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:
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?