himself in time for September callups. I like Grilli and I think that this is fair.

      • leadoff

        94 is not much different than 95, hanging pitches in power hitting zones is location more than anything, so is 94/95 in power hitting zones. If you DFA him you might lose him, unlikely with Gilli’s salary, but possible. IMO, he is throwing a lot more sliders than he was last year, trying to be more of a two pitch pitcher, last year he lived on fastballs, this year he does not seem to have confidence in that high fast ball.

        • unfurious

          Ok. I thought his fastball was more like 90 now. If he’s still showing a strong arm, then I’d definitely give him more time to work it out with the big league staff. I just went on FanGraphs and you’re definitely right. He’s still in the mid 90s. Really, I don’t see much difference in the pitches except that he may be losing a little movement on his slider. I think that it’s interesting that he through a few changeups in his first game against the Reds. He stopped that last night. He’s working on something.

        • emjayinTN

          lo: He is not throwing 94/95. He throws 93 mph on a consistent basis, but his FB Command is not what it was in 2012 and 2013. His breaking pitch is not what it used to be either, and he has difficulty throwing it for strikes let alone commanding it within the zone. As a result, he is not getting ahead in the count, and hitters are sitting on pitches. 93 is the old 90 and it is just not good enough to throw by batters these days.

    • Monsoon Harvard

      There is no reason to rush Liriano back. I say once his 15 days are up he should take the whole 30 days of rehab and hope he can get back to some successful pitching before they bring him back. He was stinking up the place before he luckily got hurt.

  • glassers

    Right now Grilli is still throwing hard however his ball is flat and not hitting his spots . As a fellow poster wrote a 94 MPH fast ball in the heart of the plate is no weapon it is a mistake . It is time they move Watson into the closer position and see what happens . I would spot use Grilli until Ray figures out what is going on and gets him right

  • bucsws2014

    I guess Clint has had enough too. Just said he’s moving Grilli out of closer’s role “for now” and will give him opportunities to pitch when the team is behind. That would imply low leverage situations only.

  • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

    You’re talking about two different things.

    It doesn’t take a special skill to close if you’re a good reliever. That’s the argument you’re referring to.

    Right now, Grilli is not pitching like a good reliever. So he shouldn’t be the closer under any argument.

    Also, he’s now out of the role and pitching when the team is behind. That’s the role he should be in right now.

  • http://www.acme-tv.com LongJohnSilver

    I agree that it is past time to remove Grilli as the closer, or until he shows signs of bouncing back. I am not sure Melancon is the answer, as I somehow (eye test only) do not see the closer “mentality” in him. Unlike some, I thing that a closer has to have a mental approach of ice water in their veins and a bit of arrogance or cockiness. (That is just a plain opinion, so don’t attack too viciously.) I hated seeing Vic Black go, as he was the one I thought was the closer of the future, and I even suggested (and got booed) for saying we should have traded Grilli in the off season when he had perhaps his highest value just for the same reasons as Tim outlined above, and a remembrance of the Hanrahan deal. Yet looking at the pen as is sits right now, I don’t see anyone who has that mentality. Sure, Cole has it, but that is not going to happen nor should it, and Volquez may have it, but that won’t happen as well. So bullpen by committee anyone?