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Do you want the good news or the bad news?

NEW  YORK –  I can’t see a show of hands so I’ll start with the bad news. The bullpen. Ugh. Ten blown saves in 40 games? That’s incredible in an undesirable way. The Pirates blew 15 saves in 162 games last year.

More than anything, more than the inconsistent offense, more than the lacking starting pitching at times, the bullpen regression explains why the Pirates are six games before .500. Consider if the Pirates had a league average save conversion rate they would be 21-19 heading into New Yankee Stadium. (Hey, at least the Pirates miss Masahiro Tanaka this weekend).

What’s particularly interesting about the end-game epidemic is, as we discussed earlier in the week, the underlying skills of the Pirates’ bullpen members are pretty strong. I mean, Mark Melancon entered Thursday with a 0.47 walks per nine innings rate. He walked two in the ninth en route to the blown save. If you look at the skills stats, the indicators, Melancon profiles as pretty much the same guy  he was a year ago.

But he’s blown two saves in seven save chances. It seems an awful lot of balls are leaking through the right side of the infield in key situations. Right-handed hitters adjusting to the cutter? What was somewhat fascinating to me was with runners on first and second and no one out in the ninth inning, the Pirates briefly shifted Jordy Mercer nearly all the way to the right of second base, seemingly trying to combat right-handed hitters’ approach of taking Melancon to right field. That’s creative shifting.

Look, Justin Wilson’s stuff is as nasty as ever. Hurdle said Wilson had the best stuff of his career Thursday. That cutter is beginning to become an interesting weapon.

Tony Watson has doubled his strikeout rate.

We mentioned Melancon’s  numbers are roughly the same …

So is this all just bad luck? A small sample size or random variance? I think it’s mostly that. Opponents have simply been hitting them where they ain’t more often this year. But I also wonder if there is a psychological component to all this. Maybe pitching the ninth inning really isn’t for everyone.

Melancon  has filled in for Grilli often since last July of last season. He has 21 saves but he also has seven blown saves.

And we don’t what Grilli will bring when activated.

Bottom line, the Pirates need their relievers to start performing up to their underlying indicators. I think they well, but they can’t afford any stretch like this.

The good news? There was some in Miller Park.

I think there’s a chance the Milwaukee series, in an odd way, might have represented something of a turning point in an important area: starting pitching.

On Tuesday, we saw Gerrit Cole for the first time as major leaguer throw a changeup that had significant fading action and velocity separation. He perplexed left-handed hitters Logan Schafer and Lyle Overbay with the pitch. Last season it was the curveball that gave Cole velocity separation and strikeouts. Cole needs a third pitch to truly become a No. 1 ace caliber pitcher. The changeup would go a long way towards that. The pitch should not be viewed as a afterthought. It should be viewed as a power, strikeout pitch as it is for many aces in the game.

On Wednesday, against an entirely right-handed Brewers lineup, Francisco Liriano looked more like the 2013 Francisco Liriano. His wipeout offspeed pitches were set up by fastball command. His velocity has been increasing in recent starts and his fastball is now average 92.0. He induced 20 swings and misses in 87 pitches. That’s dominant stuff.

And on Thursday, Wandy Rodriguez surprised me by showing he still had something left in the tank. His fastball velocity returned to 2013 levels, sitting 89-90 and maxing out at 91. His command was better as was, Hurdle thought, the plane on his fastball was better. Sustainable? We’ll see. But it was important Rodriguez showed he still had 2013 stuff.

The Pirates need more from their stating staff. They need Liriano and Cole to be impact guys and for Rodriguez to be a quality mid-rotation option.

Perhaps they became that again in Milwaukee. Perhaps if they can stop the end-game bleeding they  can begin to make up ground in the second quarter of the season.

-TS

Comments

  1. bradthedad says:

    I’m looking forward to Wandy’s next start. Often the 2nd start back is more telling than the 1st.

  2. NMR says:

    “Maybe pitching the ninth inning really isn’t for everyone. Melancon has filled in for Grilli often since last July of last season. He has 21 saves but he also has seven blown saves.”

    But were all those “blown saves” even in the 9th inning? 5 of the Pirate 10 “blown saves” this season have gone to pitchers who have yet to actually throw in a 9th inning save situation. That stat, generally speaking, is awful.

    I bring this up to parrot a great point Andrew made this morning: the bullpen has been pitching under razor-thin margins of error this year. Often being tasked to go three or more innings without giving up a run.

    As for Melancon and the perception that hitters are getting more balls through the infield, his batting average against is actually lower this year than last year so I’m not sure that perception holds up to fact. The biggest difference between his performance this year and last is that hitters, for whatever reason, are bunching hits together. Sequencing. That’s it. Is sequencing a skill? Or are we simply seeing the regression that was eventually coming?

    He isn’t getting the strikeouts like he was last year, but he’s also still given up a ridiculously stingy 4 extra base hits since he started “struggling” last September. I’m pretty damn comfortable sticking it out with a reliever who doesn’t give up walks and extra base hits.

  3. NMR says:

    But that’s only half of the wonderfully balanced blog Travis wrote…

    As for the good stuff, golf clap for Pirate starters. Nicely done. In all the billions of studies done on Major League pitching, has there ever been a statistical correlation between weather and performance? Seems like a lot of these guys have really stepped up their game outside of temps in the 40s and 50s with a biting wind.

    Liriano/Cole at the top of the rotation with Morton/Wandy performing like 3′s make that 5th spot a lot easier to digest.

    Big start for Volquez tonight, who’s looked an awful lot like Edinson Volquez in his last two starts.

  4. Chuck H says:

    But he did walk the bases full in yesterday’s game, albeit with the huge help of the HP ump, who shouldn’t even be umpiring in the minors.

  5. Andrew says:

    To further explain that point, looking at leverage index, which is an attempt quantify the pressure of the situation and depends on the inning, score, outs, and number of runners on base. Pirates relievers are entering the game with the highest average leverage in MLB, at 1.49.

    1.5 is consider high leverage with 1.0 being average, the league average for relievers is 1.22 with the Pirates being over a standard deviation above the mean.

    Anyway, that is long way of saying there have been a lot of close games, 21 one games, I don’t think blown saves is the most correct way to look at it, haven’t the Pirates won a game or two when they gave up the lead late, but it gets the point across.

    Also the Pirates 15-15 against teams other than Milwaukee.

  6. Chuck H says:

    There is absolutely no excuse for the loss yesterday. It’s true that even Polanco’s presence on the team couldn’t have prevented the sad ending, but if a couple of automatic outs had produced with RISP, we would have had more of a lead in the 9th. With the so-called CLOSERS we have, a 2 or 3 run lead is necessary, but not a sure thing.

  7. NMR says:

    Excellent, Andrew.

  8. NMR says:

    Well for one, no he didn’t. He walked two batters, which he’s done only twice since 2011.

    But the bigger overall point is that he has the second lowest walk rate of ANY major league pitcher since the beginning of last year. Yeah, walks aren’t the problem.

  9. NMR says:

    Gaby Sanchez ropes a ball with the bases loaded that just so happens to be directly at Mark Reynolds for a double play and an inning later Khris Davis drops a broken bat blooper into center field for the game winner.

    Did the Milwaukee pitcher actually perform better than Melancon? That’s baseball, man.

  10. Jim S. says:

    Maybe I am mis-remembering, but I thought there were more times last year where Grilli and maybe Melancon would have their bad games in a fortunate spot of having a 2 or 3 run cushion, and still would manage to nail it down.

    I think it is absolutely true that there is just no margin for error this year very often. Our starters rarely leave with a lead, and if they do, it is generally a 1-run lead. If the relievers falter even a little, the game is lost.

    This team has to find a way to get more separation in the score for the bullpen. The biggest part of that is the starting pitching just has to be better. More games of giving up 2 runs or less in 6 or 7 innings. To me, that is the culprit far more than the inconsistent offense or poor bullpen performance.

  11. NMR says:

    “Also the Pirates 15-15 against teams other than Milwaukee.”

    And 2-8 against the Brewers despite being outscored by just two runs.

  12. Jim S. says:

    Sometimes you just have to say, “It wasn’t our day.” You scald a ball with 2 on and none out, and it turns into a nasty DP that sets up the other team to get out of the inning a batter later. I don’t see how you blame the batter, other than to ask him to hit the ball a foot farther away from the fielder. If a hitter actually possessed that sort of skill, they would all hit .800.

    That’s not an attempt to excuse all of their losses. We know this team has underperformed, regardless of breaks. And, we know Melancon did not pitch well in the 9th. But, he’s been pretty solid this year again. I never fault a pitcher for bloop hits, just like I never praise a hitter for them – because in each instance, the guy who benefited was the one who didn’t do his job but just got lucky.

    On Tuesday, Lucroy dropped a very fortuitous bloop into RF with 2 outs and the bases loaded to take it from a 1-0 Pirates advantage to a 2-1 Brewers lead. If you asked Lucroy before the at bat there whether he would be happy with a blooper to RF, there is no way he would have said that was his goal. That’s not a good at bat on Lucroy’s part, it’s just dumb luck. But, it changed the course of the game. It’s been that kind of year for the Bucs. I can’t list all of the odd occurrences that have cost them. But, you have to find a way to perservere, to give yourself a fighting chance when things do start falling your way. They have to fight through this spell.

  13. Jim S. says:

    The Yankees should have put a roof over that place. I hate rainouts.

  14. Andrew says:

    That should read 21 one run games.

    And the Orioles’ bullpen has the second highest leverage when entering the game, they are 10-3 in one run games, Buck has that 2012 magic back.

  15. Andrew says:

    I wasn’t able to watch the game but from the play by play, it looked like Thronberg did the exact same thing Melancon did until that DP.

    Jim, I agree sequencing will kill you and that stuff doesn’t even out over even 40 games. The Pirates weren’t built to have a high margin for error we could rehash if that is more the front office or that fact they are a lower revenue team. I still think this team is above average is terms of talent, but this hole just might be too big.

  16. Andrew says:

    Interesting note on shifting Mercer toward 2nd, I wonder where that came from. It seems like RHH have tried to take Melancon the opposite way but hitting groundballs the opposite way is incredibly hard.

  17. NMR says:

    Not to be a stickler, but “…nearly all the way to the right of second base…” would be exactly straight up the middle, correct?

  18. Jim S. says:

    Agreed, Andrew. It is not yet late, but they have to bang out a 20 of 30 stretch here pretty quick, I think.

  19. 5 of his 7 blown saves as a Pirate have been in the 9th inning while occupying the closer role. That is a pretty significant amount in what amounts to about 1/2 season of closing. But what is odd though is that his blown saves don’t feature any homers. Usually when closers are blowing leads the long ball is a factor.

  20. Nate83 says:

    You are such a geek or is it a nerd. I’m not sure. I’ll defer to NMR on that one :)

    I’m just joking. I love your post. Please keep giving us looks at things in a different way.

  21. Nate83 says:

    Those automatic outs gave us our 3 runs. The bottom of the order definately not the problem the last 7 or 8 games.

  22. NMR says:

    Agree very much with both of you guys.

    The team has unquestionably played poorly at times and has deserved to lose more than they’ve won, but they’ve also unquestinably seen their share of tough losses.

    I’m confident they could play exactly the same for the rest of the season and end up a heck of a lot better than a .425 team.

  23. Donald says:

    Mark Melancon basically got the nod as new closer last year in the absence of Grili because he had previous closer experience. He had also been pretty much lights out in the 8th up to that point. He has not been very shark-like in the 9th this year though. Why not let Watson give it a go as the closer? He’s proven to be much more the strike out type pitcher that most teams prefer to use in the 9th inning. Hurdle says Grilli will be closing again when he comes back…. Melancon seems to flourish in that 8th inning role… why not let him be the set up man for Watson for the remaining games Grili is on the DL?

  24. Steelkings says:

    They were yesterday

  25. Steelkings says:

    You measure yourself against the best, not everyone else.

  26. Steelkings says:

    Melancon threw 9 straight balls at one point. Not even close. Quit making excuses for him. Closing is not his role. He hasnt been able to do that since late lats year.

  27. dave says:

    Watson should be considered for the closer. After his 8th inning stint on Thursday, I was hoping Hurdle would consider letting him pitch the 9th. I didn’t have a good feeling with Melancon going up against the meat of the order.
    Turns out I was right. Watson’s strikeout rate is impressive and he would fit the closer role.

  28. Steelkings says:

    Hurdle is an easy read. He will be patient until his Grilled cheese sandwich is ready.

  29. Leo Walter says:

    Jim, that Lucroy wasn’t a ” fortuitous bloop ” for a hit Tuesday night. Let’s say for the record, a MLB right fielder would have caught that ball, and rather easily.

  30. Yeah, that was the kind of hit you only get when an infielder is playing the outfield. We can start with Harrison playing ridiculously deep because like most guys playing out of position he has trouble reading balls over his head. Then he had an absolute terrible break on it off the bat. That would have been a can of corn for most any regular outfielder.

  31. Chuck H says:

    I didn’t say he walked all three, but he also didn’t retire a batter.

  32. Steelkings says:

    7. ……….Of the 40 games the Pirates have played, they have scored 3 runs or less in 20 of them. 18 games with 2 runs or less. 9 games with 1 or less. Shut out 3 times.

    Read more: http://blog.triblive.com/bucco-blog/2014/05/14/this-is-why-we-cant-have-nice-things/#ixzz321ZxYtvM
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  33. radio wave says:

    Listened to both games on Yankees radio. They couldn’t believe how bad the defense was. Did praise morton for his comeback after rough first inning. Overall described Bucs as a team with a lot of problems.

  34. That’s funny, given that the Mets announcers just finished describing the Yankees as a team with a lot of problems, given their lineup of washed-up, crippled senior citizens.

    Depending on your point of view, Jeter is either grotesque or hilarious at shortstop.

  35. Jim S. says:

    Fair point, Walter. I, too, have complained that we have a utility IF playing RF quite regularly. He takes bad routes, can’t charge balls in front of him properly, and doesn’t have an OF arm. I hate JHay in the OF.

    Then, again, he makes the play yesterday on the LF warning track. Baseball is hard to explain sometimes.

  36. Jim S. says:

    No one is making excuses, Steel. I don’t think you understand that guys give up runs in the 8th inning, too. It’s just that nobody says you aren’t capable of pitching the 8th inning when you do it.

    Melancon’s role is to pitch, and get outs regardless of the inning. He usually does that well, but not Thursday. There is nothing mystical about the 9th inning. He was pitching in plenty of situations every bit as pressurized in the 8th inning as the 9th.

    And, magically he figured out how to pitch in that 9th inning again yesterday.

  37. Jim S. says:

    So, you don’t think what Watson is doing in the 7th inning is every bit as important as being a 9th inning closer? I think Hurdle knows exactly who his best reliever has been, and it is Watson.

  38. NMR says:

    You took the bait, Jim. But at least you did it well.

  39. Jim S. says:

    I know. Gets me every time.

    We can throw Rosenthal in now with the guys who apparently can’t handle the rigors of the 9th inning.

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