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.