Chase Field is a challenging environment in which to get outs, regardless of who is on the mound. But the Pirates had a particularly difficult weekend for run prevention when taking on the Diamondbacks.
Despite decent starting performances by Jon Niese, Juan Nicasio, and Francisco Liriano, the Pirates found themselves eking out an 8-7 win on Friday and — to say the very least — a wild 12-10 victory in 13 innings on Sunday. In between those games, they turned a 2-1 deficit in the 8th inning into an eventual 7-1 loss on Saturday.
Though certainly some of the responsibility for those high run totals lie with the starting rotation and the defense, I would like to focus our attention today on the Pirates’ beleaguered bullpen.
Similar to last year’s early struggles on offense, the Pirates have been dealing with inconsistent performance from their relief corps this season. This is in stark contrast to 2015, when the Pirates had arguably the best bullpen in the NL, which allowed them to steal some extra victories on their way to a 98-64 record.
Consider the following table, which summarizes the Pirates’ bullpen performance in the National League since their breakout 2013 season:
Here, shutdowns (SD) and meltdowns (MD) tell some of the story, though the SD ranking is somewhat distorted by Sunday’s lengthy game in which Tony Watson, Kyle Lobstein, and Arquimedes Caminero each earned a shutdown.
The similarities to 2014 are perhaps interesting to mention. That season featured strong performances from Watson and Mark Melancon, but other than occasional heroics from Jared Hughes, the rest of the bullpen performed erratically. (You’ll no doubt recall that this was the season of the Jason Grilli-for-Ernesto Frieri trade.)
As I discussed late last year, the Pirates have seen elite performance from Watson and Mark Melancon at or near the end of games over the last three seasons. With over 200 innings each, it seemed reasonable to expect the strong outings to continue into 2016. Though Melancon has generally not missed a step, minus yesterday’s blown save, Watson has struggled so far this season.
Essentially, Melancon is performing at the same level he has over the last three seasons. Absent an injury, I would expect his 2016 numbers to look much like his 2013-2015 numbers by the end of the season.
Tony Watson, however, is a different story altogether. His situation probably deserves more lengthy treatment, but since his velocity is consistent with his career numbers, the simple explanation seems to be that he’s just not executing his pitches.
What has emerged so far is a two-tiered structure within the Pirates’ bullpen. Melancon, Feliz, Rob Scahill, and A.J. Schugel have been all been above average, while Lobstein, Caminero, Watson, Ryan Vogelsong, and Cory Luebke have under-performed.
As you can see, Watson’s issues with executing pitches are familiar to his company at the bottom of the chart. Caminero is issuing walks at nearly twice his career rate, and both Lobstein and Vogelsong are struggling with free passes as well.
This of course forces them to work more with runners on base and challenge hitters within the zone. This has contributed to some undesirable results for Pirates’ relievers when hitters put the ball in play:
The table neatly summarizes at least some the problems the Pirates are having later in games so far this season. Ground balls, which we know are essential to the team’s defensive strategy, are definitely lacking, having been traded for more line drives and fly balls, each of which are particularly dangerous with runners on base.
There is also an increase in harder contact, which we know is less likely to turn into outs. What’s worse for Watson and Vogelsong is that their batting averages on balls in play (.200 and .188, respectively) indicate that they’ve been fairly lucky so far when hitters make contact.
As the team heads to Denver, it’s less clear how this situation can be managed. Jared Hughes and Luebke were on track to rejoin the roster sometime soon, but both pitched poorly in their two-inning stints Sunday, allowing a combined five runs on seven hits and a walk. Jorge Rondon or Guido Knudson could be considered depth options if necessary, but neither is on the 40-man roster at the moment.
I tend to see the current problem in the bullpen as one of execution rather than approach. Coming into the season, it was clear that the Pirates were going to heavily rely on their relief corps to support a shaky rotation, perhaps waiting for relief from Jameson Taillon or Tyler Glasnow, if not both, to bolster the starting staff mid-season.
Unfortunately, that plan has produced uneven results so far, and the Pirates find themselves at 11-9 with question marks throughout their pitching staff. A return to 2015 or 2013 form for the bullpen may still be in the cards, but at present, something closer to 2014 performance is what they’re getting. That does not bode well for trying to acquire extra victories late in games over the coming months.
Obviously, it’s still April, and the run prevention staff can certainly round into form as the run production group did last season. Given the competition in the NL Central, not to mention the other top teams in the league, it will likely take a similar turnaround to keep the Pirates’ playoff appearance streak going.