The Pittsburgh Pirates are building a dynamic bullpen for 2017.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have put a renewed emphasis on their bullpen for 2017. One of the club’s biggest strengths in their 98-win 2015 season, the relief corps struggled out of the gate in 2016, putting the club behind the eight-ball early, especially when coupled with poor starting pitching.
Credit Neal Huntington for recognizing that he would need to put considerable resources towards re-building the unit. Now, should he and manager Clint Hurdle continue to tinker and embrace what may be a hot new trend in baseball?
Andrew Miller and The Case for ‘Bullpenning’
‘Bullpenning‘ may not be a new term for baseball observers, but through the Cleveland Indians’ use of Andrew Miller, it is in the forefront of many’s minds.
The Indians paid a hefty price to get Miller, and got the most out of their investment by using him in a variety of situations and innings. This usage was in place long before Miller added folklore hero to his resume by way of his virtuoso and varied performances in the postseason. On more than one occasion, Indians manager Terry Francona has stated the Miller’s role in his bullpen was to “get outs when we need them.” And that’s exactly what happened, with Francona deploying Miller at differing times in a game, often for multiple innings.
A refreshing outlook to be sure. Especially when compared to Clint Hurdle’s more-or-less rigid late-inning relief structure.
Do the Pittsburgh Pirates have a workhorse like Miller in their bullpen? And if they do, will they actually use him in such a way? Let’s run through a few candidates.
The New Guy
Daniel Hudson turned the Pittsburgh Pirates’ heads for several reasons. He regained velocity after two Tommy John surgeries. He developed a solid three-pitch mix, tossing aside what he might not need as a reliever. He put up pretty good advanced peripherals, including a 3.81 FIP belied his bloated 5.22 ERA on a bad Arizona Diamondbacks team.
Perhaps most importantly, he showed that he could be used as a reliable bullpen arm, after spending his pre-surgery days as a starting pitcher. He tallied 134 total appearances over the last two seasons, showing his injury woes may be fully behind him.
With Tony Watson presumably ensconced in the closer’s role, Hurdle may be tempted to get the most out of Hudson by shuffling his role around and utilizing him in different spots. It would be a bit of an adjustment for Hudson, who entered a game no earlier than the seventh inning last season.
If anyone can make the adjustment, however, it could be Hudson. He took to a bullpen role with relative ease in 2015, finding a new strikeout ability. In his previous life, Hudson’s career high for K/9 for a season was 8.0 back in 2010. That number has shot up to 9.1 since becoming a full-time reliever.
For Hudson to assume a Miller-like role, however, he may have to become accustomed to pitching multiple innings. Out of Hudson’s 70 appearances in 2016, only twice did he record more than three outs.
The Other Former Starter Guy
Juan Nicasio‘s performance in Spring Training last year demanded that the Pittsburgh Pirates give him a shot as a starter. That was absolutely the right call at the time, and so was the decision to move him back to the bullpen.
Since that move on June 24th, Nicasio excelled in his new role.
Table courtesy of baseball-reference
The eyes are drawn almost immediately to Nicasio’s strikeout-per-nine ratio, which saw a full three-strikeout jump as a reliever. But perhaps better indicators of his future role come from two other numbers: home runs and innings pitched.
First, the obvious. Any legitimate major league reliever must keep the ball in the ballpark, and Nicasio did a fine job of that, giving up seven less home runs in roughly the same amount of innings. Speaking of those innings, hurling 55.2 of them across 40 reliever appearances shows great versatility.
When reviewing Nicasio’s game logs from last season, I was struck by this four-game stretch in particular:
In this cross-section of outings, Nicasio handed a wide-variety of situations. He came in during what some would consider garbage time and got through an inning quickly. For his next trick, he went three innings in a hard-fought win. Two days later he threw another pair of innings, and then came in during important innings two days after that.
To be sure, the quick 17 pitch inning on July 16th helped him over the next three outings, and giving up an earned run in two out of the four outings is a slight blemish, but Nicasio still compiled eight innings on 143 pitches over seven calendar days.
His former days as a starter coupled with a pared-down pitch selection might leave Nicasio well-suited for stretches such as these. There will still need to be a change in thinking – Hurdle may still feel Nicasio is better suited as a “go to” guy when things aren’t going so well rather than a weapon to be deployed – but Nicasio certainly has the tools to handle a Miller-like workload.
On the other hand, he is a right-hander.
The Left Handed Guy
Before I go into why that matters, I have to give a nod to David Todd, ESPN Pittsburgh Radio host. and fantastic twitter follow if you like to talk baseball.
Pirates Breakdown ran a large variety of polls on Twitter today to let fans chime in on what they might think the Pittsburgh Pirates 2017 season will unfold. One of those questions speculated what might happen with the closer position. David’s reply sparked some new thoughts on Rivero’s usage.
Being a left-hander would give Rivero the leg up on taking over a Miller-like role.
That is not just because Miller is also left-handed, but because of the possibilities that a southpaw can bring to a “do everything” type of bullpen role. A former left-handed starter, Rivero had a very interesting cross-section of outings in his two seasons in the majors:
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Diving further into the breakdown shows that Rivero is equally adept at variety of situations:
- He gave up just two earned runs across his 17 multiple-inning appearances in 2016.
- In his longest appearance of the year – against the Pittsburgh Pirates in that marathon game on July 17 – Rivero handled three innings on 45 pitches, striking out three to go along with three groundouts.
- He pitched 0.1 innings – one batter – in seven appearances in 2016 and struck out five of the seven.
Getting back to the left-handed factor, bringing a left-hander in a situational setting and then allowing him to start the next inning creates an ideal usage-case for bullpenning. It combines the time-tested and true method of playing matchups in late innings while then getting the most out of your best pitchers.
Rivero’s swing-and-miss ability, along with his handedness, makes him a natural fit to this type of bullpen role.
The Pittsburgh Pirates do not necessarily have to fully embrace the concept of ‘bullpenning,’ but recognizing the differing methods in which they can deploy their best weapons should be at the top of their priorities list for 2017.