Brandon Waddell Getting Some Valuable Experience Out of the Bullpen in the AFL

GLENDALE, Ariz. – It’s not a permanent assignment. Well, at least not for now.

Brandon Waddell has been a starter his entire pro career with the Pirates, after being a starter with the University of Virginia. But he was sent to the Arizona Fall League this offseason to pitch out of the bullpen for the first time.

The move is a common one. Each team sends four pitchers to the league, and typically only one of those pitchers will start. Waddell is representing the Pirates alongside top prospect Mitch Keller, and hard-throwing lefty pitching prospect Taylor Hearn. Those two have received the priority for starts, leaving Waddell to get work out of the bullpen.

That doesn’t signal that the Pirates will move Waddell to the bullpen in the future. However, the crowded scene in Triple-A next year could put some former starters in the bullpen, with Waddell being a member of the crowded group. So while the Pirates may not be necessarily planning to have Waddell making this switch, the experience is good for him to have.

“It’s a new experience, so it’s a lot of fun to see another part of the game, another aspect of pitching,” Waddell said. “As a starter, you have a very set routine that you can follow. You have as much time as you need. Whereas, in the bullpen, you need to get hot now. It’s been fun trying to figure out not getting hot too early, not having to rush. Finding that in-between is something I’ve enjoyed.”

For a guy who has been a starter his whole career, finding a routine that works out of the bullpen can be difficult. Waddell has found a few tips and tricks, including one simple approach.

“I think just focusing on what you’re trying to accomplish out there,” Waddell said. “Out of the pen, it’s trying to get your arm going, trying to get your body ready, and worrying less about — as a starter you’re worrying about timing, or the pitch coming out of your hand. In the pen, it’s more about getting ready, getting your body ready to go, and getting the most out of it as you can.”

Waddell is an interesting case of a starter pitching out of the bullpen. He doesn’t have a strong out pitch, but instead relies on a five pitch mix — four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup. He still throws all of his pitches, and pitching out of the bullpen gives him the flexibility to go with the pitches that happen to be working that day. This is a different approach to starting, where if a pitch isn’t working, he needs to keep throwing it to establish another option and try to get it back on track.

So while Waddell doesn’t have the traditional “starter-turned-reliever” profile of a guy who could see an increase in velocity, with a strong breaking pitch, his flexibility to go with one of three off-speed pitches on any given day can help offset the lack of one strong pitch.

He does see a benefit with his velocity. He’s been mostly 88-92 MPH in the past, sitting lower with his sinker, and higher with his four-seam. He has touched higher than 92 with the latter fastball. During his time in the AFL, he has seen velocity in the low-90s, touching 94-95. But his focus is more about attacking the hitters with his fastball, regardless of his velocity.

“I think it’s just attacking,” Waddell said. “Velo, if it comes, it comes, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I think it’s more about executing pitches, making quality pitches, whether you’re at 92 or 95, if you execute a pitch at 92, it’s going to be more than good enough.”

That all might sound a little cliché, but it has actually been a big focus for Waddell this season. He has been focused on getting more efficient, and that process involves attacking certain hitters, rather than being more of a control artist. Going to the bullpen might help Waddell if he has a future there, but the Pirates definitely hope it will help his quest to be more efficient.

“This whole year has been about efficiency,” Pirates pitching coach Justin Meccage said about Waddell. “I think out of the bullpen you really have to be efficient, just because you’re trying to get in and out of bats as quick as possible. It’s forced him to be in a little bit more of an attacking state of mind, instead of too much pitching where he has to be too fine.”

Meccage said that the goal for Waddell this year has been about lineup navigation, figuring out which hitters you can get out in one pitch, and which ones need four or five pitches.

“I think it’s that art, and then all of a sudden the inning is over in 12 to 13 pitches,” Meccage said. “As opposed to treating everybody the same. His four pitches are good enough that he can get some hitters out in one pitch or two. That’s what we’re looking for, efficiency-wise.”

Waddell has carried that focus over to the AFL, working on attacking hitters, and “trying not to be too fine.” He doesn’t want to be a power pitcher, but also doesn’t want to be a guy who nibbles on the edges of the plate.

The Pirates have about ten pitchers who could be starting options in Indianapolis this year. Waddell could get one of the rotation spots, although with all of the depth they have in the upper levels, it might be difficult for him to make the MLB rotation in Pittsburgh. Having some experience out of the bullpen will only help him in the future. What helps even more is working on his approach to be more aggressive with hitters, as that’s the right mentality to have if he has a future in relief.

  • I’ve always liked Waddell. He’s steady as they come, and really seems to trust what he does on the mound. There’s no second-guessing, he just pitches.

    But I do think the idea of a reliever with a huge arsenal is really interesting. I’ve always wondered about that. It seems like most guys who go to the pen are the one- or two-pitch guys. I never knew if that was because they could, or because the very multi-pitch types usually stick as starters if their pitches are good enough to get guys out, and fall out of the league entirely if they aren’t. But the preparation for a hitter facing a guy coming out of the bullpen with five pitches would likely be considerably more challenging, even if the pitches themselves aren’t as good.

    And finally, I like Meccage’s philosophy of having a pitch count goal which changes for each hitter. The outs in three pitches philosophy sounds great in theory, but it’s too narrow. Now, striving for that on average is a great idea, but approaching each hitter individually will make better, more complete pitchers.

    • “I never knew if that was because they could, or because the very multi-pitch types usually stick as starters if their pitches are good enough to get guys out, and fall out of the league entirely if they aren’t.”

      Almost always the latter. Some 3+ pitch relievers are there because of command and durability (i.e. Felipe Rivero), but the rarity of these types mostly boils down to a matter of pitch *quality*, or lack thereof. It would be difficult facing a guy out of the pen with three average or better secondaries, yes, but that guy is likely going to be a starter and a reliever that has a below average secondary is giving the hitter a gift. That pitch usually drops out of the repertoire.

      I also continue to be impressed with Meccage and appreciated that expanded pitch-to-contact explanation…but I’m left with more questions. What types of hitters is he talking about, exactly? Are they trying to get quick outs against the dangerous hitters for fear that more pitches gives more opportunity for a mistake? Or are they trying to get quick contact against crappy hitters because contact is less likely to be high-value? Given that even the least productive hitters in the game hit around .300 on contact, I’m not sure I even agree with that strategy.

      It seems terribly clear in this era that if you can get an out without putting the ball in play, you want to do that.

      • I’m guessing they look to take more pitches against swing-and-miss types, since that avenue is there, and attack aggressive swingers who produce more contact but poorer average contact quality earlier in the count, since there’s no point messing around with them.

        • Yeah that would seem to make the *most* sense; I just think of those years where Chris Stewart BABIP’d – ‘scuse me, “Smart Hitting’d” – his was to .290 averages and wonder if this pitching approach is really still more of a benefit in an era where “average” contact hitters are still going down without the ball in play 20% of the time.

          If you just don’t have swing-and-miss stuff, as is the case with Waddell, this is really a moot point. But if you do, what’s the *real* benefit in finishing an at-bat in three pitches when it doesn’t produce an out 30% of the time vs finishing in 5-6 pitches for a guaranteed out? Particularly when indisputable evidence shows that you’re going to get significantly worse the more times you have a hitter, regardless of pitch count?

          Interesting discussion, I don’t claim to be definitively correct.

  • He was a smart pitcher in college and it looks like he’s learning a lot in the minors. A smart pitcher does better in the majors, I think.