The Pirates have had some sustained success over the last two weeks. It started with the series against the Los Angeles Dodgers last month, and included six come-from-behind wins during a seven game winning streak that ended Thursday afternoon.

While several of the position players have certainly carried their weight in the last two weeks, the pitching staff, and particularly the Pirates’ bullpen, have been crucial contributors to keeping the team in the NL Wild Card race as we approach the All-Star break.

Here are some relevant pitching stats for the 13 games from June 25th through last night, in which the Pirates had a 10-3 record, broken out by pitching roles:

Pitching Roles

As you can see from the table, both the starting rotation and the relief corps have seen improvement in recent weeks compared to their season averages, with marked improvement happening in the bullpen.

To use a different measure, the 4.91 ERA put up by Pirates starters in the last two weeks is not impressive, but the underlying numbers paint a rosier picture. Conversely, the 0.72 bullpen ERA in the same span exaggerates the progress that unit has made in the last two weeks. It’s those bullpen performances that I would like to focus in on, since the starting rotation is very much in flux at the moment.

The roughly two-week timeframe for reviewing the bullpen may seem like an arbitrary endpoint, especially given their recent success, but it’s mostly not. June 24th also happens to be the date that Juan Nicasio was reinstated from the restricted list, and though he did not appear in his new role until June 26th, his reinstatement prompted a slight reshuffling of the bullpen that has been very useful for the Pirates so far.

THE MIDDLE OUTS

Nicasio has bolstered what has been a middle relief corps that has been struggling throughout the season, relying heavily on inconsistent performances from Jared Hughes, Arquimedes Caminero, and a rotating group of replacement level performers.

Aside from the consistently good A.J. Schugel, each middle relief pitcher has struggled at times, but the games since June 24th have shown that almost everyone is getting on the same page:

Middle Relief

The table demonstrates that each of the Pirates’ middle relievers, Hughes to a noticeably lesser extent, has found a way to help out in the last two weeks. Nicosia’s FIP in this span jumped by nearly a run after the home run he allowed last night, but you don’t see that reflected as much in his ERA since one of the runners was charged to Francisco Liriano.

Caminero has apparently rediscovered the strike zone, increasing his strikeout rate and avoiding walks completely. Schugel’s emergence continues, with limited walks and a strong ground ball rate, and generally speaking, Nicasio has transitioned well in returning to the bullpen, generating lots of grounders while maintaining a solid strikeout rate.

Obviously, this run of strong performance isn’t just because Nicasio became a reliever again, but his presence and ability to handle more than just one inning allows the two riskiest options (Hughes and Caminero) to be shifted to lower-leverage roles. It also ensures that replacement-level options like Kyle Lobstein, Curtis Partch, et al. get few, if any, innings.

Put simply, aided by the arrival of Nicasio, the Pirates middle relievers have been pitching very well during the current streak. In recent days, this has allowed the Pirates to remain in games without falling too far behind, thus preserving opportunities for comeback wins.

FINISH THEM!

Once those comebacks are complete, the back-end of the bullpen has been shutting games down with 2015-level efficiency. Consider the following:

Set-up and Closer

Melancon’s numbers jump off the screen here, and though any pitcher can be successful in a small sample of only seven appearances, it’s difficult not to conclude that he has been doing everything well over the last two weeks.

There has been speculation that the Pirates might look to trade Melancon before the end of the month, given that he is an impending free agent, and the Pirates’ playoff odds—though significantly improved—are still below 20%. If he is not traded, the Pirates are unlikely to make him a qualifying offer, thus forfeiting their right to draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere.

I think a trade is unlikely to happen, given that the Pirates are certainly in the Wild Card race, and have a favorable schedule after the All-Star break. While it may make sense for the 2017 team and beyond, the negative signaling value of trading the team’s best reliever while they are firmly in contention will likely prevent the Pirates from moving Melancon barring a major, unforeseen development.

Which is not to say that the Pirates do not have two other, strong options at the back-end of their bullpen. After struggling to start the season, Tony Watson has found his command, cutting down considerably on his walks and generating more ground balls. Neftali Feliz has become another Ray Searage resurrection success story, and had not allowed a run in nearly a month until Anthony Rizzo took him deep for a two-out solo home run last night.

HOW LONG WILL THIS LAST?

It’s reasonable to believe that this is the bullpen the Pirates were hoping for when the season began. It seemed that Nicasio was destined for his current role once Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow (and Chad Kuhl, and Steven Brault) were able to contribute at the major league level.

Things got risky when Caminero and Hughes had to shoulder more innings, but Schugel and Feliz have provided surprisingly consistent performance to help contain the damage more often than not until workload could be shifted in other directions.

As I’ve discussed before, there is little reason for concern about Melancon and Watson, but it’s obvious to say that the middle of the bullpen will allow runs with greater frequency as time goes on. What matters, though, is that they seemed to have found a formula that works more efficiently, and I think it is reasonable to expect that the Pirates will have an above-average relief unit through the remainder of the season.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. why wouldn’t the Pirates make a qualifying offer to Melancon? With his record of success even if not total dominance, he is one of the better closers in the game. The pirates should and must make him a qualifying offer so that they can get a draft pick for him. So what if they get stuck with paying him for another year if another team does not bite.

  2. Well, another night and another beat down of the Cubs! We owe them about 5-6 more before we can say we’ve gotten back at them. But, the last two nights have been sweet and enjoyable….some random thoughts and comments:
    (1) It wasn’t pretty from a pitching standpoint – gave up 14 hits and seemed like the Cubs had multiple runners on base every inning – they stranded 20 or 21 base runners? Caminero and Hughes were very good for a change, after Kuhl really struggled tonight. Kuhl threw strikes, but the Cubs were hitting him. Of course, they’ve been hitting just about everybody
    (2) As if on cue, McCutchen is getting hot – usually starts in June/July every year. I expect a big second half from him.
    (3) Bell – 2 for 2, with a grand slam. Are the Pirates really going to send him back down? He was one of the kids, before the season started, I said could be a real difference maker in trying to beat out the Cubs. Jaso has had a decent first half, but he’s not a full time player and he’s not a difference maker – he’s a role player. The problem with him is that he can only play one position. Maybe the Pirates ought to try to move him to an AL team needing a LH bat – maybe we could get a LH reliever back in return.
    (4) Rizzo kills the Pirates.
    (5) Nice to see Arietta and Lester look human on back to back nights.
    (6) I admit, I was one of the biggest critics of the Pirates bringing SRod back for 2016 – because of his overall performance last year and his embarrassing antics in the playoff loss to the Cubs. But, he’s having a career year – and getting hits off quality pitchers. If this keeps up, he may need to pee in a cup for someone…

  3. Melancon is well worth the risk!! The way he prepares and takes care of his body, his work ethic, he still has a solid 2 years left and I would definitely offer 3/39. He making 10mil now!! He deserves a raise!! Our starting pitching will be next to nothing next year….IF WE KEEP FRANKY!! So to take on Melancon for 13mil should not be hard!!

  4. If it were my choice I’d QO Melancon in a heartbeat. He is arguably the best closer in MLB. And the QO compensation is in line with market compensation for a top of the line closer.

  5. With the critical HR’s given up by Caminero, Nicasio, and Feliz the last two days, I’m a little concerned that our bullpen still isn’t what we need it to be. Certainly more reliable than early in the season but also not the dominant one we’ve seen the last couple of weeks.

    • Location of the HR by Nicasio was fine, hitter damn near fell over while swinging. Good swing and a hat tip.

      Cammy will always Cammy, inconsistent.

  6. Despite the overwhelming evidence not to spend premium dollars on bullpen, I am inclined to support the idea of signing Melancon to something like 3/36.

    I haven’t supported this idea before this season, but the more I think about it, the more comfortable I am with the idea. He clearly is the one constant to our entire pitching staff. This article certain bares this out.

    • Id do 2 years, but 3 screams risk. You look at the xFIP for Melancon and see a neat little trend in a scary direction.

      He’s got no room for slight velocity loss. He wont crater, but slight issue for him takes him from elite reliever to overpaid arm.

    • Agree Scott. Sign or offer him like you said, but maybe 10 mil, 11 mil and final 12 mil (3-33 mil). Some on here may gripe about a certain percentage of salary is too high for a pitcher, but he is an All Star. I cannot stand all of the millions lost on signing “Projects”, then they cut them. How many millions wasted on firstbasemen, pitchers, trying to find that diamond in the rough. Well NH, you have that diamond. Sign the Shark and build around him.

      • Boston went out and signed the best closer in baseball. More elite years in a row than Melancon. Plenty of Ks, plenty of great stats, young.

        They assumed his career worst ERA/FIP/xFIP last year was merely a blip, noise in an otherwise great career.

        But his ERA/FIP/xfIP are all at career highs again this year and now he’s on the DL for 2-4 weeks.

        Amazing how quick a guy who is unhittable for 3-5 years can be normal.

        Im not in a rush to see what 33-34 year old Melancon looks like, for market value.

      • True enough, but in this particular case, I believe MM will age well. It’s isn’t as if he has to overpower hitters to be effective like so many other Closers. He’s more like Rivera than Kimbrell in that respect.

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