PHILADELPHIA — The Pirates didn’t have a great series in the Philadelphia, getting swept by the Phillies. The Pirates’ bullpen in particular was victimized as the team lost each of the final three games after the starting pitcher was removed with a lead or with the game tied, only to lose at the hands of a relief pitcher.
On Friday, set-up man George Kontos was the victim. On Saturday, it was Michael Feliz that gave up a three-run homer in the seventh. On Sunday, Richard Rodriguez gave up a walk-off hit in the 11th inning.
The individual blowups are symptoms of a larger problem, as the Pirates have a 5.23 ERA amongst relievers, the fifth-worst mark in the National League.
But there isn’t the same amount of panic as there was surrounding the bullpen two weeks ago.
For one, Kontos and Feliz figure to be two of the Pirates’ better relievers. Feliz and closer Felipe Vasquez have FIPs of 2.84 and 1.98, despite ERAs over 5.00, so they should have their results improve based on their starts.
The other reason is that the moves general manger Neal Huntington seem to have stabilized things in the back end of the bullpen a bit. Rodriguez, Kyle Crick and Enny Romero have combined to pitch 10.2 innings with the Pirates and have allowed just two runs.
Crick’s progress might be the biggest development of the group. A former first-round pick, he certainly has the talent to be a top-level Major League reliever, but it hasn’t worked out that way early in his career. It hasn’t been because a lack of results — he now has a 2.68 career ERA — but instead a lack of opportunity. At 25, Crick had just 32.1 MLB innings coming into this season.
When he put up a 5.74 ERA in Spring Training and didn’t make the team, it looked like that opportunity might not come this season, either. But given a second chance thanks to the early faltering of Dovydas Neverauskas and Josh Smoker, Crick has come in with a level head, a crisp breaking ball and gotten results.
“The slider is showing up big,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “There’s depth, there’s tilt to it. The fastball velocity is ticked up, as well.”
Crick’s slider is getting more horizontal break on it than it did last year with San Francisco and he’s also now added a two-seamer, that he’s throwing even harder than his four-seamer.
He also feels a confidence that he said he never had in the past, despite getting sent down at the beginning of the year.
“I guess it would be seeing how your stuff stacks up against major leaguers,” he said. “I got 30 appearance last year and it was against pretty good teams. The National League West was as good division. I just had confidence because I played against really good teams and I did well against them.”
Crick said that his spring had a lot of adjustments, with him adding a pitch and making the move to a new organization for the first time in his career, and while he was disappointed in getting sent down, he felt he was already on the right track toward having a successful 2018.
“I don’t think a new start could ever be bad,” he said. “Spring training is just a different time. You’ve got to go in and get your fastball ready, work on your offspeed pitches, but I felt like I did pretty good with command. I had four walks in 11 innings, which isn’t terrible. I’ll take that. If I were to pitch the rest of his year with that walk rate, that would be a success for me. So, I had a lot of positives in the spring.”
So far, Crick has just one walk in 4.2 innings with the Pirates, and according to pitching coach Ray Searage, that’s among the most important metrics for Crick’s future success.
“With a reliever, you have to be able to come in and throw one of two pitches for a strike,” he said. “You have to either be able to locate your fastball right off the start or be able to throw a breaking ball for a strike. Throw strikes and get ahead and put the hitter on the defensive.”
The other thing that’s been key to Crick’s success so far has been the ability to put hitters away once he gets ahead. His two-seamer may help him get some light contact, but so far his seven strikeouts in 4.2 innings has been primary weapon. His slider, again has stood out. He’s thrown 20 of them, without a hit against.
“That’s really the bottom line with any kind of team you’re on,” Searage said. “It’s about execution of a quality pitch.”
With a hard fastball, an emerging two-seamer and a crisp slider, Crick seems to have the weapons to be an effective piece of the Pirates bullpen moving forward. It seems like he’s also going to get the opportunity.