If you’re against the traditional closer role, with the belief that your best reliever should be used in the toughest situations, then Felipe Rivero’s current usage is nearly perfect. Rivero is easily the best reliever in the Pirates’ bullpen, and one of the best relievers in baseball this year, but is currently the set-up man to Tony Watson. And that set-up role gives the Pirates some flexibility.
Take Tuesday’s game, for example. Ivan Nova gave up two homers to start off the seventh inning, cutting the Pirates’ lead to 4-3. After being lifted with an injury, he was replaced by Juan Nicasio, who put the tying runner on base. The Pirates called on Rivero, who struck out the final batter of the inning on four pitches, ending with a 101 MPH fastball.
Rivero returned for the 8th inning and retired the heart of the lineup in order, striking out Manny Machado on a 100.9 MPH fastball in the process. Of course, this was all rendered moot when Tony Watson came on to give up a single and a two-run homer to his first two batters in the ninth, tying the score, and eventually leading to a loss in extra innings.
Watson struggled again on Wednesday night, coming on with runners at second and third with the Pirates up 6-2. He allowed one run to score on a sacrifice fly, then gave up another on a double. After getting the second out of the inning with a strikeout, he gave up a two-run homer, tying the score and sending it to extras, where the Pirates lost again.
The Pirates have a paper-thin chance of contending this year, and because of those chances, they can’t afford to lose games like this. Watson currently has five blown saves on the season, and while it’s unfair to expect a closer to be perfect, a better result here would have the Pirates closer to .500.
They would be three games under .500 with wins the last two nights, and would have an upcoming four game series against the Marlins. That’s exactly the position you want to be in if you’re looking to climb out of the NL Central basement.
The struggles from Watson, and the season-long dominance from Rivero, have people calling for a switch. The only problem is that a switch doesn’t really solve the current problem.
Tony Watson isn’t struggling because he’s in the closer role. His struggles were only noticed last year when he moved to the closer role. He had a 4.08 xFIP prior to taking over as the closer last year, and had a 4.43 xFIP after moving to the ninth inning. This year he is sitting with a 4.92 xFIP, and home runs have been a growing problem along the way.
It’s impossible to say what is leading to Watson’s struggles lately, although a good guess would be his workload prior to 2016. Watson threw 224.1 innings between 2013 and 2015, which was the most among relievers in baseball. Mark Melancon was second with 218.2. Only 11 pitchers were above 200 innings.
Of course, the workload doesn’t necessarily guarantee a breakdown. Melancon, Bryan Shaw, and Cody Allen were all up there with Watson in those years, and all three have relatively maintained their progress. But whatever the reason, Watson isn’t the same pitcher now that he was prior to 2016.
The Pirates tried adding another option in Daniel Hudson, who had some positive signs that he could step his game up with the Pirates. Aside from the strong velocity out of the bullpen, and better strikeout ratio as a reliever, Hudson was struggling in Arizona largely due to a high BABIP and a low LOB%. He had a 5.22 ERA last year, but a 4.12 xFIP. When you factor in the Pirates’ typical ability to improve control numbers (he had a 3.28 BB/9), his numbers were expected to play much better than the xFIP.
Hudson also hasn’t seen the results the Pirates were hoping for. His BABIP of .343 is higher than last year’s .331. His LOB% of 66.1% is still below the average 70%. His walk rate has dropped to 4.07 BB/9, and his HR/FB rate has gone up from 10.3% to 11.1%, which is combined with an increase in fly balls from 32% to 38.6%. Hudson is heading in the opposite direction of where the Pirates hoped he would be, and is not an option right now to help out in the late innings.
That makes Rivero the easy choice for the closer role, not just because he’s the best pitcher in the bullpen right now, but because he’s really the only option people would be comfortable with. And that’s the problem with the Pirates’ bullpen right now.
Outside of Rivero, the top relievers on the team right now are Wade LeBlanc and Juan Nicasio. They are also the only other relievers on the team with an xFIP below 4.00, although neither is below 3.50. LeBlanc is pitching about where expected, looking like a good middle or long reliever, but not really a guy you want in the late innings.
Nicasio has some impressive numbers, and has really stepped up his game lately. However, he has yet to give up a home run this year, and that just can’t continue. His xFIP of 3.90 assumes a normal home run rate, and those are the types of results we should expect going forward when he inevitably starts giving up home runs again. Right now his surface numbers look like a late inning guy, but his advanced metrics point to another guy who is stronger as a middle reliever.
That said, even with the regressed metrics, Nicasio and LeBlanc would be better than Hudson and Watson in the late innings at the moment, even if they aren’t typically the types of pitchers you’d expect in those roles.
The problem is that the Pirates don’t have enough reliable relievers right now. Yes, you could move Felipe Rivero to the 9th inning to solve the problem of the last two nights, but where do you put Watson? If he’s in the 8th inning, the lead gets blown before the ball gets to Rivero. If Nicasio or LeBlanc pitch that inning, Watson could be pitching earlier.
The Pirates can’t just continue the current approach and do nothing. But there’s no easy fix here. Moving Felipe Rivero to the closer role just strengthens the 9th inning, while weakening the earlier innings. It makes it less likely that the lead will be blown in the 9th, but also less likely that the lead will ever get to Rivero. Perhaps moving Watson to an easier role might help him get back on track, reversing a downward trend that has gone on since the start of 2016. But they’re already doing that with Daniel Hudson, and have only two other pitchers who are performing well enough to be considered for the late innings.
The Pirates just don’t have enough relievers at the moment to reliably protect a lead from the sixth or seventh inning through the end of the game. It doesn’t matter which inning Felipe Rivero pitches in. He could pitch in the 8th or the 9th, but it won’t solve the overall problem. The solutions would be to find a way to get Watson and/or Hudson back on track, or to hope that Juan Nicasio and Wade LeBlanc keep playing up to their current pace, or to call up Edgar Santana and hope there are no growing pains in his jump to the big leagues.