Pirates and Clint Hurdle Going Against Tradition With Bullpen Usage

PITTSBURGH – The Pirates took a big step towards advanced metrics and away from traditional thinking when they decided to optimize their lineup for the 2016 season. The traditional thinking said that you don’t bat a slower guy like John Jaso first, and you bat your best hitter third. The metrics say that you prioritize OBP at the top, and have the best hitter, Andrew McCutchen, batting second.

This advanced thinking isn’t just limited to the lineup.

The first two games of the season saw the Pirates using Tony Watson in the seventh inning, with Neftali Feliz coming in to pitch the eighth. This goes against the traditional idea of the better pitcher going in the later inning, and instead uses the better pitcher in the higher leverage situation. The change in strategy came when Hurdle looked back at Watson’s usage in 2015.

“I think replaying last year’s tape on the situations [I found] that maybe I could have done a different way,” Hurdle said on what led to the change. “I’m not ever adverse to listening or trying to learn getting better. And then when Hughes went down, I actually peeled back some more layers. Do I want to put somebody in that spot, provide some more flexibility to keep them open-minded as well out there?”

Just like the lineup optimization, Hurdle had a series of conversations. The first one he said was with himself. He then approached the players, and discussed things with Neal Huntington. All of this was trying to evaluate if there’s a better way to do things than the way they had been doing it.

“It was kind of along the same lines as the lineup construction,” Hurdle said. “We do have some different personnel, although we have some stalwarts that are in the same place. It’s hard to argue [against] Watson and Melancon pitch the eighth and ninth, however, with this bullpen figuration, is there just as good if not a better way to do it.”

This isn’t a full buy in to the metrics like the lineup optimization. There will still be some limits here. For example, Hurdle said he wouldn’t use Watson any earlier than the seventh inning, even though the metrics show that there are times when you could justify using a guy like Watson in the sixth or fifth inning of a close game. And don’t expect Mark Melancon to move out of the ninth inning, with a totally flexible bullpen.

“I think maybe you could, but then you’re starting to deal just with numbers,” Hurdle said of going with a flexible bullpen. “I do think as we speak right now, the closer needs to be the closer.”

I’m a big advocate of the numbers, and of using the best pitcher in the highest leverage situation. However, there was a point last year when talking with Mark Melancon where I bought in to the human side, where he discussed the routine of the closer’s role. Breaking that routine could have adverse effects, and might not work out as expected on paper. Then again, it might depend on the pitcher. Watson said on Sunday that he doesn’t care where he pitches.

Hurdle won’t move Melancon out of the ninth inning, but plans on being flexible with Watson and Feliz, while noting that the latter has closing experience in the past. He also will add Arquimedes Caminero in that mix.

“I’m looking to use Caminero, Watson, Neftali to leverage the best way we can in the seventh and eighth and get the ball to Mark,” Hurdle said. “They all are understanding of that, their job is to get the ball to Mark.”

So far, Watson has come in twice in the seventh inning, and to face a group of left-handers. But Watson isn’t going to be limited to left-handers only. Hurdle said that he’d use him against three right-handers, and would use him in the eighth if the situation called for it.

“I’d send him out in the eighth to face three righties,” Hurdle said. “He’s pitched through a middle of a lineup. He’s pitched 4-5-6, 3-4-5. Brought him in to face Miguel Cabrera last year. That’s not a hangup at all.”

Watson’s average leverage index so far is 1.77, while Feliz is at 1.18. The higher number is the more difficult inning. The traditional approach has Watson pitching the eighth because he’s the best pitcher, and Feliz going in the seventh because he’s a step below. The new approach has Watson pitching the more difficult inning, and Feliz pitching the easier inning, which is the way it should be.

It will be interesting to see how this all evolves throughout the season. Just like the lineup optimization, this is a way where the Pirates can add an advantage and potentially win more games by better positioning their best players to play in the biggest situations.

Pre-Game Notes

**Hurdle on Neftali Feliz: “He’s still developing in my eyes. This is a guy that’s done a lot. When he got here, we tried to simplify things for him. Build off the successes, build off the strengths. We do have a little different pitching philosophy than he’s been accustomed to over the years. We’re trying to help him seamlessly transition into.”

**Last night the Pirates got a big boost from Kyle Lobstein, who pitched two shutout innings. Lobstein struggled at first, throwing six straight balls, before settling down and shutting down the Cardinals. The thing about this is that he doesn’t have the same stuff as the other relievers in the bullpen, with an 85-87 MPH sinker last night that relied more on deception and change in speeds. Hurdle noted that the most important thing for guys wasn’t the velocity, but throwing strikes and movement.

“They’ve got to throw strikes, number one. They’ve got to have movement, number two. Anything where it doesn’t have late life in some degree or fashion, you’re going to get hit. So it goes to show you that it’s not all about velocity. It can help with different arm slots. I think when you get a couple of left-handers out there with deception — Watson has deception and stuff, I think Luebke is going to be a guy who is going to have stuff and deception. Kyle has deception. And then the ability to move the ball around with intention. After the sixth or seventh pitch of the outing last night, that’s what we saw all spring.”

**Lobstein will be the only guy tonight in the bullpen who might not be able to pitch, due to last night’s outing.

**Ryan Vogelsong was next up to pitch last night, if Jordy Mercer hadn’t walked it off in the 11th inning.

**Bullpens have gotten more difficult, with seemingly everyone throwing upper 90s. However, that doesn’t make Hurdle reconsider the idea of getting the starter out of the game quicker.

“I’ve never put together a scouting report that didn’t have the thought of chasing the starter. I still think your intention is to get the starter out.”

Hurdle noted that if the starter is still in during the seventh or eighth inning, then that means you’re probably losing anyway.

  • I had this debate last year on this site and got told I think players are robots and I’m not factoring in their feelings about being moved around and what not. My opinion was that acting like players can’t succeed unless they are plugged into a very specific role was viewing them as even more robotic. Either way I am so happy hurdle seems to be sticking with this. Next task…cool it with the bunts.

  • Strike out over a batter per inning and dont walk a single bird.

    I dig this.

  • Using the best pitcher in the higher leverage makes such obvious sense you wonder why it took so long to go with it. I understand the sinker specialist when you need the double play. I could never understand not using Watson against a string of lefties when he was available. Despite Melancon’s preferences I’d love to see Clint use Watson once in a while in the 9th if the matchup looks optimal. Get him used to it if he is destined for the role.

  • Damn Sean Hurdle not following the narrative.

  • This article reminds me of a bizarre comment by one of the ESPN announcers on Sunday. He was puzzled that Hurdle tried to suicide squeeze in the 8th to get 4th run. The logic being that upon scoring the 4th run, it would no longer be a save situation – and Melancon wouldn’t be effective.
    I think people can really out think themselves with stats…

  • Funny how closers always preach about the importance of a routine, while other relievers seem to say they’re fine going out whenever…gee I wonder if that could be because of the difference in pay between the roles…..

  • Early thoughts from tonight’s game:

    Nicasio is looking scary good.
    Hoping the bottom of the order can get Leake’s pitch count to 55ish in the second.
    Someone is going to lose an eye if they ever make a Jaso bobblehead with movable hair.

    • Getting damn hard to not get really excited, even this soon.

      • Very happy to see him at 69 pitches through 5. I don’t know if getting through the 7th is doable this early in the season, but he could get there with <100.

        The K's have disappeared, but I like that the contact against him is meaningless.

        Jaso with a triple…my goodness…that man worked for every foot on the run around the bases.

        • I wouldnt have him go 7 against the heart of that order, but its nice that he’s at a pitch count where he could later in the year in that scenario.

  • Thought Lobstein was the key to last night – having a soft tosser to mix with all the 90+ guys might be a good thing. Did not start well – but hung in there and competed. Tonight might be a good time to get Luebke an inning or two. Have high hopes for him being effective

  • The faces of Watson when he throws is hilarious

  • Watson outside of the eighth is interesting to see. Giles outside of the ninth is just as smart…and ten times as shocking.

    • PiratesFan1975
      April 6, 2016 7:17 pm

      Fangraphs has an interesting piece on the Giles move. Not only do the Astros get to use him in the highest leverage situations, without the saves his arbitration raises will be lower. Win. Win.

      • It’ll be interesting to see what happens in arbitration in the coming years. The process is dominated by the traditional stats…it’s going to be a brave new world when a guy with 30 homers gets less than a guy with stronger analytics.

  • Scott Kliesen
    April 6, 2016 5:53 pm

    This bullpen philosophy is sure to be met with approval by Brian Kenny of MLB.