Analysis

The Pirates Have a New Way to Give Their Minor League Starters Some Bullpen Experience

Clay Holmes is a starter with Indianapolis, but his path to the majors will probably begin in the bullpen. Photo Credit: Tim Williams
The Pirates Have a New Way to Give Their Minor League Starters Some Bullpen Experience

INDIANAPOLIS / BRADENTON, Fla. / CHARLESTON, WV — Clay Holmes had not made a relief appearance in four years, last doing so at Class-A West Virginia.

The Pirates organization decided to change that this season.

Holmes skipped one of his scheduled starts earlier this year and instead pitched an inning out of the bullpen on the day he would have normally started. He walked one batter in a scoreless inning of relief, making for a rather innocuous appearance.

Only one pitcher currently on the Triple-A Indianapolis roster — Tyler Glasnow — has not made a relief appearance this season. Steven Brault, Tyler Eppler, Holmes, Drew Hutchison and Nick Kingham have all skipped at least one start in order to make a relief appearance.

That’s not a common practice throughout baseball. It has been a common thing throughout the Pirates’ minor league system this year. The Pirates have reasons for the decision to have most starting pitchers within all minor league levels skip a turn in the rotation this season.

Tim Williams caught up with Kyle Stark in West Virginia last week and discussed the strategy behind the new trend. Stark mentioned that the plan to have starters skip a start and pitch in relief was about three things.

Skipping a start in lieu of a relief appearance offers those in the rotation a physical break. This is actually the third priority for the new approach. The more important thing is that this also gives starters the experience of pitching in a relief role, many of them for the first time.

“A lot of these guys are going to end up being relievers, and we’d rather not have to adjust all of a sudden in Triple-A, try to get the guy some innings out of the bullpen,” Stark said.

In addition to pitching out of the bullpen, this plan gives the opportunity to pitch in high-leverage, late-inning situations.

“This is a big part of it, too, especially in the lower levels when guys only pitch to the fifth, sixth inning — giving them a chance to pitch in the seventh and eighth, where the game is a little bit different,” Stark said. “The stress is a little bit different, closing those things out. So, just giving those guys some different development experiences.”

Holmes had no concerns over skipping a start, which had benefits considering his situation. He’s not that far removed from having Tommy John surgery and missing all of the 2014 and a good portion of the 2015 seasons.

Also, Holmes is on the Pirates’ 40-man roster, making him a possible late-season promotion. But if that happens, Holmes would be pitching out of the bullpen barring some unexpected and odd situations arising.

In the past few weeks, Holmes has been dealing with shoulder fatigue. He hasn’t thrown more than 80 pitches in any of his last five starts, so any extra rest would ideally be preventive in having that issue pop up again.

“It was good,” Holmes said of pitching in relief. “It gave us a little break and also using it positively to gain a little experience. That was a good experience and it was the first time I’ve thrown out of the pen in a regular season game or normal game, so just something that is good to experience.”

The starters that skip a start to pitch in relief typically know they will enter the game after that day’s starting pitcher is finished. So, there’s some controllable elements to the relief appearance, but they don’t quite know what inning they’ll enter and they have to go through a different warmup routine.

“I kind of knew I was pitching and knew what inning,” Holmes said. “That wasn’t too bad. I could prepare for my day from there, but when you don’t really know your role or when you’re throwing, it can mix things up.”

Other starters have skipped starts at more curious times. Brault had, by his standards, a sluggish start to the season but rattled off seven consecutive starts where he allowed just one earned run or less. And that’s when organizational management decided to have Brault skip a start and pitch one inning in relief.

Gaining experience in going through the routine of pitching in relief has some benefits, as that’s what Brault did when he was recently promoted to Pittsburgh; and will likely do as a probably late-season promotion.

“It’s a little different,” Brault said. “I haven’t come out of the pen very much in my entire life, so it’s getting into that kind of non-routine. It’s different, but a good experience to have just in case things change.”

Glasnow is the only current pitcher on Indianapolis’ roster who has not appeared in relief. But he’s only been with the team for about two months and was optioned back to Triple-A to work on various aspects of his game that necessitate him pitching more than one inning of relief.

Eppler has made five relief appearances, but that’s partly due to being temporarily converting into the bullpen as Indianapolis has strayed from using a six-man rotation like it did briefly earlier in the season when Glasnow was optioned back.

The organization has had pitchers at all levels work out of the bullpen, so when they get to Triple-A or the major leagues, they aren’t taken back by the situation. West Virginia starting pitchers Luis Escobar and Oddy Nunez are among starters at the level who skipped a start to pitch in relief, for example. There are no plans to make skipping a start a regular occurrence throughout the season, rather just a couple of opportunities to try something new.

“Last year in Pittsburgh, we had a number of players go up that were starters in Triple-A and had never come out of the pen before, and now they’re throwing in the big leagues and they’ve never done it before,” West Virginia manager Wyatt Toregas previously told Pirates Prospects reporter Abigail Miskowiec. “They’re trying to create a system where we have starters that can do different things that way when they get to the big league level the first time they do it isn’t in a big league environment. It’s very hard to do there. So we’re trying to develop that ‘I can do anything’ mentality so that when they get there they’re more prepared.”

Some lower-level managers seem to be in favor of the new ideology, especially considering the lower-level pitchers don’t stray too much for regular routines.

“Once you’re in the minors, you’re a starter until you get to Double-A or Triple-A,” Bradenton manager Gera Alvarez told Williams. “I love it. It’s awesome that these guys get to come out of the bullpen and change their routine, just know what it feels like to come out of the bullpen.”

The skipping a start, making a relief appearance idea is new not just within the Pirates organization, but one not common anywhere else league-wide. Only time will tell how much will be gained from this idea. On the surface, there seems to be benefit from getting players some extra rest and experience pitching out of the bullpen, as most will not immediately start upon arriving at the major leagues.

But their bullpen experiences are not typical, because they know they will be going in for the starter and can typically get a good idea of when that will be depending on how the game is unfolding. With that being said, the pitchers still have to get used to warming via a different routine.

Behind the scenes, we’ve heard complaints about this new approach from some of the players at each level. That will happen when a new approach like this is attempted, and the complaints mostly have to do with interrupting the five day starting routine, and potentially derailing a stretch where things are going well.

Until some time passes, it’s hard to gauge how successful this idea will be. And even at that point, it’s a difficult answer to quantify. But for now, the Pirates management seems content to try something unique.

Tim Williams and Abigail Miskowiec contributed to this story.

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