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Pirates’ Bullpen Hard To Gauge, But Should Be A Strength

In the last five years, three Pirates pitchers have called themselves the closer. How did their bullpens stack up to one another? Melancon photo by Fox Sports. Grilli photo by Keith Allison.

On Tuesday, I showed a comparison of the Opening Day rotations through the last five years, and came to the conclusion that this might be the second best group the Pirates have broke camp with in that time frame. It’s a good read, I promise. Check it out. I can wait.

Even though a bullpen companion piece to go along with the starter story seemed logical, I hesitated on doing it, partly because bullpens are so volatile. Mark Melancon went from hero in 2014, to almost being run out of town in April of 2015, to being remembered as the greatest reliever in baseball when the Pirates traded him at the deadline in 2016. At this pace, he’s going to be MVP in 2017, released in 2018 and become commissioner in 2019. In 2020 he’ll be tried for treason and in 2021 he’ll be sworn in as President.

As is the life of a reliever.

The other reason why I almost skipped the bullpen companion is nobody knows which seven players will make the trip from Bradenton. I feel like I’ve been forecasting this inevitable Antonio Bastardo trade all offseason and I’m going to look like a sucker in a couple weeks when he’s at PNC Park. Whoops.

When the season wrapped up, the only reliever sure to return was Felipe Rivero. Tony Watson and Bastardo were potential trade pieces, forecasters had Jared Hughes and Juan Nicasio as non-tender candidates and the crop of middle relievers seemed expendable. Well, Wade LeBlanc signed, Watson and Bastardo rumors never picked up and Hughes and Nicasio are still here. Mix in the Daniel Hudson signing, a Rule 5 pick, A.J. Schugel and a bunch of kids from the farm, and nobody really knows who is coming north.

Even if we don’t know yet, let’s weigh the potential options and make another five year comparison, starting with that inaugural Shark Tank.

2013 Opening Day:

Closer: Jason Grilli

Set-up: Mark Melancon

Set-up: Tony Watson

Middle: Justin Wilson

Middle: Chris Leroux

Middle: Jared Hughes

Long: Jeanmar Gomez

How’d it go?: Grilli’s jump from set-up man to closer went perfectly, recording 33 saves on 35 chances. Melancon had arguably the best season of his career, logging a 1.39 ERA over 71 innings. When Grilli missed almost six weeks with a forearm injury, Melancon picked up 16 saves as the interim closer.

Watson and Wilson emerged as late inning options who could get both lefties and righties out. Gomez made eight emergency starts and had a 3.35 ERA over 80.2 frames.

After turning heads as a quality junkballer the year before, Hughes struggled in ‘13, recording an ERA just under five and spending an extended chunk of the season in Indianapolis. Leroux was designated for assignment by mid-April after two unpromising outings.

How’d it change?: 20 different pitchers came out of the Pirates’ bullpen at least once in 2013 (if you count Josh Harrison’s daring third of an inning in Colorado). The most notable additions were Vin Mazzaro and Bryan Morris. Both had good ERAs for middle relievers (Mazzaro a 2.81 over 73.2 innings, Morris a 3.46 mark over 65), but Mazzaro’s peripherals were much better, resulting in him being valued at half a win. Morris, on the other hand, had a FIP approaching 5 and was worth -1 fWAR.

Final verdict?: The opening day bullpen was worth 5.2 fWAR. The midseason replacements and emergency starters were valued at -0.5 WAR.

Their 2.89 ERA was the third best in baseball. They had to work 545.2 innings, making them the fourth-most taxed group. Their 87 holds and 79 percent save percentage were both in the top three in the game.

2014 Opening Day:

Closer: Jason Grilli

Set-up: Mark Melancon

Set-up: Tony Watson

Middle: Justin Wilson

Middle: Bryan Morris

Middle: Jeanmar Gomez

Long: Stolmy Pimentel

How’d it go?: The Melancon-Watson one-two punch was established this year. The duo both went over 70 innings, averaging at least a punchout per frame with a sub-2 ERA.

Their efforts made up for a very bad season for Grilli, who lost the closer job to Melancon in June. He was eventually dumped to the Angels for Ernesto Frieri. Morris was also traded midseason after posting comparable figures as the year before. Pimentel struggled out of the bullpen, resulting in a 5.23 ERA in 20 outings.

Gomez had a 3.19 ERA, even if it came with bad peripherals. Wilson took a step back, but a 9.15 K/9 pace was still valuable.

How’d it change?: 10 different pitchers (and one Travis Snider) made an outing from the bullpen, in addition to the seven they broke camp with. Hughes had the most success, logging a 1.96 ERA over 63 outings. John Holdzkom was a nine inning wonder in September and will be fondly remembered as a “what if” among baseball drinking buddies.

Besides those two and cameos from Mazzaro and John Axford, nobody else was worth mentioning. That is, of course, besides Frieri. Frieri is best remembered for starting a beanball series with the Diamondbacks that landed Andrew McCutchen and Paul Goldschmidt on the disabled list. That’s not fair to his legacy. He should be remembered for his 10.13 ERA.

Final verdict?: The opening day bullpen was worth 1.8 fWAR. The replacements were valued at -0.6 wins.

The bullpen could not recapture 2013’s magic, but their 3.28 ERA was still the ninth best in the game. They were used a lot less, only going 485.1 innings, which was 16th overall. A 67 percent success rate on saves was two points lower than the league average, but their 91 holds and 48 saves were both in the 20 percent in all of baseball.

2015 Opening Day:

Closer: Mark Melancon

Set-up: Tony Watson

Set-up: Antonio Bastardo

Middle: Jared Hughes

Middle: Rob Scahill

Middle: Arquimedes Caminero

Long: Radhames Liz

How’d it go?: Melancon overcame a bad April and ended up recording 51 saves. It did come with a dip in his strikeout rate, but his ERA and FIP remained in the 2’s. Watson’s rubber arm was good for a 1.91 ERA over 77 outings. Hughes, Scahill and Bastardo all had ERAs in the 2’s. Caminero fanned 8.8 batters per nine, and while he was inconsistent, he was a fine addition to the middle of the bullpen.

Liz was the only disappointment, losing four games in 14 outings. He was DFA’d twice.

How’d it change?: Remarkably, the Pirates only used 14 relievers in 2015, which is a very low amount. Two of those relievers were Jaff Decker (darn position players are ruining my analysis) and Chris Volstad, who both made one outing.

But the bullpen did improve dramatically at the trade deadline. Neal Huntington picked up Joakim Soria and gave up a decent prospect (Jacoby Jones) to get it done. He proved to be a good seventh inning bridge, fanning 8.45 per nine with an ERA an eyelash above 2. Joe Blanton was picked up for cash and had a 1.57 ERA in 34.1 innings.

Final verdict?: The opening day bullpen was worth 3.4 fWAR. The midseason replacements were worth another 1.4 wins, with Soria and Blanton combining to be worth 1.5 fWAR.

This was arguably the best bullpen in baseball in 2015. Their 2.67 ERA was the lowest. They finished 10th in innings pitched with 522.1 frames. Their 100 holds were good for fourth overall, and their 79 percent save success rate ranked second.

2016 Opening Day:

Closer: Mark Melancon

Set-up: Tony Watson

Set-up: Neftali Feliz

Middle: Kyle Lobstein

Middle: Arquimedes Caminero

Middle: Corey Luebke

Long: Ryan Vogelsong

How’d it go?: Besides Melancon and Feliz, everyone went belly up.

Watson inherited the closer’s job, and while he still had an ERA just over 3 in 70 outings, he allowed 10 home runs and saw his WAR dip below replacement levels. Hughes (who I may as well put here even though he started the year on the DL) also had a low three ERA, but the groundball specialist struggled at keeping inherited runners from scoring, diluting his value. Caminero lost any semblance of control and earned a phantom trip to the DL to try to regain his mechanics. He was eventually traded in August.

Vogelsong ate innings both as a starter and a reliever. Luebke was a feel good story after earning a job in the majors after being injured for years, but a 9.35 ERA and 8.22 FIP killed those warm-fuzzies. Lobstein was ok in 25 innings, but is no longer with the organization.

How’d it change?: 27 players pitched for the Pirates in 2016. The most notable additions were Rivero, who struck out 39 in 27.1 innings, and Nicasio, who fanned over 12 per nine. LeBlanc pitched 12 strong innings to earn a contract this offseason, even if it doesn’t come with a guaranteed roster spot. Schugel’s season was shortened, but 52 innings of 3.63 ERA ball made him a good middle relief candidate for the near future.

Final verdict?: Before I go into the value of the group as a whole, I want to point out that Erik Kratz finished 11th in total WAR for Pirates’ relievers. The AAAA catcher who admitted he threw a knuckleball for fun was more valuable than 16 pitchers.

The opening day bullpen was worth -0.2 fWAR. Only Melancon was above replacement levels. Speaking of replacements, they were worth 1.3 wins.

Their 3.57 ERA was 11th in baseball, and only the Dodgers needed their bullpen more than the Bucs’ 585 innings. Their save percentage clocked in at 71 and they had 89 holds. Both ranked ninth overall.

The 2017 Potential bullpen

So the last four years, the bullpen has been worth somewhere between 1.1 and 4.8 fWAR. A prime Tony Watson would be worth a win and change by himself.

Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projects the Bucs’ bullpen to be worth 2.3 wins, but there a couple notable miscues with their list. The first mistake is they have Tyler Webb, the club’s Rule 5 selection, listed as John Webb. They obviously are about six Brady Dragmire transactions behind if they have him as a member of the 40 man. They’re also omitting Daniel Hudson.

I love BP, but this isn’t their best work. Hudson’s player page on the site has him listed at 0.2 WAR, so without Dragmire, that comes out to 2.7. A very shaky 2.7.

ZiPS is also hard to get a read on. They are really, really high on LeBlanc, expecting him to go 109 innings and make 17 starts. That’s not going to happen. If Wade Matthew LeBlanc makes 17 starts for the Pirates in the year of the Lord 2017, I will eat a Wade LeBlanc baseball card.

So omitting LeBlanc, ZiPS also has the bullpen pegged for 2.7 WAR (Watson 0.9, Nicasio 0.7, Rivero 0.6, Hughes 0.3, Schugel, 0.3, Bastardo 0.2, Webb 0.1, Hudson 0, Neverauskas 0, Light -0.4). What a happy coincidence! I guess it means it will really happen.

The mean of the past four years in just under three wins, so that’s fairly close to average. But then again, are all of those players ever going to suit up for the Bucs?

Coming into spring training, the rotation was pretty much set. The number five spot may have been up for grabs, but there was a clear frontrunner. That isn’t the case for the bullpen. There’s at least one spot up open, and depending on how the room feels about Hughes or if that Bastardo trade ever materializes, it could be three.

There are a lot of wildcards with this bullpen. Will Watson bounce back? Will Hughes have his sinker? Are Rivero and Hudson real late inning options?

At worst, they’ll be average. At best, they could be another top five bullpen. Even though there are a lot of questions to be answered, it looks like the relievers are the safer bet out of this year’s staff. It should be a strength again, but right now, I’d say it’s third out of the past five years.

About Alex Stumpf (66 Articles)
<p>Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.</p>
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