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.