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Near perfection is no match for regression


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.


*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



  1. Ghost says:

    Regarding Grilli and Melancon, I think you hit it just about right. Since the wick burns brighter but burns out quicker with relievers, and since both of those guys were not the same by the end of last year, close scrutiny is in order. Nobody’s saying it’s time for the hook. Certainly not two games into the season. But Clint Hurdle has to figure out what’s what; we observers get to scrutinize and start up all the barstool debates we want.

    Don’t have a problem with the replay challenges, though. 424 seconds (otherwise known as seven minutes) is a small price to pay — practically nothing, really — in a three-hour game, let along a six-hour game. Baseball is nothing if not a game of delays. Managers should, indeed, have a way to appeal a controversial call or two so that it’s gotten right.

  2. DocErie says:

    Spot-on analysis.

  3. Amarillo Fats says:

    I was listening to a talk-show on CBS Sports Radio, and the host said if a review can’t be completed in 2 minutes or less, then it’s not conclusive enough to overturn, and should be upheld. He was talking about College Basketball, but it could apply here, as well.

    Of course, the cynic in me would say the umps would just lollygag for 2 minutes on each review and uphold the original call, if they put that stipulation in place.

  4. NorthPirateFan says:

    All the things we worried about in the off season have manifest very early in the season and should be cause for concern. The relief pitching yeah, but the inflexibility of the roster the Pirates’ saddled themselves with was also readily apparent as the game wore on as which Ishikawa and Snider starting Hurdle had no left handed option available to him as situation after situation dictating the need for one presented themselves.

    Honestly, why is Clint Barmes on this team and wasting a roster spot? So he can run and play 1B? Goodness gracious! Any of the left handed hitters the Pirates had in camp from Dickerson to Lambo would be a better use of his spot and that’s already apparent.

  5. Nate83 says:

    Lambo will be up soon enough. The league is full of Clint Barmes type players and for the most part they are actually worse then him. There are only a handful of good offensive shortstops in the league. It is hard enough for any team to have one all around good shortstop on their team. Your second guy is almost always a defense first utility player. Barmes fits the role perfectly in my opinion. Look at the other rosters around the league and find a backup infielder that is more then marginally better then Barmes. There are not many of them.

  6. FlBucco says:

    Two games does not a season make – but I think the Pirates need to begin working a third arm into the close out rotation – they have the depth to do so. Watson, Wilson or the new Morris are all good options. Too soon to give up on Grilli and Melancon – but keeping their innings down during the first half would seem wise.

    Everyone talks about the cost of Super two status – but what we are seeing is the other side of that cost. Does anyone doubt that we would be better served with Polanco starting – Tabata as a bench bat and versatile number 4 – Snider as the LH first base option and Ishikawa and Barmes replaced by major league hitters.

    The lack of offense will take it’s toll eventually…

    The good news is that they got two great starts and an awesome relief job out of Pimentel.

  7. Steelkings says:

    SK’s Starting 9

    Leading off:
    Truly amazing game we humans have invented. Pirates are alone with the division lead @2 – 0 and have only scored 3 runs in 18 regulation innings. And one of those was a gift from Starling Castro.

    Batting 2nd
    The reason not to worry about the offense comes from these facts. In two games.
    McCutchen – 1 for 7
    Martin – 1 for 10
    Walker 2 for 10
    Alvarez 1 for 11
    That wont continue for long

    Batting third
    The reason the Pirates are not 0-2 is because Castro (0 for 9) and Rizzo (1 for 9) and Castillo (1 for 10) are the players who follow Bonifacio (9 for 12) then Valbuena (3 for 6 W/3 BB’s)

    Batting 4th
    Replay challenges are going to get middle infielders hurt. They are going to have to stay on the bag longer and they are going to take some licks.

    Batting 5th
    Last year- Cubs manager comes out of the dugout to argue the location play by the shortstop, Umps over turn it, Hurdle goes ballistic.
    This year- Cubs manager comes out of the dugout to argue the location play by the shortstop, Umps over turn it using video, …Crickets…..

    Batting 6th:
    Sometimes hitters get on a roll. Grilli didnt walk guys. His control was ok and his Ve-Lo was good. He simply faced the 3 hottest Cub hitters, thats all. Bonifacio, Valbuena and Lake. Grilli wont face many teams with three guys coming to the plate on a .800 roll, a .540 roll and a .400 roll. Grilli will be fine.

    Batting 7th:
    Pirates have 2 days off in the month of April. Next Monday and then again on the 28th. With rain likely today and tomorrow. And possible rain outs involving teams that are are on the schedule both sides of the open dates, the Pirates could be in for a stretch of 24 games in 24 days. If not worse.

    Batting 8th:
    Just when the Cubs thought they were done with the Pirates, they get to face AJ Burnett in their home opener Friday.

    Batting 9th:
    The way Russell Martin went after Bob Davidson after flying out in the 9th would have certainly gotten him ejected if it were later in the season. As much as the Umpires are taking it on the chin with replay challenges, it was still nice to see those professionals understand that players are amped up in the early going and let that type of behavior go.

  8. Skip says:

    Completely agree

  9. Skip says:

    Completely agree with Nate regarding Barmes, by the way.

  10. Steelkings says:

    Barmes wouldn’t have made the error that Mercer made.

  11. Steelkings says:

    Lambo will be up soon enough.

    I dont think so. Not unless someone gets hurt or Travis I falls apart. It certainly wont be for Barmes.

    SPEAKING OF WHICH: Whats up with Gaby? Something happened last night that raised an eyebrow. In the 12th Barmes came in to run for Travis I. Gaby later that same 1/2 inning hit for Gomez. After that 1/2 inning, Barmes (who has never played there) Not Gaby, stayed in the game to play 1st base. Barmes to 1st and Gaby to the bench? Weird huh?

  12. Alan Paul says:

    It was indeed bizarre that Barmes stayed in to play first instead of Gaby. And impacted the game as later at bats testified.

    Ish had some good ABs and a key walk so cut him some slack for now.

  13. Nate83 says:

    Good rundown Steel, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Agree with you on Grilli, I’m less concerned about him then I am about Melancon. I do think it’s worth monitoring and that the Pirates have other good options if the backend of the bullpen performance does start to go south quickly.

    Regarding the middle infielders my understanding is that the neighborhood play is not reviewable. If it was a better throw from Walker he could have done the exact same thing and it wouldn’t have been reviewable. It was deemed that the throw was errant and that is why he wasn’t on the bag instead of him doing it for his safety. For what it’s worth Rizzo ended up sliding 3 feet to the right of the bag which MLB has to get rid of. I have no problem with hard slides it’s part of the game but completely missing the bag in an attempt to break up a play is dangerous and clearly outside of the rules of the game.

  14. Leo Walter says:

    Might I share this thought with you Steel : Davidson is lucky he didn’t have more than one player on him. He was absolutelhorrible last night, and of her continues, someone ought to seriously discuss retirement with him. I was surprised that Rizzo for one,didn’t get vocal with him.

  15. Leo Walter says:

    That should have read ” absolutely horrible “. Sorry

  16. Keith says:

    That was a result of the batting order. Gaby batted last before the next inning started, leaving Barmes’ spot open to hit soon. There were no remaining pinch-hitters, save Tony Sanchez, so Barmes had to go back out.

  17. Andrew says:

    Concerning Mercer’s defense excellent piece from Fangraphs.

  18. Andrew says:

    Good Stuff Steel,

    4th: This is why the neighborhood play as not supposes to be reviewable, I like replay but if you are allowed to challenge individual elements of non-challenge plays this is the debacle of the system the NHL has.

    6th: Agree on Grilli, of the Pirates bullpen last year only Grilli and Melancon had BABIP anywhere near league average and the strikeout and walks numbers to justify their strand rates.

    Leo completely agree on Davidson, if an umpire is immediately recognizable and a household name it is not a good thing.

  19. NorthPirateFan says:

    So what, that error like the vast majority of others any shortstop commits didn’t have any impact at all on the outcome of the game.

    On the flip side, what’s the likelihood Barmes gets two hits, a walk and drives in the run Mercer did?

    I absolutely guarantee what the number of games Mercer commits an error that leads to a run in will be a fraction of the number of runs he’ll contribute with the bat that Barmes is utterly incapable of contributing.

  20. NorthPirateFan says:

    Yeah, we were at the game last night until the 9th inning and there was a lot of grumbling about Davidson that I chalked up to homer bias …

    Then finished watching innings 12 on on TV at home and holy cow! that was some of the worst umpiring behind the plate I’ve ever seen.

  21. NorthPirateFan says:

    Here’s the problem with all the arguments concerning the supposed defensive prowess of certain Pirates players including Barmes: The Pirates and their friends in the media have been making a big deal for well over a year now about the use of shifts, unorthodox defensive alignments and position which are being managed from the dugout as what’s responsible for the defensive advantage the Pirates had last year …

    So which is it now? Barmes and every other Pirate starter in the field is a defensive superstar because of their individual talent …

    OR is the defensive approach being employed by the team resulting in the great defense?

    Seems to me that if the team plan is as great as advertised and producing the results, any reasonably talented player should be able reap the same benefits from being positioned properly as any other.

  22. brendan says:

    Barmes had a history of being an elite defender well before he arrived in Pittsburgh and/or was deployed in a shift.

  23. Andrew says:

    “Mercer’s comment on positioning is especially pertinent. The number of balls he and Barmes get to aren’t solely a product of their individual skills. SABR president Vince Gennaro addressed the subject in a more general sense at last month’s SABR Analytics Conference: Does having better data on positioning reduce the premium we put on a fielder’s range and increase the premium we put on sure-handedness? In the opinion of ESPN’s Jon Sciambi, the answer is probably yes. Sciambi pointed to the Pirates infield as an example, saying last year’s team had three guys with average to below-average range — Barmes being the exception — yet played plus defense.”

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