Bullpen Wars: Why Pirates-Cardinals Could Be Decided in Relief

A five-game playoff series shines a light on every aspect of your team. Stars will shine brighter and flaws will be exposed.

In this National League Division Series, the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates share at least one similar strength: a quality bullpen of mostly young arms.

Look at some of the key season stats:

Category Cardinals Pirates
FIP 2nd (3.26) 4th (3.35)
SIERA 1st (3.19) 5th (3.39)
ERA- 8th (95) 2nd (79)
K% 5th (22.4%) 13th (20.1%)
BB% 1st (7.4%) 2nd (7.8%)
LOB% 9th (75.1%) 3rd (78.3%)

Two similarities about the bullpens stick out: both rely on limiting walks and generating ground balls. Although the Cardinals’ bullpen looks like the more talented one overall, the Pirates’ bullpen has had better results due to strong defense. Pittsburgh relievers generate grounders on 52 percent of balls in play, by far the highest rate in baseball.

If we are only looking to analyze this series, though, there is some noise in the season statistics. Each team got many innings from pitchers who are not on the NLDS roster.

Reliever Cardinals SIERA Pirates SIERA
Closer Trevor Rosenthal 1.93 Jason Grilli 1.79
Setup Edward Mujica 3.25 Mark Melancon 1.80
7th Seth Maness 2.65 Tony Watson 3.33
Middle Kevin Siegrist 2.77 Vin Mazzaro 3.83
Multi-Inning Carlos Martinez 2.95 Jeanmar Gomez 3.98
Lefty Randy Choate 2.88 Justin Wilson 3.65
Extra Arm John Axford 3.42 Bryan Morris 4.26
Jason Grilli
Jason Grilli wrapped up the Pirates’ spot in the NLDS and remains their biggest strikeout threat.. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

In Game 1, St. Louis can also use the services of Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller, one of whom will likely start Game 4, if necessary.

The Cardinals are relying on the services of six rookies, including Wacha and Miller. That inexperience isn’t a bug, though. It’s a feature. Last year, a more-veteran-laden bullpen in St. Louis was one of the worst in the National League. Now the Cards have four rookie relievers with a SIERA below 3.00 in Rosenthal, Maness, Siegrist and Martinez.

This is what you need to know: the St. Louis’ bullpen is deep with talent. Manager Mike Matheny can pick from a multitude of arms who would pitch high-leverage innings for any other team: Maness for ground balls, Siegrist for momentum (he has pitched 28 straight scoreless innings) and Rosenthal for high-velocity strikeouts.

Such a loaded arsenal would seem to be unbeatable. The key to victory for the Pirates lies with Clint Hurdle’s willingness to play the matchups. On the offensive side, that relies on seeing if righties like Gaby Sanchez and Jose Tabata can solve the dominant Siegrist and Choate.

Mark Melancon
Mark Melancon’s Cutter Challenge got him through the regular season with a 1.39 ERA and fewer than a baserunner per inning. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

More importantly, Hurdle has to be willing to deploy his own most talented relievers into unorthodox situations. Tony Watson (1.36 ERA since June 1) and Justin Wilson are quality relievers and will counter the Cardinals’ left-handed hitters well.

But it is the use of Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon that is paramount. Grilli is not the same strikeout machine he was before his forearm injury, but he still represents the Pirates’ best chance for a K. Melancon also had his September struggles, but his grounder-generating cutter is begging to be used with men on base.

In the last nine days, Grilli has thrown just 17 pitches and Melancon just 16. Hurdle acknowledged that the whole bullpen is pretty fresh for having played in the Wild Card, a byproduct of Liriano going seven innings Tuesday and being able to punt Sunday’s game.

“For October 2nd it’s as well-rested a bullpen as you can have,” Hurdle said.

In October, managers have to be quicker to pull their starting pitchers and willing to go to relief. Such a short series may well come down to which relievers produce in tight spots, as well as which managers pull the right strings.

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So much for all stats & graphs.
Nothing to do but roll up the sleeves and try to get better over the off-season.
I wouldn’t have traded this season for anything. Great year for Pirate Nation and Western PA.


Umm P-mike, the one game do-or-die was against the Reds, and the Pirates DID. This is a 5 game series. Did you seriously think the Bucs were going to win the first 2 games in STL? All they need there is a split and they have a pitching advantage in game 2. Or is the 9-1 score what has you spooked? The Braves just lost 6-1 AT HOME last night? Is their series over too?

“So much for all stats & graphs” – I’m not sure there were any stats and graphs out there that said the Bucs were gonna sweep this series, and that’s all the game 1 loss established. But enjoy your gardening or backgammon while the rest of us watch the remaining games.


We could have lost this game 3-1 or 25-1. The operative number is 1. Wainwright was on today and this is just one to forget.

Better than losing a nailbiter IMO. I think the Pirates needed a game like today in all honesty.


Yeah, like they all need hemorrhoids.

IC Bob

No matter the game was over when Beltran went deep. I would disagree with an early pull today because you stress the Pen however I would have a really quick hook with AJ if it gets to five games next time.

Israel P.

“In October, managers have to be quicker to pull their starting pitchers and willing to go to relief. Such a short series may well come down to which relievers produce in tight spots, as well as which managers pull the right strings.”

Including pinch hitting faster.

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