The Pirates haven’t been afraid to try new approaches and extreme strategies over the last few years. They went heavy on defensive shifts before that became a league-wide trend. They were one of the first teams that invested heavily in strong pitch framing catchers. They even tried an approach last season to reduce the workload of their position players with strategic rest, which only infuriated the fans when a player sat, but led to some career highs in playing time for a lot of individual players on the roster.

So the approach they’re trying this year sounds like just a continuation of the innovative methods we’ve seen in their attempts to gain an edge over the competition. The Pirates have been loading up on hard throwing relievers who can go multiple innings, with the hope that they can help fill in for the rotation when needed. And based on how the rotation is shaping up, that might not be a bad idea.

The Pirates have a great top of the rotation with Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. That combination, plus the mid-season additions of Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon, made them the number seven rotation in baseball according to Buster Olney. But outside of that group, they’ve got Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and Ryan Vogelsong.

The quality of those three pitchers is often exaggerated to an overly negative degree. Niese is a guy who has combined for a 3.70 xFIP since 2011, and those numbers are down a bit after a weaker 2015 season. Locke has a 4.02 xFIP since becoming a regular starter in the majors in 2013. Vogelsong has struggled in two of the last three years, but his struggles amount to a 4.50 xFIP, and his best year in that stretch saw a 3.96 xFIP.

These guys aren’t the quality of Cole or Liriano, who can both put up xFIPs in the 3.10-3.20 range. But they’re legit MLB starters who rank as fourth or fifth options, and should have a good shot to get to the best versions of themselves with the heavy ground ball approach, the improved Pirates’ infield defense, and the Ray Searage factor.

But what could the bullpen approach do? How many times do you see a guy like Locke throw up some good numbers over a few innings, only to let things slip away in the sixth or seventh. What if the Pirates could routinely have a quick hook after five innings, or even after four innings if needed, allowing their starters to play up. The easy answer here is “why don’t they just get a starter who can go six innings each time?” Those starters tend to cost money. Probably more than the Pirates are going to pay Vogelsong, Locke, and their non-Melancon/Watson relievers this year.

There could be a chance for much better results from the 3-5 starters if the Pirates can successfully avoid some big innings. Neal Huntington used J.A. Happ as an example of this approach last year, with Happ being cut off after six innings. We don’t know how he would have performed with a longer leash. I don’t want to credit his success to this approach. But it’s easy to see how it helped him, and it’s not wrong to assume he wouldn’t have matched his 1.85 ERA in the seventh inning or pitches 86-100+.

Beyond Niese, Locke, and Vogelsong, the Pirates will need this approach in the second half with the prospects. Jameson Taillon hasn’t pitched much in the last two years, and while the Pirates will reduce his workload early, they probably won’t be sending him out for the seventh inning in the majors too often. Tyler Glasnow will probably get the same treatment, as he hasn’t seen a season with a high innings total in his career, topping 140 last year when you include instructs. So the prospects will provide an upgrade, but the bullpen will still be needed for a lot of long relief opportunities.

It will be interesting to see how this approach plays out. The biggest thing is getting a strong bullpen with guys capable of going multiple innings. The Pirates definitely have the arms needed for this, with a lot of guys capable of hitting upper 90s. They also have a good track record of fixing control problems, which is the biggest issue for a lot of the relievers they’ve brought in this off-season. Take just one or two of those hard throwing relievers and fix their control issues, and you’ve got the bullpen needed to pull this off.

**The Workout That Could Fix Tyler Glasnow’s Control and Help Him Jump to the Majors. A look at Tyler Glasnow’s workout plan, and how it could help fix his control issues and pitch a full season next year.

**The Pirates are Planning to Use a Strong Bullpen to Boost Their Rotation. Neal Huntington discusses the plan with the current bullpen, which will help boost the rotation.

**Pirates Notes: The Indianapolis Infield Will Be Flexible. The Pirates have a lot of flexibility with their current Triple-A infield, which will lead to most of their guys playing utility roles this year.

**Pirates’ Bullpen Ranked Near the Top of the National League. Buster Olney with his latest group of MLB team rankings.

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81 COMMENTS

  1. Pitchers like Yovanni Gallardo, JA Happ, ( with the Pirates ) and the Yankees starters all benefitted last season from a similar setup.

    • I heard last year they were doing it with Nate Karns in Tampa too. But the splits at bbref don’t really support it. In 26 starts he pitched to an average of 5.4 batters beyond the second time through the lineup. Still, it could have worked, given his great splits the first two times through the lineup and terrible thereafter.

  2. This is a fine enough idea in itself, but the Pirates have a lot of work to do in order to have a realistic chance of implementing the strategy successfully.

    Just like shifts and framing, the Rays have been there, done that, and have the promotional t-shirt. Last year they were relegated to practically playing bullpen games due to massive injuries in their rotation, and they were generally successful doing it. Even the Cubs largely bought into this strategy in the second half and doubled down in September as none of their bottom three starters averaged more than 5 1/3 IP per outing.

    Thing is, the Rays used 12relievers for at least 20 innings and 23 relievers total. The Cubs used 10 relievers for at least 20 innings and 22 in total.

    The Pirates, largely due to a complete lack of homegrown up-and-down talent in AAA, don’t have near enough depth to realistically pull this off. Hurdle is largely stuck with relievers that cannot be optioned, which inevitably will tie his hands with Stolmy Pimentel / Radhames Liz type decisions that will further reduce the effective depth he can rely on.

    Good idea, good start to implementation, now depth must be built.

    • I also do not like bullpens full of players with no options.
      Can someone list the players in our potential bullpen and
      who do and do not have options remaining?

      • I don’t think any of the projected pen members have options, but there are way smarter folks than me on here who know that answer.

      • No options remaining: Melancon, Nicasio, Caminero, Medina.
        One remaining option: Hughes, Scahill.
        Two remaining options: Watson, Feliz, Holdzko,, Haley, Lobstein
        Info is on this site. Go to ‘more’ above, then 40 man. Hope I didn’t overlook anyone.

    • I think they could do it by designating two relievers as “split starters” intended to pitch 3 innings per game, twice through the roation. So designating the the split starters as A and B the rotation would be:
      1
      3 and A
      2
      4 and B
      5 and A
      1
      3 and B
      2
      4 and A
      5 and B
      Etc.
      The remaining five relievers would do normal duty. It could work out.

      • Smart and very plausible, on paper.

        My concern is with the inherent volatility in relievers. Not only would the club be counting on continued excellence from their two back end arms, but now they’ll have two additional relievers elevated to equal, if not higher, importance. I’d say they or any team would be lucky with a 50% rate in that regard, and I’m not sure if at present the club has the quantity or quality to replace any failures.

        • Yes it is a theoretical conjecture, I don’t think it has been truly tried before, with designated A and Bs. But a guy like Nicasio could possibly maintain 96+MPH for three innings, one time through the lineup. He might be effective in such a role, especially following a soft tosser.

    • Maybe they are planning to really push the limits of credulity with phantom DL trips. You just need one doctor to agree, right?

      Then next year MLB will change the rule… but not before the Bucs have already have their WS rings.

      😀

  3. Which brings us to the question someone else intelligently ask
    the other day… Will the Pirates break up Cole and Liriano so
    they do not pitch back to back to help rest the bullpen?

  4. Off topic, but today is filing day for arb eligible players.

    Interesting that three players took the Bucs to hearings before the ’15 season. Interesting in that the three were Alvarez, Walker and Worley. Pedro is baseball homeless, Walker’s a Met and Worley is with the O’s. That’ll teach ’em.

  5. Chris M inspried me:

    Jon Neise…FIP last 3 years….3.58, 3.67, 4.41.

    Morton….3.60, 3.72, 4.19.

    Locke….4.03, 4.37, 3.95

    RV…..4.91, 3.85, 4.53

    So, the garbage line that says RV is just a cheaper Morton is mistaken?

    Bring on Mat Latos!!!!!

    • Thank you!!! Vogelsong is an old Jonathan Sanchez. Plus look at the morton neise comparables. Somehow morton was worth nothing on a cheaper salary then neise who was worth walker. This is the biggest reason why this offseason is so baffling.

      • This may be totally out in LF, but last year they worked hard with Charlie to refine his delivery to avoid injuries he has suffered for years. Everything was fine until he got shellacked a few times and then he (Charlie) scrapped the whole Fall/Winter project, and returned to his old ways, costing the Pirates not having him as a SP while he continued to get ready again. That sometimes tends to piss off coaches and upper management.

        The numbers do not explain the why – was there a LHSP a few years ago who refused to accept the Pirate approach and then was let go?

        • What is your deal, you consistently make rude comments when I post things and NEVER ever make an argument against, provide any kind of real content to support or really have anything to say at all.

  6. So ramirez immediately announced his retirement after the season was over. AJ still hasn’t! Here’s holding out hope because we REALLY REALLY need another starter. Remember Buster Olney picked Seattle in the World Series last year so if it makes you feel better he rated our staff so high, I wouldn’t get too excited. Look at what we got compared to the the rest of the teams we will have to beat out for a playoff spot and by eye test alone it’s pretty obvious we are currently. Somebody please.send out the bat signal.

  7. The Rays tried this approach last year with everyone but Archer. I didn’t look up the numbers but I believe that they had some success.

  8. Tim, you mentioned the historical xFIP numbers for Niese and Locke as 3.70 and 4.02. Are there average numbers for #3 and #4 SP’s available?

  9. I enjoyed the piece, But I’m just wondering this morning how much the Rams leaving St Louis benefits the Cards. I imagine they get in influx of corporate dollars that were earmarked for the Rams sponsorship.

    • Money is not, nor has it ever been, an issue for Cards. They realize the notion of buying a championship is pure fantasy!

      • I don’t agree. The way the corporate sponsor money is split up in Pittsburgh, if one franchise left town, don’t tell me the other two wouldn’t enjoy the slight bump in revenue and extra eyeballs.

        The Cards will get some benefit from that.

          • I’m just saying every dollar counts, man. So much of the discussion over the years is payroll, revenue, profit. There’s a ton of other expenditures the average fan never hears about. Plus, business relationships.

            Today, there are a lot of corporate firms in downtown St Louis that have to change some of budget over Rams season tix, fundraisers, sponsorships,charity partnerships. A lot of which shifts to the Cards and Blues, local colleges.

        • Do you think they will now draw better, either in the park or on TV ? I don’t think they needed the Rams to leave town to do that.

          • It’s not just attendance. It’s all the advertising/sponsorship dollars.

            But yea, what are several thousand Rams season ticket holders going to do now? Some of which use tickets as comps? Think it’s safe to assume they will try to get into Busch…whatevers left of course.

      • I don’t know, Scott…the Cards never spent $80m for rotation depth, either. Then they got a new TV deal and Mike Leake happened.

        You’re certainly correct that they haven’t, to date, needed to spend in order to thrive but those times may be changing as their system thins and core ages.

  10. Noticed that the brain trust, led by Uncle Ray, was working extensively with Jeff Locke yesterday. Part of that work was eliminating the “back turn” in his delivery.

      • Morton wasn’t fixed when he arrived. He was injured multiple times. Last Spring he couldn’t reliably throw on the plate side of the batter. His mix of pitches could never consistently attack left hand batters. For all these reasons he is gone, not because the Pirates worked too hard at fixing him. There have been players they destroyed over the years, Chris Duffy being one example from the previous regime. But Morton isn’t an example of that.

        • I won’t go as far as saying they ruined him, but it cannot be disputed that they made a mistake with Morton last winter. They themselves admitted as much.

          Already on an aggressive rehab scheduled after surgery, Benedict & Co altered his arm slot in an effort to ease stress on his body and keep him healthy. This change was disastrous, culminating in that final preseason catastrophe against Philly which prompted the club to can their experiment and rebuild Morton’s “old” mechanics.

          It was a well-intentioned mistake, but I don’t think anyone can really say how big of an effect it had on him throughout the year.

    • Could be to make his mechanics from the stretch more natural to make his delivery more repeatable. Maybe he was having a hard time after the turn getting to the same place he gets in his stretch.

  11. After Royals bullpen has carried them to back-to-back WS appearances, I expect many teams will start allocating more dollars of their payroll budget to this part of the roster. Pirates certainly look to be one of them.

    I can see a day where only the cream of the crop SP’s will be allowed to pitch to a lineup a 3rd time. The splits are just too obvious.

    • The Pirates are committed to transitioning one, two, or even three new SP’s into the majors in 2016. This approach with the BP will blend well, and the last two sentences are very real.

      Great phrasing Tim with the “quality . . . .often exaggerated to an overly negative degree” of our bottom three in the Rotation. I posted some comparative numbers of Niese and Chen the other day, and tried to show they were not that far apart. Chen just signing for 5/$80 is just the icing on the cake.

  12. Hard for me to imagine this wouldn’t create some serious burnout issues with the ‘pen, even if these guys can go multiple innings. Not saying it might not work and it’s certainly an intriguing path to blaze.

    I’d still be more comfortable adding a Latos-type reclamation guy to bump a Locke or Vogelsong to the bullpen.

    • If you take into account all the arms they have added, then figure the two that would be displaced by Glasnow and Taillon and then think about Lobstein, Boscan you could see this approach working out

      • I think hes saying arms can break and guys can stink. Keep in mind too, a lot of these guys they brought in don’t have options either. I think for this to work you need to have roster flexibility.

        • Well not if the overriding thing is “arms break”. You bring in a ton of high beta guys and ask 2 of them to be guys who go 2-3 innings each outing. If an arm breaks, it doesnt matter if he has options because he’s on the DL.

          Seems like they’d just use the DL if a guy gets hurt and that’d be enough flexibility to bring up someone to fill a long man role.

          • Sometimes I think you just see my username and want to disagree.

            You just watched them bring a shitload of arms in from outside the organization. The majority of which do not have options and/or have injury history.

            Goddamn man, just like DK’s blog. If you just constantly disagree just keep on scrolling.

            • If you dont like commenters discussing/disagreeing with you, idk why you post. Its not personal, you can take it that way but that aint my problem. Its good discussion, thats the point of a comment section. If it annoys ya, dont respond to my stuff man, no ill will.

              I pointed out that the arms all not having options might not be a poor thing, so long as 2-3 of them dont just plain suck. Injuries, thankfully, dont bother the teams ability to be flexible. If they dont have an option and they get injured, no problem. So we are back to needing them to be solid relief arms.

          • In this situation, you are essentially saying that a AAAA reliever who can pitch 2 innings (5 and 6 for example) that he is likely to be better than our starter for those innings. I think anytime your starter is that bad, the game is already lost. There’s a very good chance that those pitchers could have an era of 5 or higher which would typically be worse than a 4 or 5 pitcher in those innings.

            • Well it depends on the name of the player, because i do agree a few of our AAAA type relievers are better in the 5th and 6th than Vogelsong the 3rd time through the order. Thats not a concrete assertion, but for various players i do say yes to that.

              I think its a bit too old school to assume a starter is just overall bad, and that he cant go 4 innings and keep you in a game and then fall off. We’ve seen it with Morton and Locke at times. Good enough SPs can be good enough for 4-5 innings and then be far lesser than AAAA. So if injury did occur, i do think a AAAA arm could still make this system work. I find no proof that those pitchers have a “good chance” of a 5 ERA beyond conjecture.

              • We’ve also seen plenty of times where bad pitchers are bad because they get blown up early in games then are fine the next two times through the order. If you have a starter whose real problem is endurance then i would give you that, but I don’t think many pitchers really fall into the extreme category you’d need them to fall into, to have this approach add value. Not saying it would hurt things dramatically either, but i don’t don’t see value.

              • Generally a AAAA pitcher would be a MLB pitcher if he could sustain an ERA/FIP whatever……..under 5, notice i didn’t say an MLB pitcher on a contender, just a MLB pitcher. I guess we could pull up stats on every middle reliever who pitched some time in the minors last year and give him the title of AAAA pitcher just for the sake of it, and gather all the data, but I’m not really that interested in proving my opinion. I feel confident in my statement and i’m comfortable that you disagree

                • I think you’re taking a ton of assumptions and running as fact. Its not a universal truth that generally those arms are there because they cant sustain FIP, tons of reasons go into why they are where they are.

                  I dont see much other than conjecture that says AAAA arms arent able to throw 2 innings okay better than a back end SP can throw the 5 and 6.

                  • No- I’m not because i’m not talking about fact, i’m only sending out scenarios and giving opinions as I always do based on observation. Not facts. I don’t see anything beyond conjecture from your side that says AAA arms are able to throw 2 innings better than a back end SP can throw the 5th and 6th. I’m open to being proved wrong, otherwise its just opinion vs. opinion

                    • Id point to the depth of research that shows every single pitcher gets worse the more times he goes through a rotation. Meaning you, almost as a firm rule, will see lesser production from SPs as they go deeper into games.

                      At that point, you look at the quality of said pitcher to begin with and what that regression of results means. For a guy like Vogelsong, and to some extent Locke, its a huge deal. Guys that show up as back end SP arms are already average types, and once they go through an order twice they go from that to poor. Meaning its not a huge hurdle to overcome for a relief arm to be a better option than a back end SP his third time facing hitters.

                      Locke in the 6th inning was a 4.70 ERA guy. Over 8 in the 7th. Vogelsong 4.7 in the 6th and over 5 in the 8th. So the only way you can say a relief arm isnt a better option is if you assume all AAAA arms are “only” capable of 5 ERA work, and i find that flawed. I think a team can have a guy in AAA capable of 2 innings of work that isnt 5 ERA, and it not be rare.

                    • Sometimes when these discussions go too long we lose track of our original point. And Luke, I agree with a lot of your statements, but let me restate my position here:

                      I assert that A) Vogelsong is not a #4 or a #5, as I said- if a pitcher is not good enough to pitch into the fifth inning, he should not be a starting pitcher on any team, let alone a contender. B) For now I would assert Niese as a #4 and Locke as a #5- IMO we don’t have a #3 at this point. Based off B and C- I do not see any of our AAA pitchers whom have the experience pitching multiple innings enough to say that they would be able to out pitch an average #4 or #5 consistently over a whole season in innings 5 or 6 and I doubt that’s much different on most other teams although I can’t back that up.

                      Most of my statements have been taking away “our team” and focusing on the sense of the approach itself. The average AAAA pitcher, if able to sustain an era lower than 5, would be good enough to be on an average team’s roster, GENERALLY SPEAKING, this is not conjecture it is backed up with the stats of the last man in the bullpen across the league. The average 4th or 5th starter, if unable to keep an ERA under 5 in innings 5 and 6, still should probably not be starting on your team because while some regression happens, it’s not extreme, you aren’t jumping from a 2.50 ERA pitcher to a 5 ERA pitcher when the lineup magically turns over the 3rd time, it’s just not the case. I see no proof that a poor pitcher pitches well enough in the first 4 innings and that the regression is so severe that he becomes poor from being left in the game too long.
                      Looking back at the Pirates and the logic of this- Are you going to replace Neise the moment he gives up a base runner in the 5th inning in a 1-1 game to implement this strategy? In our situation, our best answer for AAAA pitcher is Boscan. How can you possibly believe that Boscan can come in and pitch that 5th and 6 inning better than Niese could assuming a normal workload of maybe 75-80 pitches at that point in the game? Or Holzcome maybe whom has no experience pitching multiple innings in the majors really. You burn 1 more pinch hitter early, you burn through more pitchers early in the game leaving you less for extra innings, and you statistically increase the chances that from using more pitchers, you will bring in someone who just doesn’t have good stuff that day. All around, it is completely just a piss poor strategy vs. actually going out and getting the starting pitcher you need to be a contending team.

                    • We are talking about the 5th and 6th innings though, not 7th and 8th. stay on point if you can. Locke in the 6th inning is a 4.70 guy, as is Vogelsong. That isn’t that much of a surprise, but it also isn’t much worse than either pitcher is earlier in the game. How about the 5th innings for example? I would still assert that most AAAA pitchers are unlikely to pitch better. Unfortunately that part is just conjecture because neither of us can prove our point so lets move on.

                    • …and I never said ALL anything. I’ve said in every post two key words “average” and “generally” just to keep you from retorting with absolutes….yet you still do it anyways. I have never said ANY AAAA pitcher couldn’t produce better, but on average they wouldn’t.

              • Luke- you get caught up too much in facts, debates are often based on conjecture, and whether or not you realize it- we are both speaking from pure conjecture unless one of us chooses to do the research to back up their opinion. I’m not, if you are I’d like to see the data, I just have better things to do and i’m comfortable that my opinion is fairly accurate. Notice i say fairly and generally because i’m only interested in being more right than wrong, not universally correct.

                • I have research, im just not going to go find it and past it here. Go google the stats of any SP and look at how they fair the 3rd time through.

                  Yes, im not pasting the facts im using here. But they exist, and its easy to find and really common knowledge that 99% of SPs are worse as the game goes on (on average). And debates arent often based on conjecture, poor debates are based purely on conjecture. If you arent using some facts or fact based opinion, you’re really just making something up because you feel it might be near accurate.

                  • well again that’s your opinion. I really don’t give a rats patoot whether or not you can show that SP’s get worse as they go on, i mean…DUH. If you have knowledge telling me that a fringe ML relief pitcher pitching 2 innings is likely to be better than a major league average pitcher in innings 5 and 6 then prove it, otherwise quit casting aspersions on me. Its just not fair.

        • absolutely right Arthur, you need to be able to option and replenish throughout the year, otherwise you are screwed.

    • As was presented elsewhere, it might actually alleviate some issues. Having 1-2 arms that throw 2-3 innings every 4th and 5th day might actually be healthier for those arms. You get more downtime between outings and downtime is a big factor in keeping arms healthy.

      It’d put more pressure on the top 1-3 guys to go 6-7 innings….but for Cole and Liriano if they arent going 6-7 we have enough problems before the pen.

    • if you are going multiple innings, you don’t need 4 days rest for all your starters- its inefficiency from a roster standpoint. If you are going with 5 innings for everyone not named cole or liriano- you should go with a rotating 4 man rotation with the fourth and fifth pitcher rotating each rotation spot 1. Cole 2. Liriano 3. Niese 4A. Locke 4B. Vogelsong for example. You have to be more creative because during stands where you have 8-10 games in a row, you have no chance of not burning out your pen pitching guys 2-3 innings everygame

  13. Does this approach come at the expense of the traditional lefty specialist role? Not saying i’m for or against but it seems like if you’re wanting to get more work out of the bullpen you probably don’t sacrifice a spot for a one batter and done guy.

    • They haven’t really been using their lefty relievers that way anyways. Bastardo last year and Wilson and Watson the years before usually threw a full inning, regardless of lefty or righty batter.

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