First Pitch: The Pirates Once Had a Good Bullpen; How Can They Get Back?

The other day I was going back and looking at a few articles that I wrote from the start of the season, when I ran across this title:

The Pirates are Returning a Bullpen That Was One of the Best in Baseball

At the time it was true. The bullpen was great last year, and the Pirates were returning the same bullpen this year. But five months after that article was written, it’s clear that the emphasis in that sentence should now be on the “was”, as the Pirates don’t have one of the best bullpens this year.

The strange thing about the bullpen this year is that it was a totally different approach to what we’ve seen in the past. In previous years, the Pirates have had reclamation projects, or mid-season waiver claims, or struggles in the final bullpen spots that hid the fact they had good guys in the important spots. There was never a good feeling going into the season, but the results didn’t end up that bad.

The 2014 season looked like the first year where they had a solid bullpen that you could be comfortable with. Yet it has turned out like many of those years over the last decade. The Pirates have a strong back of the bullpen, but the middle inning guys are hiding that, and in some cases, making it impossible for leads or tie games to get to the late innings. We saw that tonight, when Justin Wilson gave up a run in the seventh inning. Wilson looked great last year, but has really struggled this year, with his control being a major issue.

That’s a common issue with relievers. They can be very volatile, with massive changes from one year to the next. The Pirates benefitted from this big time last year, getting production from Mark Melancon, Jeanmar Gomez, and Vin Mazzaro for low prices due to their down seasons. This year it looks like the tables have been turned.

We’ve already seen the Pirates on the opposite side of the “relievers are volatile” game this year. They saw Jason Grilli and Bryan Morris struggle in Pittsburgh, only to immediately turn things around with their new teams. They’ve seen Justin Wilson and Jeanmar Gomez have issues, after looking like decent middle relievers last year. All of this has led to the need for a middle reliever who can take the ball in the seventh inning and get it to Tony Watson or Mark Melancon. Or a few relievers who can be counted on to keep the game close, so that the offense can come back or break a tie. There were times last year when the Pirates went to extra innings, and you just knew the bullpen would pitch well until the Pirates offense eventually scored a run to win the game. That feeling doesn’t exist this year, which is a shame, because the Pirates’ offense is much better this season.

So how do the Pirates get back to having a good bullpen? This year they’re pretty much stuck with what they’ve got. You’d hope that John Axford can provide some value in the middle innings, or that John Holdzkom can be legit. That would provide a nice boost this season. But next season how do they solve the middle innings? Do they keep giving guys like Wilson a chance and hope he turns it around? Do they go with outside help? Or maybe a guy like Holdzkom gets his shot.

They didn’t add too many strong options last off-season, possibly because there was just no need for relievers. Back in Spring Training, Neal Huntington mentioned something to the media about how the lack of opportunities to win an MLB job made it harder for them to attract talent last off-season. They definitely won’t have that problem this off-season. I’m never a fan of paying big for relief pitching, but it’s obvious the Pirates have to address this area. If they do go the reclamation route, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. It has worked in the past. It worked against them this year. Hopefully they can get back on the right side of that in the future.

The good news is that the important spots in the bullpen are filled with Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. But as we’ve seen all year, you need a lot more than that to have a successful bullpen. Whether it’s more reclamation projects, or fixing the current internal reclamation projects, the Pirates need to find a solution for their middle innings. The bullpen once looked like a strength, and an area with a lot of depth. Now it looks like the biggest weakness of the team, with no easy solution in sight.

Links and Notes

**Looking at Russell Martin’s Potential Value on the Open Market

**Pirates Extend Their Contract With West Virginia Through the 2018 Season

**Morning Report: What Sets Willy Garcia Apart From Other Prospects?

First Pitch

  • So I just read that the Pirates won’t use Morton in the bullpen down the stretch. I think this is extremely troublesome. I understand wanting to keep him stretched out, but want to improve the bullpen? No one thinks that Morton couldn’t come in and get some key ground balls at key times and help out the starters or pick-up a reliever who is struggling?

    • You say that because you haven’t seen him pitch recently. I did, at AA, and I sure would hate to see him coming in any high leverage situation in a game with playoff consequences !

      • Then shut him down completely. As leadoff says, if he’s healthy and he cannot even come in and get a couple key ground balls…then I would certainly be worried if we needed a spot starter and he was the man for the job!

    • If he is healthy and he can’t even come in and get a couple important outs that is kind of troublesome.

      • I think an “all hands on deck” (if healthy) approach is what is best this time of year…if he’s healthy and capable of starting then he’s certainly capable of coming in and getting a key ground ball here and there.

    • Morton also may not be healthy enough, and they figure they will role with healthy options over a 75% Morton. All reports have Morton pitching through injuries for a month before he went down.

  • Why couldn’t frieri have just been what his fielding independent metrics said he should have been? That would’ve solved some problems.

  • The bullpen could be a little better, the bullpen could be managed a little better, but sometimes it just comes down to giving he other team credit, sometimes they just get the job done, much like the Pirates do from time to time.

  • A lot of this bullpen consternation is undeserved. They have the 5th best bullpen era and 3rd best strand rate in the NL. Nearly every bullpen in baseball allows 1 run every 3 innings pitched. Its largely perspective based on an overachieving standard set down during the first 4-5 months of 2013. The notion espoused on talk radio that Melancon is untrustworthy is particularly laughable.

  • Why in the world do you pull Volquez after 6 innings and 90 pitches just to hand the ball to Wilson? Waste of a start. Let the man go at least 7 if he’s only given up 3 runs and the score is tied. Or until the Bucs find a reliever that can get them through the 7th.

    • He pulled him because EV had a pretty max effort 6th inning to escape with 2 men on base and was due up 2nd in a tie game. Its not really hard to understand except for in hindsight.

    • Did you see his 6th inning? He threw a ton of pitches and was showing signs of getting barreled up even more than earlier. Totally normal decision since the kid threw near 30 pitches in the inning and didnt look to have his best stuff.

  • 1. Trust in John Holdzkom.
    2. Bring up Nick Kingham and Casey Sadler to log some major league innings in relief.
    3. Relax and roll with it, because almost every team suffers from inconsistent and unreliable middle relief.

    • Kingham and Sadler at the very end of a pennant race? No.

    • Sadler showed he is an average option out of the pen, and just no to Kingham. Right now you have 2 proven great options (Melancon, Watson) 1 slightly above average (Hughes) 1 seemingly great with SSS (Holdzkom) and the rest at average or below. If Holdz continues his success, you have a fine bullpen. Wilson is a rather decent 5th option out of the pen.

  • I’ve been befuddled most of the year on how Hurdle has deployed the BP for 6th & 7th innings. I’ve long said I prefer Hughes not get clean innings, but be used to bail out everyone else in a fireman role. Now it seems he’s not even doing that well, especially since Axford was acquired on August 15.

    At the moment, I think Hughes has become a poor option. Since August 15 (10 appearances) he’s shown an inability to throw the right pitch at the right time, resulting in two losses and two blown saves, despite a sub-1 WHIP. It’s as if he either pitches clean or gets racked up, no middle ground. But four bad outcomes in his last 10 appearances… maybe he should be taking a back seat to Axford and Holdzcom. Hughes hasn’t even been an effective fireman of late.

    FWIW, in the small sample size since his acquisition, Axford has roughly the same GB/FB ratio as Hughes, thus the same ability to induce DPs. Axford also has a K/9 greater than 1 per inning, which nobody other than Melancon (and now Holdzcom) has.

    Going forward, I think we should be seeing more Axford, less Hughes.

  • Last year as probably an exception, in that nearly everyone in the Pirates bullpen pitched pretty well – right down to the last guys Gomez and Mazzaro.

    What has changed?

    Well, the obvious things:
    (1) Grilli lost it – which required 2-3 others to change their roles
    (2) The Pirates decided to give away Morris to the Marlins.
    (3) Wilson has had a big drop off this year.
    (4) Although still very good, Melancon was nearly perfect last year for much of the season.
    (5) Gomez reverted back to his previous form.
    (6) The Pirates decided it was better to keep guys like Frieri, Pimentel, etc. in Pittsburgh, as opposed to Mazzaro who was very solid last season and pitched well this year when given the opportunity.

    Watson has remained the one consistent factor, and only Hughes has been a significant and positive addition.

    • (5) Gomez reverted back to his previous form.
      (6) The Pirates decided it was better to keep guys like Frieri, Pimentel, etc. in Pittsburgh, as opposed to Mazzaro who was very solid last season and pitched well this year when given the opportunity.

      Mazzaro’s previous form is just as stinky as Gomez’s and it boggles my mind that people seemingly clamor for him to be given the chance to revert to it.

      • I disagree – Mazzaro was a pretty reliable and solid performer last season, with much better stuff than Gomez. I would take Mazzaro over Gomez in a nanosecond every time.

        • OK, but Gomez was a pretty reliable and solid performer last season, too. He was nothing special before that– just like Mazzaro.

          Why does Gomez regress and Mazzaro doesn’t? They’re practically indistinguishable.

          • Edwards cannot definitely say Mazarro would not regress, just as you cannot definitively say he would.

            The only fact of this discussion is that Mazarro never got the opportunity while the team stuck with Gomez, despite struggling out of the gate, all season long.

            • Mazzaro also struggled at times in AAA. With two basically identical guys, fans should trust the evaluation process of the team unless its a proven track record of failing. They easily could have disliked what they saw from Mazzaro from pitchers and catcher reporting on.

    • I don’t think you can conclude that we gave Morris away until we see if Connor Joe develops into a MLB player. That won’t be known for another 3 to 4 years.

      • Technically, you are correct. But, realistically, I do not have high hopes for a guy who was a good, not great, college baseball player and who plays positions (OF and catcher) where we have little need for and a ton of better prospects in front of him. For the Pirates sake, I hope I am wrong. But, I am not holding my breath.

        • You have no worldly idea what the Pittsburgh Pirates will need in 3-4 years making your analysis of this draft pick ridiculous.

          • Wow, no kidding. But, given the guys in front of him and the fact that he isn’t exactly considered an elite talent, I will take my chances that I am right. You can remind me in 3-4 years if Joe is teeing off on MLB pitching.

            Plus, the fact that he missed 2014 (as far his professional career is concerned), he will need a meteoric rise through the system to get to Pittsburgh in 3-4 years.

            • And that is the problem with your valuation.

              Connor Joe doesn’t have to come close to “teeing off on MLB pitching” to equal Bryan Morris’ value, which was next to nothing.

    • And Morris really helped the bull pen in what way in 2013 ?

    • You tend to want to give away guys that have shown a poor ability to get outs. His value at the time of the trade was purely based on upside. Kudos to the Marlins for guessing right, but lets not act like anyone was a fan of how Morris was pitching at the time. Morris was useless this year with the Pirates.

  • They really have been pretty good recently. They didn’t really blow it last night or anything… Gave up 1 run in a tie game.

    Melancon – Great. Watson – great. Hughes – had a great year. Wilson – 4.2 ERA isn’t even that bad.

    Sure, Jeanmar Gomez isn’t very good but he also hasn’t pitched much recently.

    I believe in the bullpen long term. Heck. Maybe Holdzkom is real!

    Also, Bryan Morris is lucky. It does suck to look over and see that ERA, but he is getting lucky.

    • “Also, Bryan Morris is lucky. It does suck to look over and see that ERA, but he is getting lucky.”

      And based on what proof do you base this conclusion on???

      • I’m basing it on the same thing that makes me think Hughes is a decent reliever, but having a lucky year.

        I was basing it on xFIPs and FIPS and his k/9 and bb/9.

        His ERA is less than half of what FIP and xFIP say it should be.

        “Proof” is a strong word for those metrics, but that’s how I and many others would arrive at the “lucky” conclusion.

        But we don’t even need to get into that. Do you truly believe Bryan Morris has become one of the best relievers in baseball?

        • Time will tell, but he certainly has all of the prerequisites to become one. I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually becomes a very good closer eventually. The Pirates always thought very highly of him, until this year for some reason. They showed extreme impatience with him in my opinion. Now, they probably wished they didn’t. I said when the trade was made, we were made a weaker team as a result – regardless of how Morris pitched the first month or two. He had great potential – that was pretty obvious.

          • the guy they got for him – Connor Joe- is definitely not what i’d hoped for with the draft pick they got. He definitely has some decent stuff and could have the “closer mentality” so it could happen. But the results have never matched the stuff, for whatever reason.

            • He was too young and talented to give away for a draft pick. Our loss, Miami’s gain. I am sure they are giddy about the trade.

              • And with the clearly volatile nature of relievers, he could go into next year and suck in the first half again and Miami will be lamenting not getting that draft pick for a year. The Pirates dont treat relievers like anything more than highly volatile pieces that can, and will, yo yo statistically and have fans moaning.

          • They were impatient with Morris ? Have you been awake since the trade that brought him from LA ?

            • You are unbelievable…I was referring to them being impatient with him THIS YEAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • I have watched him, that’s how I know. The Brewers loaded the bases last night in the 8th inning, Morris hangs a couple of sliders that get missed, one popped up, Gomez rolls over on another and bounces right to McGehee and throws 3 59 footers that guys were taking when he was in Pittsburgh but last night the Brewers were over swinging at everything. And that isn’t the first time I have seen that from him. But that’s what trading him was all about, he needed to go somewhere else to have a chance to be successful. That is baseball.

        • Okay, I guess you are expert. I guess Morris has been “lucky” for 3-4 months now??

          • No, YOU are the expert. I just told you what I actually have seen. You, on the other hand, seem to be able to inform and predict a relief pitcher’s present and future based on numbers from Fangraphs.

    • You mean stranding runners a 93% rate isn’t sustainable?

      • Given his strand rate this year with Bucs was under 30%, that 93% with Miami is simply an expected regression to the mean 🙂

      • Andrew, I just saw ( somewhere ) that our favorite HOF Manager is ” looking to upgrade the analytics department ” of his organization. This guy is like the most schizo person in MLB !

        • I saw that but didn’t see the context, without going back to find the quote I going to assume it was to placate a reporter/writer, which isn’t the worst thing, sometimes you get dumb questions. However, at this point no team should need to be upgrading their analytics department, this isn’t hockey. The bigger questions are how are you interpreting the data and if you find something valuable how are you implementing it.

          • I am pretty sure it was in MLBTR, and the writer put it like supposedly La Russa was looking to do that. Then he said ” if he truly means it ….” and he gave a couple of names of people he should be considering. Just the feel of the sentence made me think of your opinion of him.

  • I know this has been a thorn in the Pirates side all year long. Going forward I would feel confident giving ball to Hughes, Watson and Melancon. And in an important game if Pirates need a reliever in 6th, I’d go to Holdzkom before anyone else. All the other relievers are give them the ball and cross your fingers type guys at this point.