2015 Bullpen Recap: Once Again the Pirates Built a Strong, Cheap Bullpen

The Pirates haven’t had any issues putting together a good bullpen in recent years. What’s even more impressive is that they continue putting together strong bullpens with inexpensive acquisitions. That was once again the story in 2015.

The 2015 bullpen finished 7th in baseball with a 4.7 WAR. Looking at some of the advanced numbers, they finished first overall in WPA (11.80), first in shutdowns (186), and tied for fifth in the fewest meltdowns (62). To put those numbers in perspective, the Royals had a 9.83 WPA, and a 159:61 SD/MD ratio with their highly regarded bullpen.

A big reason for the success came from Mark Melancon and Tony Watson. The late inning guys were two of the best relievers in the game this year, and played a big factor in the Pirates having such a shutdown group.

Melancon started the year a little rough, with a velocity dip in April, but quickly returned to his dominant self and eased any concerns about a potential downfall in 2015. He ranked first among all relievers in baseball with a 5.19 WPA, and first with 49 shutdowns.

Meanwhile, Watson wasn’t far behind. He was fifth in WPA at 4.13 and second in shutdowns with 44. With these numbers, perhaps the only reliever combo that could match the Pirates came from the Yankees, with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. Those two combined for an 8.46 WPA, which falls short of the 9.32 WPA from Melancon and Watson. However, their combined 71:14 SD/MD ratio pales to the 93:10 mark from the Pirates’ combo.

It wasn’t just Melancon and Watson that led to success. The Pirates had a strong group of relievers that only got stronger at the deadline. Their middle relief group was inconsistent throughout the year, with Jared Hughes, Arquimedes Caminero, and Antonio Bastardo dealing with struggles at times. That led the Pirates to pursue relief help at the deadline, adding Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton to the mix. Sure enough, right when that happened, the other relievers started putting up strong numbers again.

Bastardo finished the year with a 2.98 ERA and a 3.33 FIP. His second half was fantastic, fueled by a strong run the final two months that saw him combine for a 1.75 ERA and a 1.54 xFIP. Those numbers made him essentially a second Tony Watson. Caminero also saw some better results in the second half, although he did fade a bit at the end of the season, with his walk rate going up and the strikeouts dropping. Overall, he posted a 3.62 ERA and a 3.77 xFIP in 74.2 innings on the season, which isn’t bad for a guy that was acquired for cash at the start of the year.

Hughes had a bit of a different story. He spent the first half of the season being the only reliable middle reliever in Pittsburgh, with a 3.65 xFIP. He struggled in the second half, posting a 4.75 xFIP, although that did see improvements in September, when he got back to a 3.92 xFIP on the month.

The trade pickups couldn’t have worked out better. Joakim Soria had a 2.03 ERA and a 3.15 xFIP in 26.2 innings, with his most important contribution being that he allowed the Pirates to reduce the workloads of Watson and Melancon. Meanwhile, Blanton was added off waivers, and was fantastic, with a 1.57 ERA and a 2.77 xFIP in 34.1 innings, serving many different roles in the process.

The Pirates did go through a few rough experiments to get their final group. Radhames Liz didn’t work out, despite strong numbers in the Dominican Winter League last year. Rob Scahill put up some decent numbers, but ended up going down with an injury. Deolis Guerra couldn’t repeat his Triple-A success, although an injury could have played a role here. Vance Worley was pretty good in a long relief role, but the team eventually moved on from him to add Blanton, which worked out well.

Overall, the Pirates weren’t perfect, but they had a group that gave them consistent production and shutdown results. They had the best late inning combo in the game the entire season, and had at least one middle reliever performing in each month, even if the names changed from month to month. By the end of the season they had so many talented options that the number of productive guys behind Melancon and Watson made them the best reliever group in baseball for the final month of the season.

The Future

A rumor came out today that the Pirates have Mark Melancon on the trade block. It’s not surprising, since Melancon is in his final year of control, and projected to make $10 M in arbitration. They took the same approach a few years ago in dealing Joel Hanrahan in his final year, and getting Melancon back in the deal.

That’s going to drastically change the short-term look of the bullpen if Melancon is traded, and it’s hard to say how that bullpen could look, since there are so many options and ways to add relief pitching. It’s also hard to predict relief pitching prospects, since those can come from different areas.

The Pirates do have some prospects who are specifically relievers in the minors and could be relievers in the majors. John Holdzkom could be an option if he gets over the health issues that derailed his 2015 season. Montana DuRapau had a big season this year, finishing off strong in Double-A. John Kuchno and Brett McKinney are two other relievers who pitched in Double-A this year and could eventually pitch in the majors.

Then there are all of the upper level starting prospects — Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, Trevor Williams, Jason Creasy, Tyler Eppler, and so on. Some of these guys will make it as starters, but the reality is that not everyone from this list will stick as a starter, and some might have more success as a reliever. That’s what happened with Tony Watson and Jared Hughes.

To get a further idea of the many ways the Pirates can add relievers in the future, let’s look at where they found their relievers in 2015.

Mark Melancon – Acquired for Joel Hanrahan

Tony Watson – Was a struggling Double-A starter turned reliever

Jared Hughes – Another struggling Double-A starter turned reliever

Arquimedes Caminero – Acquired from the Marlins for cash

Antonio Bastardo – Acquired from the Phillies for Joely Rodriguez, who was a Double-A starter with the Pirates that probably profiled best with the team as a reliever one day

Vance Worley – Acquired from the Twins for cash

Rob Scahill – Acquired from the Rockies for Shane Carle, who would have otherwise been in the Altoona rotation at the start of the year

Deolis Guerra – Minor league free agent

Bobby LaFromboise – Waiver claim, and someone who wouldn’t be bad as a second lefty if Tony Watson is the closer (which technically makes him a third lefty)

Joe Blanton – Waiver claim

Joakim Soria – Acquired for JaCoby Jones, which was the highest price of any of these guys, but obviously inflated due to the deadline

The Pirates should continue getting good relief pitching options from all avenues. Some of their future relievers are in the system right now. Some will come from trading guys who are currently in the system. Some will come from “dumpster diving” moves. The track record has been strong here, and I don’t expect the results to change going forward.

  • Lance Lynn TJS – Gone for 2016. Glad to see some other team with a TJS story, especially when it is the Cards.

    • I think it’s bad form to cheer an opponents injury. With that being said, this development certainly reduces chances Cards buck up for Heyward when they have numerous SP holes to fill.

      • Id say numerous is a stretch.

        Waino
        Martinez
        Wacha
        FA
        Garcia/Lyons

        Maybe if im being real negative i say that #5 spot is awful, but i cant see that being terrible. Their depth may be tested if someone goes down, but ill laugh about STL having poor depth once they actually dont have a random guy show up and plug in without major issue once.

        • Except for Lyons, who is the least talented of this group, every one of them is either coming off an injury, or old and coming off an injury. Would you feel confident in this group if you were a Cards fan?

          • In the top 3? Yeah, until proven wrong. Waino didnt have an arm injury so i see no reason he’ll see a huge drop in performance. Age maybe, but he’s been a legit ace so even regression puts him as pretty good TOR type.

            Martinez didnt appear to have a longterm injury issue, so until hearing he’s potentially out it seems logical that he’s fine after an entire offseason off. And he’s just really really good.

            Wacha isnt terrific, but is a fine middle rotation arm.

            STL hurts with this news, but not anything like if Liriano were to go down. Now STL “only” has 3 pretty solid SPs for each slot and 2-3 options for the rest of the way. STL likely has to get a SP now, but a mid rotation type that this FA market is stacked with.

      • As a person who has been injured and had surgeries I would never wish an injury on someone but what’s done is done and TJS has a high recovery rate so it is what it is. Plus he’s gonna make 7.5 mil next year rehabbing so it is tough to feel too badly for him.

  • Lance Lynn had TJ today, out all of next year.

    • I’m disappointed by that. The Pirates always hit Lynn well and this might force them to upgrade.

      • Their rotation isnt terrible. Still Waino and Martinez (assuming whatever was nagging him at the end of last year isnt serious and he’s good to go) with a good middle rotation guy in Wacha.

        Their back end is suddenly meh, with Jaime Garcia (unless he performs his miracle im great impression again) and young not so high upside options. Seems like they may have been considering a SP and now thats just a legit need.

        But with the sweepstakes for Heyward set to start, its nice to have STL needing in multiple spots now. Money they gotta use elsewhere. It also makes the Reyes 50 game suspension hurt more, as they could have called him up at some point this season after some more work.

    • Wow…thats hard for the Cards and I feel bad for Lynn.

  • If we are talking about dumpster diving, I’d really like to see if they can save Glenn Rhee. He was in Atlanta for awhile.

  • The 2014 pen was a mess after Mark and Tony before Holdzkom came along. The bullpen as a team was barely replacement level(.3 WAR) before a strong September. Prior to HOldzkom their options after Mark and Tony were uninspiring to say the least. Hell Hughes with his .3 WAR was the 7th inning guy for awhile, think about that. Jeanmar(-.4) Stolmy(-.1) and Justin Wilson (.2) were people you never really wanted to trust with a lead. The bullpen this past year was elite after the trade deadline acquisitions.

    • A lot of those guys in 2014 were good in 2013 and earlier, and some of them finally improved at the end of the season. It was a tough situation that you run into with relievers where you don’t want to give up on them too soon, but you need an upgrade.

      That year it looks like they gave up on Grilli too soon (or maybe the change in scenery did it for him). They didn’t get an upgrade in Frieri. But they stuck with Wilson, and he turned it around at the end of the year, which allowed them to trade him for Cervelli.

      • Wilson turned it around at end of the year? He was our worst reliever in September 2014 with a -.2 WAR and a 5.61 fip. I had heard that Yankees had coveted him for awhile. Not sure if that’s true but I certainly can’t see how the end of his 2014 year made him more valuable in a trade.

        • xFIP was 3.35 though. He had a perfectly fine August and non useless September. His K rate went back up (which was big for a guy who depends on Ks) and his ERA and xFIP were fine middle relief like.

          The only large difference in the last month to the August stuff was 2 HRs.

          • True. If you look at his 1st and 2nd halves of 2014 his xFIP was 3.97 in 1st half vs 3.76 in 2nd half. Not really meaningful difference imo. And his FIP was worse in 2nd half. Just not a lot of evidence to me that his 2nd half “improvement” is what got us Cervelli for him. I think it was simply a lefty with velocity who had a pretty good 2013 season. He also Ked more people in 1st half of 2014 than second half.

        • He had a 3.52 ERA and a 3.35 xFIP. The numbers were similar to August, when he had a 2.92/3.40.

      • You can make a compelling argument the 2014 pen cost them the division. Mark and Tony were great as usual but the rest of the pen was pretty bad all too often. IIRC it was about 1.5 WAR difference between the Pirates and Cards bullpens. A trade deadline acquisition similar to Soria for the 7th inning could have been the difference between winning and losing the divison to shore things up for that month before Holdzkom arrived. Maybe not in WAR but in WPA.

      • Yes that’s what worries me about trading Melancon and then cobble together a Frieri type of bullpen. Roll the dice with Melancon I don’t trust the PBC to keep rolling with inexpensive relievers. You put an average bullpen together for this team and this team will struggle.

        • Of course, one of the guys who struggled in a big way in 2014 was Grilli, who was such a good reliever the previous two years. So Melancon could easily struggle, just like any other reliever.

      • Hopefully, we are able to get Holdzkom productive again.

    • Having a bad FIP doesn’t mean a reliever was ineffective. Hughes has a RA-9 WAR of 1.0 and a WPA of 1.04.

      As for losing the division, when the gap is a game or two everyone can pick their own scared cows, for me it is the 3rd worst starting rotation in the NL in the first half. But the larger lesson is bullpens are volatile, spend your resources on assets with more certain returns.

  • When Steve Cishek is non-tendered, he sounds like someone who would fit right in with the Pirates philosophy with relief pitchers. Pick him up, fix him, and see if you get another back-end arm out of it.

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