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Up in smoke

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SOUTH HILLS – So you’ve probably heard bullpens are prone to volatility from year-to-year more than any other position group in baseball. This is in large part due to small sample-size, but you also see more max-effort pitching deliveries out of the bullpen, which leads to more stress, which leads to more injuries and performance drops. We knew it would be about impossible for the Pirates’ bullpen to be as good as it was a year ago, because it was nearly perfect for the first four months of the season. We knew there would be decline — but this is ridiculous. 

Last season, the Pirates led the NL in save percentage at 79 percent, and were second in baseball, trailing only Texas. The Pirates had 55 saves as a staff and blew 15 save opportunities.

Through five weeks of this season, the Pirates are last in baseball with a save percentage of 36 percent. 36 percent!!!!!!!!

The Pirates have five saves in 2014. They’ve already blown nine saves.

There are a number of culprits behind the 13-20 start but the bullpen blowups have been incredibly damaging and have been most dramatic. If the Pirates had last year’s save percentage they would be 19-14. Blogger extraordinaire Pat Lackey documented the devastating swings in win expectancy last night, win expectancy is the percentage odds a team has of winning at any point point in the game due to score margin and outs remaining:

 

 

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Will the Pirates be able to put out this fire?

 

What’s perplexing is a many of the underlying skill levels of the Pirates’ relievers has improved.

*Mark Melancon doesn’t seem to be the same Mark Melancon of April-August last year. It seems bleeding groundballs through the right-side of the infield have become a chronic problem. But, really, Melancon is nearly as dominant as he was a year ago. He has a 1.80 ERA (1.39 ERA last season). He has a 66.7 GB rate (up from 60.3 percent last season). He has a 0.60 walk rate (down from 1.01 last season). His line-drive rate of 13.3 is down from 24 percent from last season and he hasn’t allowed a home run in more than a year. His cutter is still cutting at 92 mph. Yet, he blew a save last night off a couple bleeders to the right side and a bloop hit to right.

*Tony Watson is more dominant than he was a year ago as his K rate has nearly doubled early on (11.5) while sustaining a low walk rate (1.93).

*Bryan Morris struggled last night but his stuff is much improved and so are his underlying numbers.

So, some of this is bad luck.

Yes, the Pirates miss the 2013 first-half version of Jason Grilli and who knows if that guy will return. Grilli threw for a third time off flat ground Monday and told me he felt good afterward. He was in good spirits. Yes, Justin Wilson has regressed but he’s still throwing in the mid 90s.

The silverish lining is this: the skill level of the majority of the bullpen is either the same or improved over last season.

We can question manager useage of the bullpen at times – why not Melancon for two innings last night? – but Hurdle is stringent in monitoring workloads of relievers and it was effective last season.

Take comfort in this Pirate fans: it can’t get any worse and when you look at bullpen performance and BABIP to date, the Pirates have been one of the unluckiest teams in baseball. To me,  despite the bullpen blowups, the biggest concern going forward is the quality and depth of the starting pitching… but the bullpen has conspired to place the Pirates in a deep hole five weeks into the season. Can they help dig them out?

- TS

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Comments

  1. Jim S. says:

    I agree on the bullpen, Travis. Melancon just had some tweeners last night. I’m not saying he pitched great, but an “at ‘em” ball or two would have helped – kind of like SF got time after late in the game. I think Melancon has mostly pitched great this year.

    Something seems off about Wilson to me. The velocity seems ok, but maybe he is leaving pitches in the heart of the strike zone too often? Wild in the zone is not a good thing. I’m not sure if that is the case for him, but he is getting hit harder than last year. I think he’ll snap back, though.

    Watson has been mostly great as well, although last night he was not great out of the gate. His 2nd inning was much better.

    Morris stunk last night, but he has improved over last year. Jeanmar finally pitched well last night. Hughes doesn’t do anything for me. Something always seems to go wrong for him when I am watching. He didn’t even get knocked around last night very much. Guys just seem to find a way on base vs. him. He didn’t pick up a bunt from a chubby pitcher and make a throw, and it cost us the game.

    Our biggest issue is the starting pitching, and I don’t feel very confident that it will be turned around. Liriano is not pitching well, and at this point, with his spotty history, I am not going to just assume he will turn things around. He might do that, but I’m not confident now.

    Volquez has done reasonably well, although he seems to be trending in the wrong direction. Cole has been anything but consistent. Morton seems to be doing well, then has a costly blow-up inning just about every start. Wandy was a disaster in almost every start. Locke had 2 bad innings last night.

    I am generally not a big excuse maker. But, going hand-in-hand with the bad pitching, I also think this team might be catching a lot of tough luck. SF hit about 10 balls last night that were more well placed than well struck. That seems to be happening a lot, and teams also seem to be clustering hits against us most nights. I am not excusing the bad pitching, just looking for a little silver lining.

  2. Jim S. says:

    Qeustion about those blown saves, Travis? Were some of them prior to the 9th? Since the 2 inning save is pretty a thing of the past, why don’t they just count blown saves in the last inning? Is there such a thing as a blown hold?

  3. Travis Sawchik says:

    Jim,

    Good question. There’s no such thing as a blown hold, I don’t believe. A blown save does not have to occur in the ninth inning.

  4. Andrew says:

    I was following the discussion between Pat Lackey and couple others last night, apparently there is a stat developed to replicate saves and holds, named shutdowns and meltdowns.

    Pirates relievers: Shutdowns – Meltdowns
    2013: 136 – 53
    2014: 29 – 16

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/shutdowns-meltdowns/

  5. Jim S. says:

    Definitely not going as well as last year, % wise, Andrew.

    Looks like about 72% for last year vs. a little over 64% this year.

  6. Botherhood of the Redus says:

    Jim…the walk Hughes issued last night can’t happen. He was not nibbling and it was not the time to do so. Up until that at-bat he had thrown aggressively, which if we have to suffer watching him stomp around he best be pitching to match it, however he simply got his motion out of synch momentarily, and when it’s lost he’s shot.

  7. Jim S. says:

    Redus,

    Sometimes Hughes looks kind of nasty to hit against. He really pounds the ball down in the zone well at times. But, I don’t feel like he is ever going to give us a clean inning when I see him pitching. Lots of baserunners when I am watching him.

  8. Andrew says:

    Jim, I agree (and with Travis), the starting pitching is the biggest problem. My take is the defensive lapses and bullpen meltdowns are what is seen and become more visible when you are getting bad starting pitching. Each defensive play and bullpen inning become more important and this is what is remembered.

    The fielding is not without fault but every team commits errors, when you have the worst starting pitching in the league the issues start there. More walks and more balls in play mean more opportunities for lapses, and by both FIP and xFIP the Pirates’ pitching is last in the NL.

  9. Chuck H says:

    Last night’s loss was inexcusable. First, the fact that the Bucs had a 6 run lead, and second, the home team SHOULD
    always win in extra innings. Any team that can score 10 runs in 9 innings and then cannot score 1 run to win is a habitual loser. The Giants know how to win, as their record shows and the Pirates’ pitching staff, outside of Cole is a disaster. They certainly gave Locke enough run support to win, but the relievers couldn’t hold on. This whole team has turned into a losing team like the Cubbies, and I give the Cubbies a better chance of going up. GO, STEELERS!!!

  10. Jim S. says:

    You must have slept through the last couple of Steelers seasons, Chuck. They looked a lot like the Pirates this year – blowing leads, poor defense.

  11. Nate83 says:

    He must have missed the Giants last season as well. Which was primarily the same team and played like this years Pirates. Baseball is crazy and Travis did a good job above of showing why. Last year put in the same positions as this year the bullpen would have only lost 2 or 3 of these games. AJ Burnett leaving did not suddenly turn these guys into habitual losers.

  12. JoeBucco says:

    Last year, the starting pitching was winning games on their own, and sure, the bullpen was rock solid as well. But at this time last year, the talk was about how the starting pitching can’t hold up and this team needs to start scoring runs. This year, we’re just not getting the starting pitching. Liriano hasn’t been here yet this year, but again, he wasn’t here (literally) at this time last year either. So I’ll give him time. Wandy has been terrible and very well may never be good again. Charlie has been disappointing as I think we all expected big things out of him this year, and it hasn’t really clicked just yet. He needs to get on a roll and lead this staff.

    Cole has been good not spectacular, and Volquez has been better than expected though not great. Cumpton has been as solid as we could ask. Locke was in mid-season form last night, but his mid-season form is not what we need. A.J. surely has been missed this year, but what we really need are guys in the rotation to get on a “top the guy before you” kind of roll that we saw last year a lot.

    This season is going to be determined by nothing more than how well Liriano, Cole, and Morton step up. If they don’t, it will be a long and disappointing season.

  13. I agree. Starting pitching is the biggest culprit, followed by the defense. The Pirates have now gone 8 straight games without the starting pitcher making it through 6 innings. As for the defense, Pirate starters aren’t getting the K’s like they were last year so they can’t bail the team out when there are defensive miscues. the rotation’s K/9 is down 1 whole strike out per game from last season. So you get the double whammy of a lot of balls in play and inability to get a big K when you have to have it. But the defense is problematic too. A lot of big innings in the past week where the defense really hurt them. The twin bill in Baltimore the defense really killed them.

  14. JoeBucco says:

    I agree with this one completely. I just see Hughes being one of the building blocks of this pen. He scares me every time he comes into the game.

    And if I could make one other switch, I’d prefer Watson close games out right now and keep Melancon in the 8th inning.

  15. Jim S. says:

    That’s an interesting thought (Melancon 8th & Watson 9th), JoeBucco. I’m not sure it matters to me so much, as either inning can be more important on a given night depending on where the other team’s lineup falls. I think if I were the Manager, I’d be more inclined to tell at least 2 guys, & maybe 3, that they could pitch either the 7-8-9 inning any night. But, no one seems to do that, so maybe it wouldn’t work.

  16. Jim S. says:

    Good posts, Andrew and HiddenV.

  17. While AJ leaving didn’t turn them into habitual losers, there is something missing from this team. Call it timing, confidence, swagger, killer instinct, chemistry…whatever “IT” is it is missing. At points last year this team just plain expected they would win. As much as AJ wasn’t the “be all, end all”, he did take the field thinking he that he would succeed and carry the other 8 guys with him if need be. That type of attitude can be infectious to a clubhouse in both good and bad ways (see episodes with Clint Barmes and/or Hurdle), but that attitude is not showing up (yet) this year. Maybe it will? But as the calendar rolls on into May and the losses keep mounting, maybe the Pirates aren’t the “unluckiest” team in baseball, but simply a team that is just not as good as the should be.
    I’m pretty sure swapping GI Jones with Ike Davis isn’t what’s troubling this team.

  18. Jim S. says:

    That sure is the national media narrative, though. AJ left and now we have a “leadership void.”

    He was a good pitcher who a lot of us wanted them to resign. He has continued to pitch well so far this year. But, he was not going to make a 12-20 team into a good one. He has not made Liriano pitch poorly. He has not made Cole regress in most starts. He has not made Charlie Morton struggle far too often. He didn’t make Wandy fall apart.

    Every time I hear the Pirates brought up on MLB Network, the discussion immediately goes to AJ being gone as the culprit for the lousy start. So predictable.

  19. Chuck H says:

    I think the Pirates are wasting their time, waiting for Morton to become a dependable starting pitcher. He has never shown too much promise. As well with Locke, who started last season with a bang and later exploded into a permanent minor league pitcher. Just stating facts, Mr.& Mrs. sports fans. The Steelers had a bad start last season but bounced back very nicely. Do you still think this bunch of auto outs, when they need hits, can bounce back???

  20. It’s essentially the same team from last year minus Jones and AJ, but the results are vastly different. Baseball is a funny game sometimes…
    And I haven’t seen one case of the national media talking about the Pirates, let alone AJ + the Pirates. I don’t watch enough ESPN, MLBnetwork or whatever.

  21. Brotherhood of the Redus says:

    Morton had spun a nice game up until the rain delayed his start…that was unfortunate and fit right in with the type of nonsense that’s happened so far this season.

  22. Steelkings says:

    That will teach ya…..Polanco is playing hard ball with the Rates.

  23. Steelkings says:

    WTH, Seriously? Did the BMTIB think that Gregory Polanco was stupid? 7 years for 25 million with 3 club options at the end?

  24. Chuck H says:

    Does Hurdle not want to win? McCutchen gets a single, but does Pedro bunt him up into scoring position? Does Pedro even know how to bunt? I call that bad managing. A shame to waste that excellent effort by Morton. He made a liar out of me because I said that he doesn’t have talent. Now if he can just continue to pitch like that it will be just dandy.

  25. dennis g. says:

    I’m not sure exactly how the system works for young players but isn’t Polanco now going to get 3 years at $500K per, during which he may be exposed as another Travis Snyder or worse yet, become injury prone or worse? It was certainly worth the effort on the Bucs part. Was not the universal response to the Tabata signing a criticism of his agent for letting him sign such a paltry contract and now it appears as if the Pirates cannot even trade him because of it? The future is unknowable and a potential $50 million sounds like something to consider. How much money does one need after all?

  26. dennis g. says:

    Clint may be the most ingratiating guy in the world but when it comes to strategy he is dumb as an ox. Why would Cutch not be stealing in that situation? If memory serves your question about Pedro knowing how to bunt has already been answered in the negative. He has had 1 sacrifice in four or so seasons with the Pirates and zero in 234 minor league games. The entire team sucks at bunting but it seems to be one of Clint’s favorite strategies.

  27. bradthedad says:

    Going through one of those streaks where nothing comes easy. Watson didn’t give up a run last night in his inning but labored through 30 pitches.

  28. Leo Walter says:

    Jim,why not finally give in to more of a defensive shift to the right side when Melancon is in the game ? I thought that after Holliday and the Cardinals went to that offensive strategy to the Pirates last season. It certainly would go against conventional thinking about right handed hitters,but doesn’t the shift sort of do that anyway ?

  29. Leo Walter says:

    Rick,read Nate83′s comment just prior to your’s. Baseball is consistently inconsistent.

  30. Leo Walter says:

    Teach ya what ? To make a low, but reasonable first offer ? Who that has been in business for a while doesn’t know how to do that ?

  31. Botherhood of the Redus says:

    He’s not taken an MLB at-bat….neither side can be percieved as stupid at this point bro

  32. Botherhood of the Redus says:

    Nice to have you back on the Chuck Wagon Chuck….no. Pedro should never bunt.

  33. Jim S. says:

    Pedro should not be bunting, but maybe Cutch should be trying to steal. 2 nights in a row where we hit into a DP after he did not even attempt a late inning SB. On Monday, it was against a catcher that everyone on the Bucs and his brother had already stolen. I don’t get that.

  34. Jim S. says:

    I felt the criticism in the Tabata deal from fans was directed more at the Pirates front office for signing such a long deal with an unproven and inconsistent player.

  35. Jim S. says:

    That offer was in spring training, Steel. Were you advocating in spring training that they bring Polanco up immediately? Most people seemed to be ok with him at least starting in Indy, so as not to lose the free agency year.

  36. Jim S. says:

    You’re probably better off in that case, Rick. They don’t have much good to say about the Bucs these days, not that they’ve earned much so far this year.

    I just think when they don’t want to take the time to actually analyze anything, they fall back on the easy narrative.

 
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