PITTSBURGH — The Pirates made another transaction Wednesday, calling up Kyle Lobstein as the flavor of the week for bullpen help.
In the month of June, the Pirates have made nine bullpen transactions, shuttling Lobstein, Wilfredo Boscan, Arquimedes Caminero, Cory Luebke, Curtis Partch, Jorge Rondon and Rob Scahill back and forth from Triple-A.
None of that group has set the world on fire at the Major League-level, but they’ve all shown promise at one point or another. The problem hasn’t been so much the results as it has been the volume.
Wednesday’s roster move, as has been the case with many of them, is more a result of Boscan being unavailable after having thrown 68 pitches Tuesday than it is about Lobstein being a superior option. Tim Williams wrote this morning about how the Pirates have overused their bullpen because of inefficient starts, and I asked Clint Hurdle about that topic.
“That is the challenge,” he said. “We’ve just had more than our fair share of short starts. We’ve had to use those guys.”
Not only has Hurdle had to use those players more than he’s wanted to, that overuse has made it difficult to evaluate which ones are out-performing the others. He used this week’s demotions of Boscan and Partch as an example.
“How do you evaluate Partch on three hitters?” Hurdle asked. “He’s given up one hit to a left-hander in two-and-a-half months in Triple-A. He gives up a two hits and walk, but how do you evaluate him? You have to move him because you need his spot. Boscan’s out today because we need the spot and he couldn’t pitch for a few days.”
The difference from a season ago is striking. In 2015, the Pirates used 281.1 innings from relievers not named Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Joakim Soria, Antonio Bastardo or Jared Hughes. In 2016, substituting Neftali Feliz onto that list, the Pirates are on pace to use 356.2 innings from the long part of their bullpen.
Hurdle agreed that the simplest solution would be to get more efficient outings from his starting pitchers.
“We need to find more meaningful innings from the rotation than we’ve been doing. That would be the biggest help going forward.”
He also pointed to another issue that his receivers are facing: the loss of long man Ryan Vogelsong. Vogelsong and the ability to come out of the bullpen basically as a second starter. None of the rest of Hurdle’s options come with that pedigree or experience.
“Not having Vogelsong has challenged us,” Hurdle said. “Number one, the man’s DNA, the makeup, the slow heartbeat, the ability to handle that role, it wasn’t one that he was necessarily over the top of, but he embraced it for the team.”
That long-man mentality isn’t something that every former starter or single-inning reliever can grow into.
“Your job is to get guys out and prevent them from getting on base and prevent them from scoring,” Lobstein said. “In a situation where you’re already down, you’re going in to stop the bleeding and save the bullpen a little bit.”
Lobstein has also had to deal with the difficulties of improving his craft while being shuttled back-and-forth between leagues.
“I’m still at the field pretty much every day. I’m still at the field playing catch every day and I’m able to work on stuff that I want to,” he said. “You just have to keep it in perspective. All of us would rather be up here. At the same time, I’m still getting paid to play baseball at a competitive level. You really have to tell yourself that, though, because you can get frustrated with it. As soon as you feel yourself getting frustrated, you have to take a deep breath and realize the opportunity you’re in.”
Rondon felt that the biggest thing he was able to gain from his experience in Triple-A this season was confidence. He’s been a regular closer for Indianapolis for the first time since 2014, and the confidence that the team showed in him has affected his results. Now the challenge is getting that to translate to the Major League level, and in a lower-leverage situation.
“Them being able to use me in situations like being able to close has really helped me with my confidence and being able to attack and eliminate those batters,” he said.
One of the more reliable performers out there has been A.J. Schugel. Schugel hasn’t been sent down in a while, which may seem like a backhanded compliment, but he’s one of the few guys in his role that can say that. Even then, it’s something that’s in the back of his mind.
“It’s always nice to be up here,” he said. “You want to pitch well, especially on the stage at this level, you just have to go out and perform. That’s what I’ve been working on.”