The New Leverage-Focused Approach to the Pirates Bullpen is Working Out So Far

PITTSBURGH – Through two games, the Pirates’ new bullpen alignment seems to be working pretty much perfectly.

Felipe Rivero came in with two outs in the eighth Sunday, collecting his second straight four-out save in the Pirates’ 3-1 win over the Miami Marlins.

Saturday, Daniel Hudson pitched a clean seventh, the Pirates went ahead in the bottom half of the inning and Juan Nicasio pitched two outs in the eighth before giving way to Rivero.

Sunday, Ivan Nova handed the bullpen a lead after six, Nicasio pitched the seventh and Hudson got the first two outs of the eighth.

Obviously, from a results standpoint, it has worked. The back end of the bullpen allowed just one run in six innings — a solo home run by Ichiro Suzuki off Hudson Sunday — Rivero converted two saves in two chances and most importantly, the Pirates won both games.

But there’s a larger factor at play. The point of the new bullpen alignment is to put the Pirates best relievers in the highest-leverage situations. It’s only a two-game sample, but lets evaluate how they did so far.

To do that, lets figure out who the best relievers are. (OK, it’s going to be Rivero, but I need to sort out the rest, too.) Here’s the Pirates relievers ranked by WHIP since the team left for Atlanta.

First, some notes. I picked the Atlanta series because it had a ton of reliever innings so it makes for a decent sample size. I didn’t want to use the whole season because relievers can be volatile and part of this strategy allows manager Clint Hurdle to acknowledge when someone is struggling and work things a different way. It’s also right after the Pirates acquired Jhan Mariñez, so it allowed me to give him an apples-to-apples comparison.

Also, I’m using WHIP as opposed to say FIP or something else because part of the plan is letting the better pitchers go for four, five or six outs more frequently. That puts an emphasis on efficiency and quick innings.

Finally, I left off the last reliever spot that’s been occupied by Johnny Barbato, Dovydas Neverauskas, and Edgar Santana. I’m just assuming they’re only working low-leverage innings for now.

Here’s what all that comes out to:

As you can see, Rivero has indeed allowed the fewest baserunners, followed closely by Hudson and Nicasio. It’s then a bigger jump up to Mariñez and Wade LeBlanc and all the way back to Tony Watson, who has certainly deserved his demotion to a lower-leverage role.

The second part of the equation is determined the high-leverage situations. For that we’ll turn to Fangraphs. Here’s the game chart for each of the last two games.

Source: FanGraphs

The highest leverage situation on Saturday came in the top of the eighth inning with two outs. That was precisely the moment Hurdle turned to Rivero, who struck out Dee Gordon looking. The leverage went down the remainder of Rivero’s appearance, because he didn’t allow any more baserunners. But that’s a solid 1 for 1 for Hurdle.

Outside of Rivero’s four outs, the next-highest leverage came earlier in the eighth inning. That went to Juan Nicasio. Nicasio is a fine option there. Hudson would have been, too, but he was used in a low-leverage situation in the seventh. But the Pirates were without the services of LeBlanc that day and had already gone through Mariñez and Santana. All in all, not perfect, but pretty darn good.

Source: FanGraphs

Sunday, the biggest spot was left to Hudson, who struck out Giancarlo Stanton in the eighth before giving way to Rivero. Stanton is a right-hander that kills lefties at a 1.441 OPS clip, so handedness could have played a role in Hurdle’s decision. Other than that, Nicasio’s seventh and Rivero’s four outs were about even leverage-wise.

The different things that happen throughout the game and availability of pitchers isn’t going to make it possible for Hurdle to get it perfectly right every game. But through two attempts, he’s gotten it mostly right so far.


One of the reasons that Hurdle always gave for being reluctant to make the change to a less-structured role in the bullpen was that the relievers themselves don’t prefer it. It’s easier for them to plan their work schedule knowing what inning they’re going to be pitching day in and day out.

“It makes all the sense in the world to just float out there and wait for the phone to ring — it does,” Hurdle said on Thursday. “That’s not the way it works, unfortunately. I’ve spent a little time in this game. There was a time I thought it might work like that. I’ve talked to the people involved. They do like some routine. They like some rhythm.”

What changed? Well moving Watson out of a high-leverage situation, for one. The lack of structure isn’t that big of an issue for Rivero and Nicasio, who have had a number of different roles since coming to Pittsburgh. But relievers like Hudson and Watson have long been used to the structure more-defined roles provide.

I asked Hudson what he thought of the new setup.

“It’s interesting,” he said. “Obviously, you want to use (Rivero) in the highest-leverage situation because he’s throwing the best out of all of us right now. It’s kind of expected, to be honest with you. When you get down to a situation like (Sunday), you don’t know when your name is going to be called. It keeps you on your toes a little bit. You just have to be ready to answer the bell.”

There’s also been some interesting conversations in the bullpen whenever the players aren’t sure who is going in. Saturday, Nicasio and Rivero watched the team take the lead without who was going in for the next inning. Sunday, both Hudson and Nicasio were up and ready for the seventh before Hurdle made his call.

Throughout his career with the Pirates, Hurdle has been able to successfully take some of the forward-thinking ideas from the front office and get veteran players to embrace the change. He’ll be asked to repeat that performance in this situation if the bullpen changes are going to stick.


Elias Diaz went 2 for 4, drove in two runs and scored another. Since Francisco Cervelli went on the disabled list, he’s hitting .500. … Andrew McCutchen went 2 for 4 with a triple, raising his batting average to .251. It’s the first time he’s been over .250 since April 29. … Ivan Nova threw six one-hit innings and said there were no issues with his left knee, which had caused him to leave his previous start early. Nova threw just 77 pitches and said he could have gone longer into the game. Hurdle said he was removed for offense.

  • domdidominic
    June 12, 2017 6:51 am

    According to NH yesterday, he is open to bringing up AAA starters in a relief role. In my mind, I was not sure Hutchenson would help, Brault could be a good long option, especially with no LH starters.
    However, Kingham could be a difference maker. He could fill the 6th/7th inning role that Nicasio vacated. I’d imagine someone would come out of the pen for Indy before coming up to Pittsburgh.

    • Kingham is likely the one starter they’re not going to mess with. Much more likely he takes over Kuhl’s role at some point with Kuhl heading to the pen.

  • Pens n’at. Who did Sid give the Cup to first?

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    June 11, 2017 10:37 pm

    Considering it has only been 2 games with this supposed new bullpen approach, any assessment seems just a bit premature. With that being said, Rivero and Nicasio have been superb all season – so their inclusion in the new approach is obvious. As for Hudson, only NH and Hurdle can explain that one – he could have cost them the game today. Maybe when he costs them a couple of more games, NH will admit to another bad signing….

    • Actually, since the start of May(I think), Hudson has been passable as a reliever. Not great, but easily the third best reliever on the team.

      • Since May 1st, Hudson has pitched 16.3 innings, ERA of 2.20, WHIP of 1.10. 14 K’s, 8 BB’s.

        • Hudson has been pitching pretty well recently but after the early parts of the season he is still hard to trust. It will be interesting to see if he successfully continues doing the mixing up of release points that Travis wrote about last week.

          Plus that’s something that we could watch appearance by appearance too! Interesting strategy — I certainly hope the success continues.

    • Hudson could certainly have hung one of those pitches to Stanton, but he didn’t. More importantly, he didn’t really challenge Stanton with anything Stanton could really drive. Two good changeups and a slider.

      Given the available options, I’m OK thinking Hudson was the best call there.

  • BallHeadWonder
    June 11, 2017 9:29 pm

    Our season started Saturday!! We are 2-0 with Rivero closing!! We make a run here!!

    • It’s not impossible for this team to get back into the division race. They get Marte back in a little over a month, and replacing Glasnow with Taillon will surely help. Their offense is really clicking right now, and a big catalyst has been the young guys. But don’t neglect the contributions of Cutch and Jordy, who have both been lighting it up.

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD
        June 11, 2017 10:42 pm

        Who is replacing Cole and Williams in the rotation? I’d bring up Brault, and move Williams to the pen – and DFA Marinez. We’re stuck with Cole – sink or swim…

        • I would give Williams more time. His last start was bad, but the 3 prior to that were good. He isn’t likely to give you 7 innings every time out, but for a #5 starter if he can go 5-6 innings with passable results, I would take it. At least until there is someone that proves they are better, or he pitches himself out of the rotation like Glasnow and Kuhl have done.

    • Would be nice to see them get on a roll for sure. I guess we’ll find out soon enough as the white hot Rockies, who just won 6 of 7 on the road vs last year’s WS participants, are coming to town.

      If Pirates can win this series, than maybe there’s hope yet for 2017.