Bucco Bullpen Report 4/23/15

pirates bullpen april 23

A look at the Pirates’ bullpen usage through 16 games. Green = good, relative to the rest of the bullpen; red = bad. 

Tony Watson, as usual, has 1) been good and 2) been relied upon. Tied for the most relief appearances in baseball, he’s pounding the strike zone and has yet to issue a walk. His two-inning save against the Cubs on Wednesday night was particularly important/impressive. The two killers for Watson: Todd Frazier‘s home run on Opening Day, and Welington Castillo‘s home run on Tuesday night, hence the not-great ERA/FIP so far. Other than those two, however: spotless.

Jared Hughes struggled on Wednesday night, but otherwise has been a horse. He’s actually striking people out — it took him 21 appearances to collect 10 K in 2014, but he’s already accomplished that through nine outings so far. Pair that with his usual dose of ground balls, and Hughes has been an important bridge from the starters to late-inning relievers in the early going.

Arquimedes Caminero‘s name is familiar to Pirate fans by now, thanks to his flame-throwing right arm. Not only is he getting called upon often, he’s getting the job done (for the most part). Caminero’s getting a ton of strikeouts and ground balls, and his role may only increase from here.

mark melancon

– After being a sure-thing in his first two seasons as a Pirate, Mark Melancon‘s early performance has been concerning to say the least. His ugly velocity loss has been well-documented, while his strikeouts are down and walks are up. Melancon was more effective on Thursday afternoon — he was locating particularly well, and velocity isn’t everything if you can do that… but it’s still a very notable trend to keep an eye on moving forward. They’re saying he’s healthy and will keep his job, but if he’s not, that’s a serious problem for both Melancon and the Pirates.

– Where is Antonio Bastardo? He’s faced only 15 batters thus far, nine of which came in low-leverage situations. There was a need for Hurdle to have a second lefty in his bullpen, but there seems to be a lack of trust early on… This report via Rob Biertempfel late in spring training wasn’t exactly glowing: “A longtime NL scout, who has watched Antonio Bastardo from Class A to the majors, wonders if the lefty can handle pressure situations. “If he comes into the game when you’re either two runs ahead or two behind, his stuff is excellent,” the scout said. “However, when he comes into a tie game or you’re one run ahead, he tries too hard, and he walks everybody. It drives you crazy, and that’s why he was available. To me, he’s better in the middle (innings) than he is as a setup or closer.” There’s a dramatic split between Bastardo’s numbers in low-leverage (.116 BAA, .353 OPS, 3.83 SO/BB) and high-leverage (.270 BAA, .844 OPS, 1.60 SO/BB) roles.”

The Pirates will head out to Arizona to begin a nine-game road trip on Friday.

Go Bucs

In 48 Days…

48 Hughes

Our Opening Day player countdown returns for a fourth year. Each post can be found under the Features tag.

Jared Hughes (48) days until Opening Day…

Career Stats:

2011 PIT 4.09 11.0 94 3.48 1.182 3.3 8.2
2012 PIT 2.85 75.2 132 4.05 1.150 2.6 5.9
2013 PIT 4.78 32.0 75 4.11 1.656 4.5 6.5
2014 PIT 1.96 64.1 183 3.99 1.088 2.7 5.0
4 Yrs 2.95 183.0 125 4.00 1.219 3.0 5.9

Continue reading “In 48 Days…”

Making a Pitcher of Jared Hughes with the Defensive Shift

There was a solid article on FanGraphs a few days ago about why Jung-Ho Kang doesn’t have to be a “brilliant” fielder in Pittsburgh. Kang apparently brings some defensive question marks to the States; he may be too big or not have enough range to play a sufficient MLB infield.

Jordy Mercer and Neil Walker have faced the same questions, no? Though sure-handed, neither’s range will blow away. They’re pretty tall for the middle infield, too. But the Pirates have answered many questions with the defensive shift, lining up their infielders (almost) exactly where they need to be. Perhaps it will make the transition a little bit easier for Kang.

With a ground ball pitching staff, plus the data to prove where a batter is most likely to drive a grounder, they’ve ultimately been able to limit their opponents’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP) as best they can. It’s no coincidence that they led the league in both ground ball rate (50.5%) and total shifts used (659 — h/t Bill James Handbook).

[quote_simple]”…Neal Huntington and his analytics team have been pulling off a wonderful trick for the last three years: in each season, the Pirates have put together an above-average defensive BABIP despite having a roster full of mostly-below-average defensive players.” — FG [/quote_simple]

If you aren’t familiar with Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), it measures what a pitcher’s ERA should have looked like by negating BABIP and factoring only what he directly controls himself (K, BB, HBP, and HR). This assumes BABIP is mostly luck-driven, concluding that fluctuations above/below league average (.300) are incorrect.

But with a combination of ground balls and optimal defensive positioning, the Bucs seemingly have more control — at least when the shift works. A main point of the article was that “All of these ground balls getting hit into shifts is effectively breaking the Pirates’ relationship with FIP and ERA.”

Which brings us to Jared Hughes.

Hughes, 29, has already spent parts of four seasons in the Bucco bullpen (which is hard to believe). He should play a big role in 2015, after being pretty usable throughout a 2014 campaign in which he appeared in 63 MLB games.

It’s hard what to make of him as a late-inning reliever — he certainly isn’t overpowering — but here’s what we know: he struck out fewer batters than anyone on the staff (14.1%), which also means he allowed the highest percentage of balls in play. However, he led the team with a 64.6% ground ball rate — you trust the shift?

jared hughes shift

Let’s take a look at it in action for #48. Here are three infielders on the left-side stopping Yoenis Cespedes:

hughes vs cespedes

If Neil Walker doesn’t shade Jedd Gyorko up the middle here, a run scores:

hughes vs gyorko

Clint Barmes is practically playing Jose Bautista in the hole here to prevent at least one run and end a bases-loaded jam:

hughes vs bautista

The ERA & FIP relationship may certainly break for the Pirates’ worm killers, especially Hughes. His FIP — judging solely on his strikeout deficiency, among other factors — pegged him at 3.99, which is below average and uninspiring. But his ERA stayed at 1.96 across his 63 appearances — nearly a two-run difference, the largest on the team:

Hughes 1.96 3.99 -2.03
Gomez 3.19 4.37 -1.18
Volquez 3.04 4.15 -1.11
Watson 1.63 2.69 -1.06
Worley 2.85 3.44 -0.59
Locke 3.91 4.37 -0.46
Liriano 3.38 3.59 -0.21
Melancon 1.90 2.09 -0.19
Holdzkom 2.00 2.13 -0.13
Morton 3.72 3.72 -0.01

(pitchers with a lower ERA than FIP)

The burning question: how lucky was his .246 BABIP? Is regression to the mean a certainty, or can the Pirates actually keep it at bay with the defensive shift?

I don’t think we’re going to see a drastic change in Hughes’ style…

Season K% GB%
2012 15.8% 59.6%
2013 15.5% 56.3%
2014 14.1% 64.6%

He isn’t the guy you go to for a strikeout. Opponents are going to put a lot of balls in play, but his sinker is sharp enough to keep them on the ground. The Pirates have been savvy enough to control the ground ball game, and it’ll be interesting to see if that will continue. In turn, I’ll be curious to see where he goes from a FIP/ERA perspective. Simply looking at his FIP will leave you expecting very little, but the Pirates might be on to something here. A reliance on defense made guys like Hughes and Volquez look great in 2014. Their staff might not look as elegant as others around the league, but they can remain effective by sticking with their organizational philosophies of ground balls and shifts.

Go Bucs

The Best & Worst of July

Best & Worst of: April | May | June

Wow, August already … As we flip the calendar once again, the Pirates are officially 2/3 of the way through the 2014 campaign: 108 games down, 54 to go — four months down, two to go. The final-third of the year will be a big one, but before that, let’s look back at some of the best & worst for the Bucs in July…


Neil Walker

The Pittsburgh Kid probably wishes the month wasn’t coming to an end — he tore up July, hitting .316 with a .941 OPS. He crushed five home runs and knocked in 13, boasting a 166 wRC+ — best mark on the Pirates for the month and seventh best in the National League. Walker was one of 11 NL players to be worth 1+ wins above replacement in July. On the year, Walker’s 16 homers rank second among second basemen, and here’s how he compares to the rest of the field in wRC+

1. Robinson Cano, 135
2. Walker, 134
3. Jose Altuve, 130
4. Ben Zobrist, 125
5. Daniel Murphy, 118
6. Chase Utley, 118
7. Dee Gordon, 112
8. Brian Dozier, 112
9. Howie Kendrick, 110
10. Ian Kinsler, 106

Jordy Mercer

Walker’s middle infield partner, Jordy Mercer, also had a great month at the plate. His power was down after a surge in June, but he managed to slash .319/.385/.440 while appearing in all 26 July games. His role has increased even more since Clint Barmes strained his groin, leaving Michael Martinez on the bench behind him. Mercer’s looked a lot better on both sides of the ball recently — heating up with the bat after a very slow start, and making plays with the glove despite being given a bad rep for his defense in the past.

Russell Martin

Another good month for the Bucco backstop — he hit .306 with a .409 on-base percentage in 22 games. That .409 OBP was second best among catchers in July, behind only Kurt Suzuki (who signed a two-year extension with Minnesota yesterday, leaving Martin as the only legit option on the free agent market for 2015). Russ threw out 48% of base stealers in July (10 of 21), improving his caught stealing rate to 38% on the year.

Travis Snider

Credit where credit is due. He only started four times in July and made just 31 trips to the plate, but hit .393/.452/.750. Snider went deep in three straight games he appeared in: almost clearing everything at PNC Park last Wednesday vs. LA, a big pinch-hit homer on Sunday at Coors Field, and then a shot at AT&T Park on Tuesday vs. Tim Hudson. Snider’s become a useful left-handed bat off the bench, hitting .279/.367/.465 in 49 pinch-hit appearances this season.

Francisco Liriano

He was shaky in his return game from the DL, but has been really solid since. Overall, just five earned runs in 23 innings (1.96 ERA), pulling his earned run average under 4.00 for the year and providing some hope for the stretch run.

Jared Hughes

Hughes was a horse in July, working in 13 of 26 games. And the best part? He surrendered only one run. His low strikeout and BABIP rates suggest he might falter sooner or later, but for now, Hughes has been a reliable arm out of the pen.

The All-Stars

Congrats to Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison, and Tony Watson on making the NL All-Star team. Clint Hurdle coached alongside Mike Matheny, Cutch started the game, J-Hay came off the bench, and Watson retired the only batter he faced (Jose Abreu), so the Bucs were well represented at the Midsummer Classic.

The Volquez Complete Game

Edinson Volquez was “the stopper” on July 10th, as he prevented the Bucs from being swept in St. Louis. He hurled a 114-pitch complete game, allowing one run on six hits. The performance was worth a Game Score of 74, his best in nearly two years.

The July 1st Comeback

After being shut down by Wade Miley through the first eight innings, the Bucs stormed back to score three runs in the ninth and top the D-backs by a score of 3-2. Click here to refresh your memory.

The Sweeps

Entering July without a sweep on the year, the Pirates took care of that twice, sweeping the Phillies and Rockies at PNC Park.


Gregory Polanco

His first month in the big leagues? Great. His second? Not so much. July was a forgettable one for the rook, as he batted just .214 with a .596 OPS. His walk rate went down and the strikeout rate shot up, as he buried himself in multiple slumps. Polanco is now slashing just .247/.317/.348 on the year.

Gaby Sanchez

The right-handed half of the first base platoon hasn’t found a groove this season. Besides a .328 OBP that was aided by a 17% walk rate, Sanchez hit just .174 and slugged .217 in July. He hasn’t hit a home run since May 26th. He’s hitting .179 since the beginning of June.

Ernesto Frieri

LOL. A meltdown against the D-backs, the Kolten Wong walk-off homer, … just when you thought he was settling in, he got lit up in Colorado. Ten earned runs in 7.2 innings. The walks are up, the strikeouts are a bit down; 10.38 ERA since joining the Pirates.

Stolmy Pimentel

Stolmy rarely pitches, so small sample size here. He gave up four runs over six July innings, but the concerns are deeper — he struck out as many batters as he walked, his ground ball was & is very low, meaning more line drives and fly balls — batters have hit a fly ball against him almost 50% of the time in 2014. Eventually those ones get over the wall like we saw last night (and there were two others that fell just short of the wall).

Justin Wilson

Another rough month for Wilson. More runs (4.82 ERA, 6.45 FIP), more walks (5.8 BB/9), more homers (2, including a Matt Adams walk-off), and a .286/.405/.514 opponent slash line.

The STL/Cincy Roadtrip

After starting the month with a 5-1 homestand, the Bucs hit the road for a huge trip to St. Louis and Cincinnati before the All-Star break. It wasn’t good — a 2-5 final result featuring multiple blown games, two tough series losses that would’ve made an impact on the Central standings.

Trade Deadline

The Bucs swung and missed at the deadline yesterday. Landing an ace, like Jon Lester or David Price, would’ve been special. They were rumored to be in on both of them, but … whatever. It doesn’t really surprise me that they didn’t acquire one of them. When have they made a splash like that? At least adding a reliever, probably the most likely of their potential upgrades, would have been nice… All you have to do is re-read the Frieri, Pimentel, and Wilson sections above, remember that Jeanmar Gomez is nothing more than a long-man, and know that Watson and Mark Melancon can’t do it all themselves to think another relief arm would’ve been nice. But there was nothing. There’s still a chance to add players via trade in August as we saw last year, but I’m not expecting any hugely impactful players to sneak through waivers.

The Pirates played some solid ball in July and are in a good spot — they’re five games over .500, 2.5 games out of first place, and only 0.5 out of the second Wild Card. The next two months will be huge, not just for the Buccos but also for the other six or seven National League contenders … it’s a tight race and looks like it’ll go right up till the end. They need to cash in against Arizona, Miami, and San Diego over the next week because it’s gonna get tough after that — vs. Tigers, at Nationals, vs. Braves, at Brewers, vs. Cardinals, vs. Reds to close out the month. Should be a fun ride.

Go Bucs

Who will get bumped out of the Bucco bullpen?

With PirateFest behind us, the next baseball date to look forward to is February 13th – the day pitchers & catchers will report to spring training in sunny Bradenton, Florida.

It might be a little early to start thinking about the 2014 roster, but some of the things we heard at the Convention Center this weekend got us anxious.

One area where the Pirates have tremendous depth is with their pitching staff. Pitching – especially the bullpen – led the way in 2013, and looks to be strong again next year. Here are the guys lined up for the Shark Tank…

1) Jason Grilli

2) Mark Melancon

3) Justin Wilson

4) Tony Watson

These four are locks, barring a trade. The team was listening on offers for Wilson during the Winter Meetings last week. Frank Coonelly said, “It would be very difficult for us to trade either (Watson or Wilson). But we never say never.” I wouldn’t expect them to go anywhere (unless the Bucs got a huge return).

This is where it gets tricky, as the next four guys are all out of minor league options:

5) Vin Mazzaro

6) Jeanmar Gomez

7) Bryan Morris

8) Stolmy Pimentel – At PirateFest on Saturday, Neal Huntington came out and said directly that Stolmy will be on the team next year.

There would be nowhere to put these guys, and that’s eight pitchers for seven spots.

The good thing is that you can never have enough arms, and as Neal Huntington told us on Saturday, “Every time we’ve thought we had a surplus somewhere, that surplus dissipated quickly.” There are other choices, too: Jared Hughes, recently re-acquired Duke Welker, and newly acquired Miles Mikolas all have options remaining.

The bad thing is that you can’t keep them all, and no remaining options make it difficult.

Maybe a trade is on the way? According to Travis Sawchik, one American League club executive believed the Bucs will be dealing from their surplus of bullpen arms. With the Pirates in the market for a first baseman, we could definitely see a deal involving one of these pitchers.

We’ll see what happens. Just about 15 weeks until Opening Day, and it can’t come soon enough.

Go Bucs