On one of my first days on the Pirates’ beat back in 2015, one of the reporters in the room asked Clint Hurdle about Mark Melancon adjusting to losing a little zip on his cutter. I don’t have the exact date or quote — and I am pretty sure I lost the interview when my old phone purged all my photos and audio files a year ago — but I remember his (paraphrased) response: do you want to go gun chasing, or do you want results?
Melancon’s 2015 was the best one ever by a Pirates closer. An extra mile per hour or two on the gun did not matter.
Despite Hurdle’s sentiments from that day, the Pirates have been gun chasing when bringing in new relievers. The mindset is that a 98 MPH mistake is a lot harder to hit than a 92 MPH one. Sometimes it works, like Neftali Feliz and 2015 Arquimedes Caminero. Other times it doesn’t, like Radhames Liz or 2016 Arquimedes Caminero.
For the most part, the strategy was successful. The Pirates were throwing harder and more often than the rest of the league, and for years they did at least better than average. This year they revved up the fastball usage even more, but the results have not been there. To make matters worse, the league has almost caught up to them in terms of velocity. But hey, why take my word for it when you can see for yourself in this chart I made in Excel.
Chart don’t lie.
With the exception of Tony Watson, this year’s bullpen is completely different than the one they opened the season with last year, with most of those changes catering to guys who can turn heads when reading the radar.
Daniel Hudson, one of the team’s hardest throwers, is having one of the worst seasons in the bullpen, while Wade LeBlanc (a pie tosser by comparison) might be the Pirates’ hottest reliever. Hudson is throwing the ol’ number one 69 percent of the time. LeBlanc offers it on 36.4 percent of his pitches.
If you read Jeff Passan’s brilliant book “The Arm,” odds are you were relieved that Hudson got his happily ever after when he signed with the Bucs this offseason. The heartbreaking detail Passan goes into as Hudson recovered from a second Tommy John after the first one didn’t take makes you feel like you were there watching him play MLB the Show or taking out the garbage. Like you just want to give him and Todd Coffey a hug and tell them that it’s all OK.
It has been a little harder to root for him the past couple outings. Over the course of a week, he almost blew a three run lead against the Cubs, was torched in Miami to end any hopes for a comeback and took a loss in Cincinnati because of a throwing error. Granted he only has allowed one “barrel” on the year, and has an average exit velocity of 81.4 MPH (the league average is 87), but a 9.28 ERA isn’t going to cut it.
It’s OK to get frustrated. He’s frustrated too.
Can’t even throw the f***ing thing to 1st. Teammates deserve better. Coaches deserve better. Fans deserve better. I’ll be better
— Daniel Hudson (@DHuddy41) May 2, 2017
Hudson entered the year as a surefire lock for the back of the bullpen and most likely the second in command to inherit the closer’s job if Tony Watson was hurt, traded or struggled. Three bad outings is probably just a slump, but back end of the bullpen guys do not get to slump too often before they’re demoted, make a phantom trip to the DL or get cut loose. He still has leeway for now, but three more bad outings in a row and he might be a fifth or sixth inning guy.
But I shouldn’t be so mean to the fifth or sixth inning guy. After all, LeBlanc has been the biggest surprise in the bullpen. Over his last eight outings, he has allowed just two runs and an .813 WHIP over 16 innings. Just like we all expected.
It is probably still a little too early to take this any more seriously than “LeBlanc is hot, Hudson is not.” LeBlanc is not going to inherit the seventh or eighth inning job anytime soon. His ability to eat innings in a mass quantity is something a lot of other relievers on the 40-man cannot offer. He can save a lot of arms by piggybacking with Tyler Glasnow or Chad Kuhl on some of their shorter outings.
Hudson has been streaky before. If you take away June 20 to Aug. 2 last year, his ERA is well below 2. Those other six weeks he surrendered 26 earned runs over 9.2 innings, and his ERA ended over 5. This might just be his bad streak.
On the other hand, the heater is not doing so hot across baseball right now. In 2012, relievers’ fastballs in the entire game were weighted at 172.5 (wFB). After small drops in 2013 and 2014, it tanked to -26.5 in 2015. Last year it rebounded back to 64.8, but even that was only about half of the glory days. One month into the season, it’s at 2.3. At this pace it’s not going to crack 20.
As for Hudson, he’s seen his velocity take a dip from 95.7 to 94.9 MPH this year. He’s also gone from throwing 95+ 28.8 percent of the time to just 25. There lies the trouble with gun chasing: it does not last forever. Again, this might be just a blip for Hudson, but you are not going to notice red flags if you’re wearing rose-tint colored glasses because of what he can or could throw.
Of course there are guys like Felipe Rivero and Tony Watson, who both have succeeded as late inning relievers partially because they have more than their fair share of giddy-up on their fastballs. Speed will always have a spot in the game, especially in this day of age where Statcast can tell us which player throws the filthiest sliders with two strikes and who took the most direct route from the shower to the toilet.
But the Pirates strategy of trusting big arms to automatically fit into the bullpen might be in the early steps of becoming outdated.