Jason Grilli had an impressive first half of the season. So much in fact that there were even questions as to why the Pirates eighth inning man wasn’t chosen to pitch in the National League All-Star game. Grilli posted just a 1.87 ERA over 35 appearances. He held the opposing batters to just a .145 clip and struck out 54 over 33.2 innings.
After allowing just one earned run in the month of July, Grilli saw his first real struggle of the season on Tuesday.
Grilli dished up three straight hits, the first going for extra bases, before Chris Johnson deposited a three-run homer into the seats to tack on four earned off the right-hander. The outing snapped Grilli’s 5.1 scoreless inning streak. The four runs were part of a seven run bullpen explosion in the Pirates loss.
Manager Clint Hurdle mentioned the next day when asked about Grilli health-wise, that his velocity has dropped recently.
“Grilli’s velocity has dropped down to 92,” Hurdle said. “And then with the couple of days off, it spiked back up. I think we just got to monitor.”
Grilli has thrown 40.2 innings so far this season over 44 appearances. It’s also his first full season in the Majors for the right-hander since 2009. He missed the entire 2010 season due to a career threatening knee injury. He started the 2011 season with the Phillies Triple-A affiliate before the Pirates grabbed him in July. After impressing the club during the final months of the season, Grilli broke camp this spring as the Pirates eighth inning man. That, too, could be starting to wear on Grilli during the long season.
“He’s pitching high volume innings,” Hurdle said. “He’s pitching high-leverage innings from start until now. That’s the part of sabermetrics that can’t funnel into things because there [are] people involved to those numbers. That leverage situation can wear on a reliever from time to time. Just the innings that he’s pitching, the guys that he’s facing.”
“Nobody has gone more than back-to-back days, except maybe four times so far. But I think that it’s something that we can manage. And I don’t think it’s anything that we don’t see. We notice it with other relievers…We notice it throughout the league from time to time. There’s an even flow of the game. There’s an even flow of guys once they get past their 40th appearance, maybe up until they get over 50. But our numbers are in a good place as far as appearances. I think it’s just managing the work load.”
Both Grilli and Hurdle said that the set up man is healthy. Grilli is likely going through just the wear and tear that comes with the season.
Grilli’s fastball from the start of the season until the end of June sat at 93.8. But so far in August, the 35-year-old is a tick down, averaging 93.0 mph. His strike outs are drastically down as well. After whiffing 54 over 33.2 innings in the first half with just a 0.95 WHIP, Grilli in the second half has punched out nine over seven frames with a 1.86 WHIP.
“Those are things we’ve talked about,” Hurdle said. “Maybe you start with a breaking ball. Maybe you just change your game plan up a little bit, you go about your work a little differently to cut them up by getting off the fastball, then your fastball plays bigger when you throw some other pitches from time to time.”
Grilli was deemed unavailable on Wednesday night, due to pitching on back-to-back nights. Hurdle said that he may also not use him on Thursday to give him another day off. The time off is not injury related, more of a mental rest then anything. With Grilli out, Hurdle used new Bucco Chad Qualls, who the team acquired from New York.
Qualls has experience in the late innings. A former closer with the Houston Astros and late inning man, the right-hander has a career 3.85 ERA over parts of seven seasons in the Majors with 51 saves to his credit. Hurdle could put Qualls into play in the eighth inning as well, serving as a bridge to Joel Hanrahan.
“Qualls is going to be a guy that we plug in accordingly now,” Hurdle said. “He gives us versatility in different roles out there because of the experience factor that he’s had in the past. From closing games, from pitching the eighth inning, from pitching the seventh inning.”
The right-hander started off April well, but saw struggles during several months with both Philadelphia and New York. Qualls is starting to get back on track after working with the Yankees pitching coach and the Pirates’ Ray Searage.
“He’s had his challenges this year,” Hurdle said. “There’s not many relievers that pitch great every year. More often than not, it’s good year, bad year for the relievers. This guy’s had a very good run for a very long time. This year in Philadelphia and New York, things were a little sideways for him. He actually came out of New York in a pretty good place.”
“[We’re] finding some staples that he’s gotten away from without him being aware of. So, we’ll see where it goes, but he’s definitely a guy that you’ve got to love the experience factor, somebody that’s been out there and done it.”