WASHINGTON — The Jonathon Niese experiment is over, at least for now.
The Pirates will move the left-handed pitcher to the bullpen for the second half of the season, manager Clint Hurdle said Friday afternoon. Niese carries a career-high 5.13 ERA after 18 starts and the emergence of several young pitchers has made his spot in the rotation fungible.
“I would rather start, obviously. It’s where my heart’s at. But as long as I’m toeing the rubber, I’m happy. I’ll go down there and help the team win. Last year, I went down there at the end of the year and had a little bit of success.”
The amount of Niese’s success in the bullpen is relative. He had a 2.45 ERA in relief versus a 4.16 ERA as a starter. But he had an underwhelming 1.91 WHIP and had an unusually high strand rate (85.7 percent). He didn’t allow any home runs out of the bullpen, something that has been an ongoing source of trouble, but all of those stats came in just four appearances — not exactly a large sample size.
While Hurdle mentioned that Niese is stretched out and he could certainly be a multi-inning option, he went more than one inning just once for the Mets in 2015. The Mets appeared to use him as a situational lefty — once he faced just two batters and another appearance was for just three hitters.
That’s a role that could actually help the Pirates, who currently only have set-up man Tony Watson amongst relieving lefties. Niese’s FIP is 5.94 against right-handed hitters and 4.12 against lefties, suggesting that he could work in a matchup role. His ground ball rate is also better against lefties.
Niese said after his final first-half start that he wanted to take some time to not worry his mechanical adjustments and just throw. The move to the bullpen will give him an opportunity to do just that.
“I threw a bullpen (session) yesterday with that mindset,” he said. “I just went out there free-minded and just did what came natural. The ball came out of my hand pretty crisp and I was able to hit my spots. I’m going to keep that mindset, pound the zone and I’m sure — as my past career has shown — I’ll get good results.”
Hurdle echoed the opportunity for Niese to improve and offered that the move to the bullpen is not necessarily permanent.
“We felt at this time, to get him unplugged, to get him a different look, might help him moving forward,” Hurdle said. “We told him this wasn’t a banishment out of the rotation for good. We need his best effort moving forward.”
FOUR OR FIVE?
The Pirates did not announce who will take Niese’s spot in the rotation. Francisco Liriano, Chad Kuhl, Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke — in that order — will take the first four starts of the second half.
Liriano would be on regular rest to take the next turn, and the Pirates do not need a fifth starter until July 23 because of off days.
“It challenges you from a rotational strategy, whether you go four-man or five-man,” Hurdle said. “You look to have a couple core guys that you want to make sure you keep in play with some consistency.”
Hurdle added that using a four man rotation “makes sense some times, and sometimes you want to just get other guys in as well.” Hurdle, pitching coach Ray Searage and general manager Neal Huntington will finalize that decision after Liriano’s start.
BANGED UP BUCS
Josh Harrison (left foo), Matt Joyce (left quad) and Gregory Polanco (left hamstring) all came into the break nursing injuries. Joyce and Harrison are good to go and are both in the starting lineup, with Harrison leading off and Joyce playing in right field.
Polanco, on the other hand, is not playing and is approaching the time period where the team usually needs to make a decision about a trip to the disabled list.
“Polanco worked out this afternoon,” Hurdle said. “He’s still going through a workout. We’ll have a little more information on him, probably later.”
Polanco hasn’t played since July 8. He can be retroactively placed on the disabled list back a maximum of five days.
BELL ON BOARD
The Pirates said the plan was for Josh Bell to play the last three games before the break. But Bell is in Washington and will be available off the bench — at least for one game.
“Cole is going to go at it tomorrow, so somebody is going to have to go off, so there’s a couple different players involved” Hurdle said. “We still have the option of hanging on to him because of the way the roster is construed. We don’t need that extra pitcher right now, so why wouldn’t we based on the three at-bats he’s had so far. Well see if there’s an opportunity to engage him off the bench.”
For the fourth consecutive year, the Pirates’ fathers have joined the team on a road trip. They had a banquet dinner at the team hotel Thursday night and will be in attendance all weekend. … Catcher Chris Stewart played catch yesterday as he attempts to rehab his knee. … Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Roark and Max Scherzer will be the starters this series for Washington.