First Pitch: Do the Pirates Need a Second Lefty Reliever?

Antonio Bastardo signed with the Mets today, and news came out that the Pirates made an offer of two years and $8 M. It seemed all along that $6 M per year was going to be needed to get something done with Bastardo, and that turned out to be the case as the Mets got him for two years and $12 M.

What this tells us is that the Pirates were still looking for a lefty reliever, and still have some room left in the budget for more additions. Their current bullpen includes Mark Melancon and Tony Watson in the late innings, plus Jared Hughes, Arquimedes Caminero, Juan Nicasio, and Neftali Feliz in the middle innings. That leaves one more spot for either one of the remaining right-handed relievers, or for a second left-hander.

The current left-handed relief options leave a lot to be desired, at least in comparison to Bastardo. Kyle Lobstein is an option, but looks more like starting depth out of Triple-A. Robert Zarate, Jim Fuller, and Kelvin Marte are all non-roster invitees with no MLB experience. So you can see why the Pirates were going after Bastardo.

Lobstein is the only guy with MLB experience, and has a .280 wOBA against lefties, along with a .358 wOBA against right-handers. By comparison, Bastardo has a career .270 wOBA in his career against lefties, and a .285 wOBA against right-handers. So using those numbers, Lobstein doesn’t look like a bad replacement as a LOOGY option.

There are two problems with this. One is that the Pirates opt for relievers who can get both sides out, so it’s unlikely Lobstein is their answer. The other is that when Bastardo is at his best, he shuts down left-handers. We saw that last year with his .211 wOBA against lefties. That might have been a bit of a career year, since his next best in recent years was a .254 wOBA in 2011-12. Still, for a guy who can also get right-handers out, those are some good numbers, and Lobstein doesn’t come close. The NRI guys don’t have much of a shot either.

To give a further comparison here, Tony Watson is one of the best left-handers in the game, and has a career .248 wOBA against lefties, with a .272 wOBA against right-handers. The last three years he has posted .234, .245, and .216 wOBAs against lefties, respectively. The Pirates don’t need someone as good as Watson, but they could use someone as good as Bastardo.

There aren’t many solid lefties remaining on the market. Franklin Morales had a .251 wOBA last year against lefties, and a .276 in his career, but he’s more of a LOOGY option. Manny Parra is a young lefty, but has a career .321 wOBA against left-handers. Sean Marshall has good career numbers vs lefties, and isn’t horrible vs right-handers, but the problem is he might not have a shoulder at this point. It’s possible the trade market could produce something, but it’s impossible to make any predictions there (especially when no one saw it coming that Bastardo would be acquired last year).

So what about the right-handers? The Pirates prefer guys who can get both sides out. So does it really matter if they’ve got a right-hander or a left-hander in the final bullpen spot? Let’s take a look at the bullpen to see what type of need there is for a lefty reliever.

Juan Nicasio – He has struggled in his career against left-handers, but has done well against right-handers. Last year, in his best season, he had a .277 wOBA against right-handers, and a .412 wOBA against lefties. So he’s not exactly an option against left-handers.

Neftali Feliz – It’s hard to say what you’re going to get from Feliz, due to his injury history. However, he’s had reverse splits in his career, doing better against lefties. He has a career .290 wOBA against right-handers, and a .253 against lefties. Last year he struggled against right-handers with a .371 wOBA, but did better against lefties in the same amount of playing time, with a .321 wOBA. If his career trends hold up, he could be a stronger option against left-handers than Bastardo

Jared Hughes – Sinkerball pitchers generally struggle against left-handers, although the struggles haven’t been that big for Hughes. He has a career .293 wOBA against right-handers and a .312 wOBA against left-handers. Last year he was actually better against left-handers, with a .304 wOBA vs a .322 wOBA against right-handers. So he’s not exactly a guy you could throw out there as a lefty specialist, but he’s also not a guy you have to remove for every left-hander.

Arquimedes Caminero – Just like Hughes, Caminero hasn’t been horrible against left-handers. He’s got a .292 wOBA in his career against right-handers, and a .311 wOBA against lefties. Last year he had a .287/.302 righty/lefty split. Another guy who doesn’t have to be removed for every left-hander.

The biggest problem here is Nicasio, who shuts down right-handers, but struggles against lefties. Feliz is a bit of a surprise, and a guy you might be able to count on to take on some lefties, even though he throws with his right arm. Hughes and Caminero don’t necessarily need to be removed against left-handers, although they’re not on the same level as Feliz.

The Pirates don’t necessarily need a second lefty with their current bullpen. It’s not like they used Bastardo as a LOOGY option, and if Feliz can put up his career numbers or something close to that, then there won’t be a difference between him and Bastardo from a stats perspective. They’d just need to make sure the final bullpen spot went to a guy who didn’t struggle against lefties like Nicasio, since I don’t think they can afford two guys in the bullpen like that.

Looking at the limited career numbers, Rob Scahill wouldn’t be that guy, since he has been crushed by lefties in his career in the majors. John Holdzkom has outstanding results against lefties in the minors, and in his very limited time in the majors, but it’s hard to count on his numbers the last two years as being legit. Trey Haley doesn’t shut lefties down, but isn’t horrible against them, with a minor league OPS in the .750-.800 range (wOBA is hard to get for the minors). New waiver claim A.J. Schugel has had some success against lefties in the past, although not in 2015. Out of this group, Holdzkom looks to be the best option, gambling on his small sample size and hoping for a guy who can shut everyone down. Haley and Schugel look interesting as final spot guys who wouldn’t get crushed by lefties.

It’s possible that the Pirates don’t need a second lefty with the success rate of their current bullpen options, and the possibility of Neftali Feliz having good career numbers against lefties. If they go with the “no set roles” bullpen, then they could use Tony Watson outside of the eighth inning when they need a LOOGY situation, or even use Feliz in that role.

This doesn’t mean they should stop looking for a left-hander. But with the way they use their second left-handed reliever, and with the lack of solid options available, they might be better off with a right-hander who does well against lefties, rather than finding a lower quality left-hander just to say there are two left-handers in the bullpen.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2016 Top Prospects: #13 – Steven Brault. We resume the top 20 countdown, and will be rolling out a player per day during the week from here on out. If you buy your copy of the Prospect Guide, you’ll get all of the reports, along with our grades, and the reports of the 21-50 prospects and every other player in the system. It’s the most information you can find on the Pirates’ system, and the cheapest price you can find for a prospect book this time of year, especially with the Top Prospect and Annual discounts.

**Pirates Made a Two-Year Offer to Antonio Bastardo

  • Its true the team doesn’t use a traditional loogy (mostly…) but at the same time, platoon splits are definitely a factor in who gets called in. If the 3-4-5 are up in the 6th and 2 of em hit left, you definitely go with the lefty.

    OF COURSE we need another left hander in the pen. That’s why they tried to sign one. The only one we have has a dedicated role; that’s like halfway to not having “a lefty in the pen” at all. You can find a lefty that dominates lefties for about 5 mil; you can find a righty that dominates lefties for about 15. I don’t see how we can spend all winter talking about platoon partners for so and so, but when it comes to the other side of that equation, treat it like its not really important. Cmon now.

  • Should of used the 4 million to sign Feliz with the additional 8 million they offered Bastardo. That would of 12 million needed to sign him. Would rather have Bastardo for the pen than Feliz. You know what your getting with Bastardo, Feliz is a 4 million dollar lottery ticket.

  • Matthew Smith
    January 21, 2016 9:29 am

    Is there a stat for pitchers that also takes into account the splits for batters? I was thinking that for a reliever especially, managers might tend to leave in batters that don’t have big splits against the same-handed pitcher. So when you see a lefty with a big split, is your estimate of that split biased in part based on the splits of the lefty batters that faced that pitcher? I would think so. I would think there’s value in a stat that estimates how big the pitcher’s split is normalized by the split of the batters they face.

  • Another question for Tim and John, can we get Barmes with
    a minor league deal and invite to Spring Training as Kang
    (or injury to an other infielder) insurance or do we have
    better options and inside or outside of the system?

  • With the amount of lefties, and high quality lefties at that, in our division…hell yes we need another lefty reliever.

    • *If* the goal is really to contend for the Division.

      • We’ve discussed this a number of times…and I’m pretty sure we’re in agreement.

        Here’s the thing that gets me…and this is totally off-topic.

        Glasnow and Taillon.

        The assumption is, they’re going to step in and bolster the rotation about mid-June…or, let’s say, 60 games into the season.

        If Locke and Vogelsong don’t hold up the back end…what are the odds the Pirates will be even be in contention at that point?

        If the back end is holding up and the Pirates are leading the division or holding down one of the two WC spots…is that really the time to ditch serviceable pitchers for rookies?

        The same thing can be said about Jaso and Bell. If Jaso’s playing a respectable first base and hitting…does he get pulled for a rookie if the Pirates are in contention?

        Seems like the organization is promising two things…get these rookies acclimated to the majors…and compete.

      • When NH didn’t deal Melancon and agreed to pay him north of $9mill, that’s when I started thinking maybe NH is serious this year.

        As far as a LHRP goes, I’ll say this about Bastardo – he did very well last season vs all NL playoff contending teams. If you took out his interleague stats, he’d have had a pretty awesome season.

        I do believe they need another lefty in the pen.

        • My comment was admittedly a bit facetious, but I still think Huntington would’ve traded Melancon in a second if he got decent value in an offer.

          He’s put the Pirates within a puncher’s chance of contending for the Division, but I think it’s still fairly clear his goals for the 2016 season are not singularly focused on winning. That’s fine, but it is what it is.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    January 21, 2016 8:47 am

    In today’s game, especially in the NL, where starters seldom go more than 6-7 innings – the last 2-3 innings are all about matchups. So, yes, we need another lefty – who is effective against LH hitters. Watson can’t pitch every night, and he may need to be held back to close a game or two along the way.
    How about Neal Cotts? He’s been a pretty solid ML reliever.
    If Minor or Luebke are healthy, are either of them an option to at least bring in and see what they can do? Those two guys are still in their 20s.

  • Andrew Rothstein
    January 21, 2016 8:43 am

    Off the subject but is there any update on Pedro? It’s been very quiet recently … Might he have to take a minor league deal with an invite to spring training?

    • Andrew, I was just about to ask the same thing?
      Any news on Pedro. The internet is basically
      silent other than rumors before Christmas about
      the Brewers.

    • BuccosFanStuckinMD
      January 21, 2016 1:29 pm

      Isn’t Boras still his agent? If yes, there is your answer….his price tag is probably way too high given his overall ability and numbers. He is strictly a DH – you can’t hide him in the field. So, how many AL teams need a LH DH who strikes out 30-40% of the time?

  • Let’s make this easy! NH will acquire what Hurdle demands for his bullpen and thats 2 LHP even though he always wanted 3. The coach’s routine answers the question and should every year.

  • What about signing another starter: Lincecum, Fister or Masterson on a 1 year deal and shifting Locke to the pen?

    • Locke’s not really a guy that plays up against lefties though. With his best secondary pitch being a change up, and his other a mediocre curve. I don’t see him playing up as well out of the pen. He has that turn around in the windup, but that deception just doesn’t seem to be there from the stretch.

  • Who is credited with creating the term LOOGY? Straight genius.

    As for the question if Pirates need a LOOGY, I’m of the opinion they do. In the article Tim focused solely on how well pitchers fare vs LH hitters, but there’s also the flip side to consider, how well do hitters fare vs LH pitchers.

    Let’s say Schwarber is up in 7th inning with the Pirates trying to hold a lead, are you more comfortable with a decent LOOGY or Feliz?

  • I don’t see how the Pirates can go without another lefty.

    In a 4-5 game in the 6th inning, with two on and one out, do you want a lefty or a righty pitching to Rizzo?

    Let’s be real, the Pirates don’t have a ‘first’ lefthander in their bullpen now…Watson isn’t looked at as a southpaw, he’s the eighth inning man. He pitched 77 games last season, in 2…2…again, 2 he entered before the eighth inning.

    With Locke and Vogelsong slated for the rotation, I’m guessing they’ll be many opportunities for the bullpen in the fifth inning in 2016. To automatically limit yourself to pitching from one side for 3-4 innings is just a tad scary.

    • In that situation I’ll take Jared Hughes.

    • Rizzo doesn’t really have splits. You just want a good pitcher against him.

      • Rizzo was just a ‘for instance’, though his career OPS is about one hundred points higher against lefties…anyhu…

        The point is…considering the backend weakness of the Pirates rotation and that they don’t have a lefty that is used before the 8th…it seems a little on the wtf side for the team to limit itself to righthanded relievers.

        I’m quite sure they’re not going to leave this hole unfilled. The FA market is definitely thin, but they filled this need with a trade last season and I wouldn’t be shocked if they did it again. My main concern is the price they’re going to pay. If NH can pull off another Joely type swap, he should be an early frontrunner for GM of the year.

  • Doing some fangraphs scouting I find:
    (all stats wOBA against by LHB):
    * denotes LHP

    Tyler Clippard .211 2015, .257 career
    Franklin Morales*, .251 2015, .276 career
    Ryan Webb (.274 over last 2 years)
    Randy Choate* (.310 2015, .248 career)
    Casey Janssen (.236 last year, .300 career but .255 2011-15)
    Eric O’Flaherty* (.300 2015, .251 career)
    Neal Cotts* (.251 2015, .340 2014, .252 2013)
    Blaine Boyer (.184 in 2015, .256 last 3 years)
    Matt Thornton* (.207 2015, .250 last 3 years)

    • There are some really interesting arms there…Clippard obviously….Choate, Janssen, O’Flaherty, and Cotts are all very interesting options.

    • Tom Gorzellany is at .230 for his career vs lefties. .222 last year with the Tigers defense behind him.

  • Last paragraph makes a lot of sense, Tim. With some of the changeover it looks like they’ll have, flexibility may be more vital than a designated 2nd LH. Be interesting how things shake out with the guys with options compared with those that dont.

    • Agree, and think that the numbers posted by Zarate at AAA Durham in the TB Rays org were awfully efficient – the .135 against LH hitters, and roughly 10/3 K/W per 9 in 40 IP. Last year the Pirates did very well with Caminero, another mature reliever who had very little MLB experience, and ended up throwing 75 innings in relief for the Pirates.

      I would certainly take a long look at Zarate before going nuts in this crazy pitching marketplace. Whether or not we sign or promote a second LHRP, I do not see this as a major issue for the Pirates to begin the season. If it becomes a necessity during the season, and the CWS are struggling, I would look at that Duke kid who is in the second year of a 3/$15 mil contract. He will make $5 mil in 2016 and $5.5 mil in 2017.

      • No thanks on Zach duke. Probably have to eat most of that, and he just doesn’t fit their mold of what they like.

        • Probably about 3 mph less than Locke, but good numbers against LHB’s and he throws 58% GB’s. But, I agree he may not meet the criteria. I would say that Locke is the 2nd LHRP by June if everything goes according to what I think the plan could be. His numbers play well, and he could possibly get 93/94 consistently in a short burst.

        • While we’re talking Duke how about Tom Gorzelanny? He can definitely get lefties out and wouldn’t be a true LOOGY. Suffered with Tigers’ horrendous defense behind him just like Lobstein. Gorzo only made a mil last year and is still 33 so I’m sure he is motivated for one more shot to have a good season and get another 4,5,6 mil in his pocket before he is done. He was 90.8 with his FB last year. Pretty decent and a bit of a resurgence on his velocity.

          • I’ve always liked Gorzo- personally.

            • I think he is as low of a risk vet with a track record of success as there is out there.

              • at a low price too Freddy- just a matter of how Butt sore he is about how the Pirates treated him in the previous regime

                • He may hold a grudge but he also had a poor era although his fip was way better. It’s almost February and he doesn’t have a job so I’m sure he would be interested in talking.

    • Flexibility vs. the inability to get a big out. Right now the only leverage reliever we have is Hughes- are we comfortable with that? Well the Pirates make that decision, not me. I prefer to have someone whom can come in and get a strikeout (we have that in caminero), someone whom can get a doubleplay (hughes) and someone with great offspeed stuff to offset the power arms, either righty or lefty (nope, nothing here)

      • There was a big whine fest last year when it became clear Holdzkom was going to Indy. Now to be fair he did get hurt I think towards the end of Spring, but I think it was a numbers game too with Cameniro, in fact.

        Im just am over teams starting with the “best” 25. When it comes to injuries and the convenience list, options ect. I think that’s important too.

        There’s a lot of stuff in that bullpen to be worked out. I’m sure a second LH will be there eventually, I just don’t think it’s worth losing a better reliever minus the options, in the shuffle. Regardless of what hand.

        • Yeah, there is something to be said for that. You need a mix which includes folks with options in this day and age, for sure.