One of the hot button issues facing the Pirates during the 2017 season was the usage of star relief pitcher Felipe Rivero.
Rivero, acquired from the Washington Nationals at the trade deadline for Mark Melancon in 2016, answer the 2017 season as one of several options to set up then-closer Tony Watson.
As the season got going, it became abundantly clear that not only was Rivero the most attractive option as a set up man, he was likely the Pirates’ most talented relief pitcher overall.
It wasn’t until early June that Pirates manager Clint Hurdle decided to pull the plug on Watson and let Rivero close games.
On many levels, the move was a warranted one, as Watson’s numbers continued a year and a half long slide, while Rivero established himself as one of the majors’ most dominant relievers.
On the other hand, there are significant questions as to whether having an established closer is the most effective way to use a bullpen. Many times, the game never gets to the closer because it’s lost by relief pitchers in the sixth, seventh or eighth innings. Frequently, a higher leverage situation can develop earlier in the game than the ninth-inning.
Specifically, Rivero’s left-handedness makes him a more attractive option to attempt to match up than most closers. So if the heart of the Cincinnati Reds order, including left-handed slugger Joey Votto, is due up in the eighth inning, it probably makes a lot more sense to let Rivero pitch that inning than the ninth.
By having a closer exclusively work the ninth inning, it also limits the number of times in the season they’ll be used. A team that is routinely dominant or routinely struggles will end up using their closer less frequently than some of their middle relievers.
That kind of ends up being both a blessing and a curse. Obviously, a team playing its best players more often will have a positive effect on results. But relief pitchers pitching a ton of innings typically has a negative effect on the future of their career.
Even with less than ideal usage, the Pirates have typically ridden their closers fairly hard. Rivero was fourth in the National League in innings pitched amongst relievers in 2017. Melancon, Rivero, and Watson were all in the top 20 in 2016. Melancon and Watson were No. 3 and 4 in 2015 and No. 2 and 4 in 2014.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that amount of usage isn’t particularly good for a relief pitcher. Melancon and Watson both fell off precipitously after two years of heavy usage in high-leverage situations.
Of course, with those two players, the Pirates could employ a short-term strategy. They never had any intention of keeping either one of them beyond their pending free-agent years. Melancon was traded for Rivero at the deadline before he became a free agent. Watson was flipped to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a pair of prospects last year.
The difference in returns for the two players fairly well tells the tale of how their Pirates careers ended. Melancon fetched Rivero and pitching prospect Taylor Hearn. Because he experienced an additional year of decline with the Pirates before he was traded, Watson netted two lower-level prospects.
The difference between those situations and with the Pirates have with Rivero is that he won’t be in that situation until late July, 2021. Even if the Pirates don’t care at all about Rivero as an individual and just look at him as an asset, if he pitches among the leaders in appearances again this year and then begins a steady decline, he won’t be worth anything by the time he gets to free agency.
Most of the time, when there’s a potential conflict between a player’s wishes and that of team management, it’s because management is doing just that. But interestingly enough in this case, most players want to play as often as possible. Rivero has said many times that he would pitch every day if the Pirates let him.
Rivero just signed a contract extension this offseason, giving both sides a sense of security for the future. It will be interesting to see if that makes the Pirates more or less cautious when it comes to the usage of the arm of one of the most talented relievers in baseball. Such a decision would probably be unpopular with the fans and almost certainly would be unpopular with Rivero, but it might be the right thing to do.