If there’s one thing Neal Huntington has been consistently good at, it has been building a bullpen and finding a lot of quality relievers. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case during the 2014 season.
Last year the Pirates had a ton of success stories with their bullpen. Jason Grilli was given the chance to close, and was fantastic in the role. Mark Melancon was acquired in a trade from Boston, and bounced back from a horrible season to be one of the best relievers in baseball. Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez were acquired for nothing, and both had quality seasons in relief. Justin Wilson and Tony Watson both emerged as dominant left-handed relievers. Bryan Morris had good, but not great, numbers throughout the season. Even late season additions like Ryan Reid, Kyle Farnsworth, and Stolmy Pimentel were good. There were a few players who struggled, but overall the Pirates had almost everything working.
This year has been the exact opposite. The Pirates have a dominant pair of relievers in the late innings, with Mark Melancon and Tony Watson looking like two of the best relievers in baseball. But the Pirates lack guys who can get the ball from their starters to Melancon and Watson, or keep a close deficit close enough for the offense to come back. Jared Hughes has posted some good surface numbers, but hasn’t really gotten the trust to be the 7th inning guy. That might be due to his 3.90 FIP, which shows that he’s still good, but not as good as his ERA indicates.
So what has happened this year? Why did a bullpen that looked like one of the best in baseball last year suddenly look like one of the worst in baseball? Here is a look at the guys who have struggled.
We’ll start with the guy who was expected to be the anchor of the bullpen this year. Grilli struggled with the Pirates, posting a 4.87 ERA and a 4.56 xFIP that suggested he was on a rapid decline. His strikeouts were down. His walks were up. It looked like he was finished. Then the Pirates swapped him for Ernesto Frieri (who I’ll get to in a bit), and it looked like a deal that sent a guy who was on the way down for a guy who could rebound quickly. Unfortunately, the guy who actually rebounded immediately was Grilli.
Grilli has a 2.41 ERA and a 2.95 xFIP with the Angels so far in 18.2 innings. He has a 10.6 K/9, which is lower than his 2013 totals, but higher than his numbers this year with the Pirates. His 2.4 BB/9 is on par with last year, and half of the walks he was allowing with the Pirates. The switch was literally night and day. In Grilli’s last appearance for the Pirates, he gave up two runs on four hits in 0.2 innings of work. Three days later he made his Angels debut and didn’t look back. I don’t know what was wrong with Grilli this year in Pittsburgh, but the quick turnaround makes this look like a classic change of scenery scenario.
Gomez wasn’t the greatest reliever last year, with a 3.95 xFIP. However, the fact that he could fill a lot of different roles gave him some value to fill out the bullpen. He was never expected to be a key late inning guy for the Pirates this year, but was expected to continue last year’s role. On the surface, his 3.54 ERA doesn’t look bad. However, the advanced metrics are hurting, with a 4.36 xFIP that suggests he won’t continue like this going forward. The big change with Gomez this year is that he has seen his ground ball rate drop from 55.4% last year to 46.9% this year.
Looking specifically at his sinker, opponents are hitting .279 off the pitch this year, after .230 last year. That pitch is the key for Gomez, and it’s not working for him this year.
Wilson has always had issues throughout his career with control. Last year those issues weren’t as major, and he limited his walk rate to a respectable 9.5 BB%. This year that percentage has gone up to 12.6%, which is worse than any level of Wilson’s pro career. The simple issue here is the walk rate. Wilson isn’t allowing many hits, and his strand rate is unlucky at 62.7%. If he can get the walks under control, he could be a good guy to have in the middle innings. Until that happens, the Pirates might want to look for an additional lefty to join the bullpen later in the season when rosters expand.
Here is a situation that is almost identical to Grilli. Bryan Morris had a 3.80 ERA this year with the Pirates, along with a 5.3 K/9 and a 4.6 BB/9. Coming up through the system, he looked like a potential late inning reliever. He didn’t show any of that in his time with the Pirates the last few years. Since being traded to the Marlins, Morris has been dominant. He has an 0.53 ERA and a 2.99 xFIP. His strikeout rate is way up, at an 8.5 K/9. His walk rate is the best of his career, at 2.7 BB/9.
From a pitch perspective, Morris made a switch when moving to Miami. With the Pirates he was using his four-seam fastball 32.5% of the time, his cutter 15.7% of the time, his sinker 27.7% of the time, and his slider 14.9% of the time. The slider might be the cutter classified wrong, since his cutter was a slider.
Since moving to Miami, Morris has almost eliminated the four-seam fastball, throwing it 7% of the time. He has been throwing the cutter a ton, at 42.7%. The slider isn’t showing up, which means he either made a switch, or is doing something better with the cutter where the readings aren’t inaccurate. He ramped up his sinker, throwing it 40.1% of the time. Basically, he’s a cutter/sinker guy now, mixing in the occasional curve and four-seam fastball. With the Pirates he was a two-fastball guy, and didn’t use the cutter as often. On the surface, it seems like that switch is what is leading to his current success.
I mentioned above that Jason Grilli looks like he benefitted from a change of scenery. Frieri’s numbers have only gotten worse since the deal, and he has received no such benefit. The Pirates just outrighted him to Indianapolis today, which means they’ll get more time to try and turn him around. It will also provide a setting where he can get constant work in without having to worry about the standings. Last year, this is the type of story that would have led to a dominant reliever for the Pirates.
Pimentel is in a weird situation this year. He had a great season last year in the minors, re-emerging as a prospect and a guy who could have an MLB future. The Pirates obviously love his stuff, since they’ve held on to him all year in the majors. He’s out of options, so they’ve got no other choice if they want to keep him. Yet the way they are using him is strange. He’s basically being treated like a Rule 5 pick, rarely getting into games, and never really getting regular work. I don’t want to blame all of his issues on that, but it can’t be easy for a reliever to be used once a week and be expected to have success in that role. It makes sense why you do this with a Rule 5 guy. You can send that guy to the minors to continue his development the following year. This is it for Pimentel. If he can’t be trusted with a regular bullpen role now, then when can you trust him?
Fixing the Bullpen
It’s easy to look at the stats and give possible reasons why players are performing well or performing poorly. I can tell you that Justin Wilson is struggling because of his walks. But what can the Pirates do to get him back to the 2013 version that didn’t walk as many batters? What can they do to have a bounce back pitcher of their own, much like they had last year? So far, Jason Grilli and Bryan Morris are the only bounce back guys associated with them, and both pitchers rebounded for another team.
We’ve seen the Pirates build a successful bullpen before. We saw it last year. They’ve got a great late inning combo in Melancon and Watson. They just need to find some guys who can help get the ball to those late inning relievers. That could be accomplished by fixing their current options. It could be accomplished by a trade or a waiver claim. I don’t think anyone in Triple-A will really help much, since all of those guys are replacement level options, and that includes Vin Mazzaro. The Pirates have had success finding or creating good relievers before. They need to find a way to make this happen again, and soon.
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