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The Pirates’ magic number: 3


MILWAUKEE – So many good things have happened for the Pirates this April.


They’ve won 15 games in April for the first time since 1992. (And we know how that season ended: with a winning record, the Pirates’ last season with more wins than losses.)


The Pirates have done all this against some of the National League’s best teams, including winning a road series at St. Louis. And before taking down the Cardinals, the Pirates beat Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in consecutive days. Not bad.

The Pirates have done this with its star, Andrew McCutchen off to a slow start, and Pedro Alvarez often struggling to make contact.



The Pirates have done this despite Jonathan Sanchez being in the rotation and Gerrit Cole still waiting to be a part of it.


There’s reason to believe this team could get, perhaps, should get better. This might not be another April’s fools deal, when small sample sizes can deceive us.


(By the way, this winning is coinciding with my appearance on the beat…coincidence? I think not).


The Pirates are on the brink of entering May in first place in the division in large part due to one of the most effective bullpens in baseball.


The Pirates’ bullpen is second in the National League in bullpen ERA (2.44) and it doesn’t appear to be a fluky number as the Pirates are generating a healthy number of swings and misses. Jason Grilli finally allowed a run but he remains perfect in save situations, setup man Mark Melancon has been stellar. The duo has allowed the Pirates to not miss a step after trading former closer Joel Hanrahan in the offseason.


But there’s a troubling number associated with the bullpen: the unit is second in the National League in innings pitched (93).


Last season the Pirates in part faltered down the stretch because the bullpen was heavily used and eventually faltered. The easy thing to suggest  is the bullpen became exhausted, and maybe that’s true.


But maybe when bullpens sustain inning totals they struggle not because they are tired but because it is the middle relievers that take on the innings when starters fail to produce quality starts, hence a team’s weakest pitchers are taking on more work.


One of the great things about seven quality innings from a starter is that it of course allows  a manager to turn the game over to his setup man and closer. He doesn’t need a bridge to get to his relief aces.


Enjoying quality starts? Then no bridge is required to hand leads to your best bullpen arms. Bridges are dangerous things in baseball. 


As our own Rob Biertempfel noted in his Sunday column, the Pirates are averaging 5.1 innings per start this season, which is tied with the Mets for the lowest in the National League. The MLB average is 5.8 innings per starts.


In 1992, Pirates starters averaged 6.2 innings per start


And while Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton are intriguing back-end rotation options, it’s not as if they can be counted on to produce a heavy volume of innings. Liriano has struggled throughout his career to reach six innings. He strikes out a lot of batters, which is good, but it also racks of pitch counts. (Plus, he also walks a lot of batters).


In short, the Pirates are toeing a dangerous line. They simply need more quality starters.


To get there manager Clint Hurdle has noted there is a magic number that is preached to the staff: 3.


The Pirates want their pitchers to try and record more outs in three pitches or less. They want their pitchers to induce more weak contact. This keeps pitch counts down, starters in the game, and middle relievers out of it. This is something they have preached to Liriano. As good as AJ Burnett has been, he has not been efficient, either.


The Pirates need their pitchers to better adhere to this magic number in order to have another meaningful magic number come September.







  1. JohninOshkosh says:

    Welcome to Wisconsin, Travis.

    The Pirates have historically done poor at Miller Park. Looking for a sweep here. Always important to take care of business against divisional foes.

  2. Travis,

    Excellent article on the most excellent part of the 2013 Pirates thus far——the bullpen.

    However, you base your “Pirates are toeing a dangerous line” on 2/3 of an inning that the Pirate starters are below Major League average?!? 2 outs a game by Pirate starters are what puts the bullpen in jeopardy?!

    A worthless statistic!!!

    How about measuring the frequency of appearances of relief pitchers——that might produce a more useful statistic.

    [By the way, the Pirates did NOT beat Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee in consecutive days as you state above; the Bucs won 3 straight in games in which the aforementioned appeared! Big difference.]

  3. kr70 says:

    Don’t know what you bring to the teams when you pick up a beat, but the fans win.

    I hate the brewers; 1. They have owned the pirates the last couple of years
    2. Ryan Braun is a cheater and got off because of a screw up not because he deserved to.
    3. Did I say they have owned the pirates?
    We have turned the ship around against some good teams I hope we can keep it up against Milwaukee. I hate the brewers.

  4. Keith says:

    [Not really a big difference.]

  5. John Lease says:

    The 3 I want is a 3 game sweep against the Brewers.

    Or at least, 2 out of 3.

  6. Travis Sawchik says:


    The win-loss stat for pitcher can be rather arbitrary, dependent upon run support, etc. My underlying point was this: those aces started three games, and the Pirates won those three game. But I should be more specific.

    I do bet to digger on two-thirds of an inning not being consequential. I think it is quite important. Look at it another way. Two-thirds of an inning over the course of a season is 108 innings, 108 innings from middle relievers. That matters

  7. Travis Sawchik says:

    Thanks. First meal here did include cheese…. Wisconsin cheddar

  8. Travis Sawchik says:

    Thanks, kr70. Further evidence of my magic: Clemson had not won an ACC title since 1991 until i showed up on campus.

    Pirates do have a test here in our nation’s dairy and brewing capital. They get Gallardo tonight and Estrado on Tuesday, two quality arms. Good test. But even if the Pirates only take one game, still an outstanding road trip

  9. Travis Sawchik says:


    a 7-3 road trip? not bad

  10. SJB says:

    Sending pitchers out there with the idea that making contact with their pitches is a better idea than not can easily backfire unless your name is Bob Walk and you are good at getting hitters to ground out. I think Sanchez is a good example of that idea NOT working. I would prefer in most cases a pitcher simply gets ahead in the count and the outs will happen by themselves – maybe not in 3 pitches or less – but the odds of pitch being turned into a base hit or worse are reduced if the pitcher isn’t simply hoping the batter makes contact. Yeah it can reduce the pitch count but who cares if 20 of 80 pitches were hit for base hits or runs.

    A good pitcher should be able to work the count and the batter to his benefit without thinking about 3 pitches or less. Can you imagine a pitcher thinking “Crap, I got a 1-2 count on this guy and he’s swinging at pitches in the dirt but I better give him something to make contact with since this is my 4th pitch and Clint’s giving me the evil eye.”

    Sometimes I think all the gum Clint is chewing is effecting his brain. What ever happened to work fast and throw strikes? You know, the kinda sound pitching logic Ray Miller instilled in his staff.

  11. Travis Sawchik says:


    I don’t think Hurdle is that extremely tied to promoting three pitches or less. There’s a place, a big place, for strikeouts. I think it’s more about trying to get guys thinking more about pitching to contact. He thinks pitchers with swing-and-miss stuff, like AJ Burnett and Liriano, can get caught up in the strikeout out to their detriment.

    Ideally you’d love a high-strikeout AND high-groundball rate pitcher, who misses bats and gets some early-count groundouts. Those guys are hard to find.

    At the end of the day it’s about efficiency, three-pitch strikeouts would be great, too.

  12. RobertoForever says:

    Good stuff as usual Travis.

    And no gotchas here. Just thankful that we have a daily flow of actual information on the Pirates, and thankfully bereft of the usual backhand compliments or just out right put downs of what looks to be a very good squad.

    Thanks again. The time you put into these blog posts is greatly appreciated!

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