PITTSBURGH — Felipe Vásquez bailed out the Pirates on Saturday night, even though he wasn’t literally credited with a save.
In taking over for a struggling George Kontos in the eighth inning and closing out the team’s fifth straight win, Vásquez papered over a growing concern in the back end of the Pirates’ bullpen.
While Michael Feliz has seemingly taken to his role ahead of Kontos and Vásquez when the Pirates hold narrow leads, Kontos has fallen off from the encouraging level of performance he contributed late last season. Claimed off waivers from the Giants last August, Kontos had a 1.84 ERA, a 2.61 FIP and an 0.82 WHIP in 15 appearances.
Relying upon a cut fastball that he’s refined over the years, Kontos appeared to be a rightful holder of the No. 2 spot in the bullpen hierarchy entering the season.
Neal Huntington has frequently referenced Kontos’ fine work last season in defending the 32-year-old righty, but after Kontos has been scored upon in three of his past four outings and Richard Rodríguez has emerged as a challenger for a late-game role, change might be imminent.
“How long do you stay with a reliever that’s given up a couple of runs here and there?” Huntington asked (rhetorically) on Sunday afternoon at PNC Park. “George has been successful in 12 or 13 of 18 or 19 outings, but when it’s a couple in a row or when it’s a handful of outings, it becomes more prominent and more obvious, especially when it’s the beginning of a season and on a team that’s competing to stay in a playoff hunt.”
Yes, there is urgency involved in the Pirates’ situation, as they sit at the top of a fiercely competitive National League Central at the end Mother’s Day weekend. Not that Kontos needs to be jettisoned to DFA Land or anything, but when a team’s ‘eighth-inning guy’ has the worst ERA (4.58) and FIP (5.75) among the short relievers in the bullpen, it’s probably time to consider a restructuring.
Clint Hurdle has pushed back on questioning about Kontos’ status in his bullpen, but it sounds like Huntington is relenting on his previous patient stance. Huntington said he’s consulted with Hurdle, pitching coach Ray Searage and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas about the quality of Kontos’ stuff and execution, with the purpose of making an evaluation.
On a Sunday that featured Francisco Cervelli in the leadoff spot for the first time in his career, maybe the 2018 sample size is large enough across the board for the Pirates to aim for further optimization.
This process is naturally trickier with relief pitchers, whose year-to-year performance is notoriously volatile because of the small-sample work inherent to the position. For instance, with a quarter of the season nearly gone, Kontos has pitched just 17 2/3 innings and Rodríguez has 13 1/3.
“A lot of it comes down to the arsenal and the use of the arsenal and not necessarily the results because sometimes the results can be misleading, good and bad,” Huntington said. “Sometimes a pitcher doesn’t have great weapons, but the ball is being hit at people, or sometimes a pitcher has great weapons, but a missed call here or there, a bloop, a bleeder and a blast and it looks like a horrible outing. So we continue to work with the traits and evaluate the traits as we look to make decisions and not to get caught up with the emotion of last night.”
The problem for Kontos is that his ‘traits’ appear diminished, not just his surface results. Compared to 2017, he’s dropped about 2 mph off his four-seam fastball and 1 mph off his cutter. Perhaps more significantly, pitch-tracking data shows Kontos’ cutter is moving about an inch less horizontally and vertically than it was last year.
Less than 24 hours after Kontos allowed sharp hits to Alen Hanson and Austin Jackson, failing to hold a two-run lead, Huntington mentioned the possibility of “unplugging” Kontos from his high-leverage responsibilities.
“It’s a challenge,” Huntington said. “You don’t want to abandon a high-leverage reliever too soon, but there is a time and a place. Those are the games you feel like you absolutely have to win.”
Of course, this discussion might not be taking place with such vigor if not for the sterling performance of Rodríguez, a minor-league free agent signing over the winter. Entering Sunday’s game the 28-year-old had the best ERA (1.35), FIP (0.15) and strikeout rate (43 percent) on the entire pitching staff. (He allowed his first homer of the season Sunday, a 330-footer inside the left-field foul pole. He also has an 87 percent strand rate, so maybe hold the Cy Young talk for now.)
Huntington noted Rodríguez’ fastball “doesn’t have an elite spin rate,” but deception and location have worked in tandem to make it “play up” above its 93 mph average velocity.
“We’ve seen the really good Rodríguez,” Huntington said. “He’s working his way into pitching in more important situations. He’s attacked the zone. He’s fearless. Hitters have told him his fastball plays in the majors.”
Perhaps it’s not Rodríguez who takes Kontos’ position. It could be Feliz, and deservedly so. Perhaps Edgar Santana (3.24 ERA, 2.73 FIP, 1.08 WHIP) steps forward, or Kyle Crick (2.89, 3.04, 1.39) elevates, or the tantalizing yet inconsistent Tyler Glasnow gets a trial by fire.
Either way, with the here and now increasingly important, the Pirates have probably come to an inflection point regarding their bullpen. What’s more, there’s no reliable veteran to jump in and take those high-leverage innings.
“The only time you get that experience,” Huntington reminded, “is to get those opportunities.”