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Near perfection is no match for regression

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PNC PARK – We know one of the salient reasons the Pirates broke the streak, won 94 games, and made the postseason last year was because of a bullpen that was nearly flawless for the first half of the 2013 season. The Pirates began the season 37-0 when leading after eight innings. That’s Rivera like and remarkable. The Pirates’ bullpen didn’t blow a lead when leading after eight innings until Jason Grilli allowed a home run to Jay Bruce in Cincinnati on June 19th.

Before the Pirates came back to win the longest game played in Pittsburgh baseball history on early Thursday morning (5 hours, 55 minutes), the Pirates blew their first eighth-inning-or-later lead on Wednesday, which was of course the second game of the season. Grilli gave up three  hits and a run in an inning of work.

There’s been so much regression talk about the Pirates entering 2014, and Jonah Keri did a good job of framing the issue here.  The most likely area of regression has always been tied to the bullpen. For starters, bullpens are prone to volatility in large part due to small sample sizes. Performance of individual relievers vary wildly year to year. We know this. And  we know the Pirates’ bullpen record in the first half  of last season was simply unsustainable.

But beyond the statistical probabilities, the eye test has also been troubling lately for the back end of the Pirates’ bullpen. Grilli and Mark Melancon have not been the same since the second half of last season and each gave up a run Wednesday. But they also each set their respective bars incredibly high last season.

The good news regarding the pen? The rest of the group combined for eight shutout innings on Wednesday.

If you were ranking Pirates’ relievers by just what we’ve seen this spring and had no knowledge of last season I think it would go something like 1. Justin Wilson 2. Bryan Morris 3. Tony Watson 4. Grilli and 5. Melancon.

Now, the danger of incredibly small sample sizes apply with this subject as they do with anything in April. But if Grilli and Melancon continue to struggle Clint Hurdle will face his first real test: how long does he wait to change roles or get creative with the bullpen?

There’s a danger in reacting too quickly.

But there’s also a danger in becoming a prisoner to history, or to loyalty, or to traditional bullpen roles. The Pirates have other quality arms.

This could be a fascinating decision point. Key word: COULD. We still need to see how this plays out. Grilli looked pretty strong in the Opener as his fastball touched 95 mph, in line with his top-end velo of 2013. And his fastball sat at 93 mph on Wednesday. Melancon was the game’s most dominant setup man, arguably, until September last season.

But what we do know is none of these guys, no bullpen arms are invincible, and more than any player of positional group they are subject to the wrath of regression.

OTHER OBSERVATIONS:

*The first two replay challenges Wednesday took a combined 424 seconds. That’s not going to work.

*Andrew McCutchen threw a one-hop laser to third from about 330 feet deep in CF in the 11th. Arm might have gained another half grade in the offseason. He’s always working to improve.

*Jeanmar Gomez was probably one of the last two players to make the roster. He was hit hard, including the go-ahead home run allowed to Anthony Rizzo.

*Pedro Alvarez looks like the Alvarez of last April thus far. Lot of swing and miss and less-than-competitive at bats.

*Jordy Mercer struggled with a back-hand pick and to scoop a low throw on back-to-back plays. He has to master that back-hand pick.

– TS

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