The Kansas City Royals pioneered the recent trend towards shutdown bullpens a few years ago. This year, the New York Yankees are attempting to fabricate a historically dominant 7-8-9th inning trio with Dellin Betances-Andrew Miller-Aroldis Chapman.
The Pirates have been following suit in recent years. Last year’s deadline acquisition of Joakim Soria (who didn’t produce as I expected he would) was their most outward-facing attempt to create their own lockdown trio of Soria-Watson-Melancon. The Pirates seem to be moving one step further by attempting to fashion a deep, multi-faceted bullpen that will enable them to minimize potential weaknesses borne out by some of their starters’ splits.
Shown below are the five projected Pirate starters and two separate split charts. The first is that starter’s split by pitch count, in 25 pitch intervals. The second chart is the starter’s splits by the times facing a batter.
Summary: Those two charts are exactly what you want to see from not only your #1 starter, but from a starter that is a true “ace”. Cole gets stronger as he gets deeper into his pitch count, as evidenced by his 511 OPS in the pitch 76-100 tier. Additionally, the more times that a batter faces Cole does not seem to affect him. The 3rd viewing of Cole has not bode well for batters, with just a 630 OPS result.
The Pirates don’t need to worry about using the bullpen too much on Cole’s starts. Probably (hopefully) just Watson-Melancon in the 8th-9th to preserve the win.
Summary: Same concept as with Cole. Liriano is a legitimate #2-level pitcher and the stats bear that out. He also gets stronger as the pitch count progresses. And like with Cole, batters fare worse against him as the game progresses.
Summary: For whatever reason, Niese zones out during the early portion of the game, as you can see his stats show within the pitch 26-50 tier. That 857 OPS that Niese allows during that stretch? That’s the equivalent of every batter replicating Kris Bryant’s 858 OPS from 2015. But once he gets over that early hump, he settles back down to a fairly effective low 700’s in OPS. This trend is also reflected in the times he faces a batter.
Summary: Locke pushes his hump back one tier from Niese’s into the pitch 51-75 range. But before and after that blip, Locke’s OPS allowed are both in the mid-600’s, a stat that Niese did not achieve in any tier last year. As you can see, Locke does not fare well when facing a batter for the 3rd time. These two trends taken in combination tell me that Locke should be a 6 inning pitcher, unless he’s absolutely dominating (which he does once or twice every season). After the 6th inning, let him turn the game over to the firm of Feliz-Watson-Melancon and be done with it. Getting 180’ish innings out of Locke would be fine by me. Not everyone is a 200+ inning workhorse.
Summary: I have Vogelsong here nominally, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if Juan Nicasio was the 5th starter. If Nicasio isn’t the 5th starter, then he should be on stand-by during Vogelsong’s starts. As you can see from the pitch count graph, Vogelsong started and finished poorly in 2015. There’s pretty much no reason for Vogelsong to ever go through a lineup three times, either. The two-headed tandem of Vogelsong-Nicasio need to hold the fort down until mid-to-late June when either Glasnow (changeup refinement, Super 2 Deadline skirting) or Taillon (knocking off two years of rust) are ready to come up to Pittsburgh.
The Pirates bullpen (as of March 9th) may only have one spot open:
- Melancon — closer
- Watson — 8th inning setup
- Feliz — 7th inning
- Caminero — alternate 7th inning
- Hughes — fireman to be used anywhere from 5th to 8th inning, one inning stint
- Nicasio — long man
The only battle I see is if Eric O’Flaherty can impress enough to claim the 2nd lefty spot in the bullpen. The Pirates don’t believe in LOOGY pitchers (nor should they), but O’Flaherty does have a career split against lefties and righties — 549 OPS versus LHB, 751 versus RHB — which may factor into his selection. Rob Scahill would most likely be the 7th man in the bullpen if O’Flaherty can not deliver.
In a perfect world, the Pirates would be able to cycle through 2-3 bullpen guys on the lower rungs by having a deep roster at the Major League level and AAA level with options. That way when a pitcher starts to lose steam, he can be optioned down to Indy for a few weeks and a more viable replacement can spell him in Pittsburgh. This is a trend that the Dodgers are trying to pioneer with having incredible depth in their pitching staff. The Pirates recognize the limitations of their #3 to #5 pitchers, as well, so hopefully we will see them utilized in a proper fashion with more bullpen games if needed.