The Pirates’ equipment trucks are on the way to Bradenton. Spring training is right around the corner, and with it comes roster battles.
Pitcher spring training battles are more exciting, at least to me, because good performance usually leads to a job. Poor J.B. Shuck’s path to an opening day job is nearly impossible. He would have to A.) Outhit everyone, B.) Prove to the Pirates that a guy who can only play outfield is worth a bench spot compared to a more flexible option like Pablo Reyes, and C.) Hope Lonnie Chisenhall hits southpaws well enough that he doesn’t need a platoon mate. Sorry, Shuck. This is going to be a hard sell.
But there are a couple bullpen jobs up for grabs, and the Pirates have signed four pitchers so far to minor league deals with spring training invites to compete for a gig. Here’s the skinny on the quartet.
Liriano came to Pittsburgh in 2013 to revive his career as a starter. Now he’s coming back in 2019 to presumably try to revive it as a reliever.
Jason Rollison wrote about Liriano’s slider for Bucs Dugout yesterday. Thanks, Jason! And Travis Sawchik wrote about the merits of making Liriano a reliever last year for FanGraphs. Thanks, Travis! You guys saved me a lot of legwork.
Liriano struggled last year, finishing with a 4.58 ERA and 5.11 FIP over 133.2 innings, but he excelled in his first time through the order and against left-handed hitters.
Against LHH: .170/.255/.261, 22.4 K%, 10.2 BB%, 53.8% ground ball rate
1st time through order: .223/.318/.327, 22.3 K%, 12.4 BB%, 46.2% ground ball rate, 3.16 ERA, 3.76 FIP
Let’s raise the stakes and look at how he did against lefties the first time through the order:
.111/.238/.139, 30.9 K%, 14.3 BB%, 40.9% ground ball rate
Liriano was consistently hitting 94-95 MPH when he was in Houston’s bullpen in 2017. If he could do that again, it would put him near the top 10% in southpaw reliever fastball velocity. The slider has taken a step back, but it still moves and gets its fair share of whiffs. Clint Hurdle’s Pirates have never had a LOOGY, and it’s doubtful Liriano will be the first. But if he was signed with the intentions of being a reliever and he’s put in the right situations, then his career could have a second- or third- act.
It wasn’t that long ago Lyons was one of the most underrated relievers in the NL, recording a 3.07 ERA with a 2.67 WPA out of the bullpen from 2015-2017. That 2017 season had the look of a breakout campaign, and he was one of just six lefty relievers in baseball to toss at least 50 innings and strike out over 30% of his batters faced. But back and elbow injuries tanked him in 2018, and he finished with 16 earned runs allowed in 16.2 IP. He was placed on the DL twice and was eventually outrighted off the roster in July.
Lyons was never a hard thrower, but it seemed like he was overthrowing pitches last season to try to squeeze every last MPH his left arm had in it. Compare his follow through in these two clips. When he strikes out Stallings, his back leg goes higher and he lands neatly, but he overstrides during his home run to Yelich.
That is the difference between hitting a corner and hanging the meatiest of meatballs.
Despite the injuries, Lyons still finished 2018 with a 22.9% strikeout rate and an 87.6 MPH average exit velocity allowed. Both of those figures were a hair better than the league average, so he may not be too far gone to reclaim, assuming he has recovered from what ailed him last season. A hurt Lyons won’t make the team. A healthy Lyons could.
Gomez is this year’s “well, he hits 95” invitee. And he’s listed at 6’6”, 200 lbs., so he at least has the look of a major league pitcher. Besides that, there isn’t much that stands out in his favor.
His heater has some mustard on it, but it’s pretty flat. His curveball has decent spin, but he has a tendency to hang it. He also has a slider and changeup, but neither looks like a major league pitch.
The Giants used Gomez in nine games the last two years, usually in garbage time. Here’s a peek at one of those outings:
With the way he’s positioned, it’s pretty clear he wants to put his fastball on the catcher’s glove side. Richard Rodriguez’s fastball lived in that part of the zone last season, but he was better at keeping his heaters in the upper-third. Gomez’s stayed over the heart of the plate too often.
If I made this list last year, I probably would have been pretty dismissive of Rodriguez. Now it’s a whale of a false equivalency to compare him to Gomez for that reason alone, but the two have similar stuff and a similar gameplan. That’s probably what drew the Pirates to him.
Maurer has been a perennial underachiever throughout his career, but he was still a serviceable hand with an above average fastball for the San Diego Padres. Then he was traded to Kansas City in July of 2017, and his fastball and results took a nosedive.
The most noticeable change between his fastball last season compared to previous years was his arm slot. It was significantly lower than usual his first three months of the season, but he rose it in late July.
His arm slot started to rise on July 29, and from that point on, his xwOBA allowed against his four seamer dropped to .363. That’s not great, but it’s not too far from average. His overall results improved then too, recording a 3.93 ERA and a 26.7 K% from that date through the rest of the season. His walk rate and FIP were still ugly (15.1%, 5.07), but it was a step in the right direction.
Maurer’s slider is also trending the right way. In 2015, his average spin rate on the pitch was 2,322 RPM. Last season, it was 2,703 RPM, which is in the top 10% in all of baseball. He also started using it more against lefties.
The results were both somewhat mixed (.295 wOBA, .233 xwOBA against righties, .231 wOBA and .299 xwOBA to lefties), but it finished being an average slider. That’s the best it has been in years, and it did play better off an improved fastball in the final two months of the season. If the Pirates can undo whatever Kansas City did to his heater while keeping the extra spin on his slider, then there might be something here.