When the Pittsburgh Pirates signed right-hander Jason Grilli as a free agent on July 21 of last season, the club figured they had nothing to lose. They were near the top of the National League Central and wanted to add a veteran arm into the bullpen, and Grilli was pitching lights out at Triple-A Leigh Vallley (Phillies).
What many didn’t expect was to see the veteran have a break out season at 35-years-old.
“That’s why sometimes you throw the statistical analysis out the window,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said.
“I wanted everyone else to take a look at him. I knew what I knew. That he was a grinder. This guy has been a baseball rat all his life. He was a number one pick. He’s been through adversity. He’s dealt with injury. He’s gone through the gambit as far as what baseball can throw your way, figure it out, try and handle it and get better from it.”
“We figured we had nothing to lose. And he wanted to pitch and wanted to get an opportunity to show what he could do again. It was a great fit for both of us.”
Grilli has been through it all.
He grew up in a clubhouse. Grilli’s father, Steve, spent parts of four seasons in the Majors from 1975-77 (Detroit) and 1979 (Toronto). He was a first round pick by the San Francisco Giants in 1997 (fourth overall). He’s been a highly regarded prospect. He’s been traded. He’s spent his Major League career with six different clubs. He’s been a part of a winning club. He’s endured injuries — Tommy John Surgery and a knee injury which almost made him hang up his jersey.
But Grilli never gave up. In fact, battling through all the adversity has made Grilli an even tougher person. And pitcher.
“He hasn’t been better,” Hurdle said. “He was very efficient and effective in ’08 when we got him [In Colorado]. He’s actually taken on a higher role. The strikeouts, they definitely get your attention. The fastball velocity is as good as I’ve ever seen. Maybe even ratchet up a small bit. The breaking ball can come into play to give him another weapon. He’s been very effective against both right and left-handers.”
“When he’s had runners on base, he’s been able to use a slide step to control the running game. He actually uses his slide step to ambush hitters from time to time. That part of his game is also progressed. I think he’s smarter. He more mature. I think he’s more appreciative of being healthy than he’s ever been before. He’s just going out there and really throwing caution to the wind and being as aggressive as he can be to be efficient. He’s in a very good place right now.”
Those strikeouts — they definitely jump out at you. In fact, his punchouts are the fifth most in the Majors among relief pitchers, and third in the National League.
Over 20 innings in relief, Grilli has whiffed 35. That’s an impressive 15.8 strikeouts per 9 innings. The right-hander struck out two of the three batters he faced in Wednesday’s 2-1 win vs. Cincinnati, and has struck out nine of the last 14 batters he has faced. Grilli also was scored upon twice (just one run earned) in his 12 appearances in May and has not allowed a hit in 14 at bats with RISP.
“I’m not thinking about it,” Grilli said of his high strikeout rate. “I tend not to pay attention and talk about it. I’m just so locked in. Just my approach. Just enjoying throwing the baseball. Just have ball control. I know when I’m doing it right and I’m just putting it where I want to put it. And I’m just doing it aggressively.”
The Pirates bullpen has been solid. When leading after six, the team has posted a 17-1 record. And if the Bucs are leading past the seventh, they are undefeated. But Grilli’s work in relief in the late innings, getting the ball to closer Joel Hanrahan, has been gaining attention outside of Pittsburgh.
“We have an unbelievable pitching staff,” Grilli said. “I think the League knows that. We can call ourselves a bunch of nobodies over here because I like that. I love being an underdog. I’ve been an underdog my whole life. A lot of people say, ‘oh, this is the best you’ve pitched.’ Maybe I’m getting a little recognition, or maybe we’re getting the recognition that we deserve.”