Shark Tank Enters Meltdown Mode

Thursday’s loss in Milwaukee basically sums up the 2014 Pirates season to date. Everyone thought they had it… but turns out it was just another remarkably frustrating loss. That’s the third blown save against Milwaukee in the past month — a HUGE swing in the NL Central. If Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon lock down those three W’s, the Pirates would be 20-20 right now, sitting just 2.5 games out of first place … Instead, they’re 17-23, 8.5 games back. Hindsight 20/20 of course, but handing the Brewers those three wins is a six-game difference in the division.

In 2013, the bullpen shut everything down. Give ’em a lead? It’s over. This year, it feels like it’s been heart attack city every time the bullpen gates swing open. How about this stat:

Here’s another:

This leaking Shark Tank is melting down like never before.

FanGraphs conveniently tracks “shutdowns” and “meltdowns” for all relief pitchers. The basic formula is this: using Win Probability Added, a reliever who increased his team’s odds of winning by 6% or more is credited with a shutdown; a reliever who decreases his team’s odds of winning by 6% or more is credited with a meltdown. Example: Mark Melancon’s ninth inning dropped the Bucs’ chances of winning by a whopping 80.6% on Thursday, so he’s obviously getting a meltdown.

Through 40 games, the Pirates hold one of the highest meltdown totals in MLB…

White Sox

To put it in perspective: the Bucco Shark Tank had just 53 last year, second fewest in baseball. The most in 2013? LA Angels at 88. This year’s Bucco team: on pace for 93.

Among all qualified relief pitchers in Major League Baseball, the average number of meltdowns this season is approximately 2.33 … All the Pirates’ big guns have topped that, unfortunately:

Jeanmar  Gomez
Bryan  Morris
Mark  Melancon
Jason  Grilli
Justin  Wilson
Tony  Watson

One thing to consider: Pirate relievers have entered games in higher leverage situations than any other team in baseball.

You probably don’t need advanced metrics like Win Probability Added and whatever else is out there to tell you that the pitching has sucked this year. However, numbers like this are proving that the eye test hasn’t failed you and that the struggle is real out there on the mound. The meltdowns are happening and costing this team wins. While regression was expected from the Bucco bullpen, they can’t afford to keep blowing these close ballgames. It’s getting to the point where each win is big, and the difference between a series win and series loss in Milwaukee could be pivotal…

Please figure things out, fellas.

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

2013 in Review: Bullpen

Pittsburgh Pirates Bullpen Shark Tank 2013 Mark Melancon Jason Grilli

As strong as the starting rotation was, the Pirates’ bullpen deserves just as much credit in winning 94 games. Known as the Shark Tank, the Bucco relief corps posted a 2.89 ERA over 545.2 innings, the third-best mark in Major League Baseball.

Final stats (minimum 10 appearances):

Pittsburgh Pirates Bullpen Stats 2013

The ‘pen was headed by its veteran leader and closer, Jason Grilli. Grilled Cheese inked a 2-year, $6.75 million deal to remain with the Pirates last winter. At age 36, he excelled through the first half by notching 29 saves and a 1.99 ERA, earning his way onto the National League All-Star team. Unfortunately, Grilli injured himself on the same day his Sports Illustrated cover hit newsstands, forcing him to miss the next six weeks. His performance was shaky upon returning, though he finished the regular season with five consecutive scoreless appearances and didn’t allow any runs in the playoffs.

Mark Melancon, who was acquired in the big Joel Hanrahan trade, bounced back in a huge way. A year removed from a forgettable season in Boston, Melancon evolved into one of the best setup men in baseball and made his first All-Star team. Despite some late season struggles, Melancon finished the year with a tremendous 1.39 ERA. Thanks to his experience with great whites in New Zealand, Mark the Shark was responsible for the bullpen nickname.

Pittsburgh Pirates Bullpen Shark Tank Shirt

Tony Watson’s work this season should not go unnoticed. The 28-year-old southpaw started slowly, but flipped the switch around midseason. Watson put up silly numbers through June and July, then ended the season on a streak of 21 consecutive scoreless appearances. He was huge when Grilli got injured in July and Melancon started to slip in September.

Justin Wilson tied Vin Mazzaro at 73.2 for the most innings logged out of the ‘pen, which is a heavy workload for a rookie. This caught up to him down the stretch, as the team “hit the pause button” to give him a bit of a rest. Wilson, 26, looked very promising this year, reaching near triple digits on the radar gun at times. While he can be used as a starter as well, his strong left arm is a huge asset out of the bullpen.

Mazzaro, who carried a not-so promising track record in the American League, was acquired on the cheap last winter. This was one of many offseason moves that made Neal Huntington look like a genius. Mazzaro quietly enjoyed the best season of his career, posting a 2.81 ERA over 57 appearances.

Jeanmar Gomez pitched 45.1 of his 80.2 innings out of the bullpen, giving up 19 earned runs in that frame. Like Mazzaro, Gomez struggled in the AL, was cheaply acquired via trade, then had a nice year out of the bullpen. The Bucs picked him up in exchange for Quincy Latimore, who ended up in the Frontier League with the Washington Wild Things…

Jared Hughes was solid out of the bullpen in 2012 but became the odd man out in 2013, making just 29 appearances.

Kyle Farnsworth was added late in the year, joined the club when rosters expanded, then pitched surprisingly well in nine appearances (one run allowed). The 37-year-old is a free agent this offseason.

Other pitchers to make appearances out of the ‘pen this year: Ryan Reid, Jose Contreras, Brandon Cumpton, Mike Zagurski, Jonathan Sanchez, Stolmy Pimentel, Kris Johnson, Vic Black, Chris Leroux, Duke Welker, and… Josh Harrison.

Most of the relievers will return in 2014. While they should still be solid, is it realistic to expect them to produce ridiculously good earned run averages, strand rates, etc. again? Probably not. We’ll see what happens.

2013 in Review: Previous Editions
Starting Pitching

Next up: Catching

147 days until Opening Day.

Go Bucs

Where’s Justin Wilson?

Justin Wilson Pirates

Justin Wilson has been tremendous this season, a key piece of one of the most dominant bullpens in Major League Baseball. The 26-year-old southpaw has put up very respectable numbers:

2013 6 1 2.15 55 71.0 49 17 17 4 26 55 1.056 3.3 7.0 2.12

However, by looking at our bullpen workload page, you’ll notice that Wilson hasn’t pitched at all lately:

justin wilson pirates bullpen workload sept 19

He’s made four appearances in September, and just one in the past week. There were finally some updates this morning on Wilson:

justin wilson

The Bucs have used the “pause button” on him, but fortunately it sounds like he’ll be back by this weekend.

Since he was used primarily as a starting pitcher in the minor leagues, Wilson has actually thrown a lot less innings this year. Usually teams will slow down a young arm (like Gerrit Cole, for example) as he collects more and more innings as the season continues. Wilson is a different case, though it’s still probably a good idea to get him some rest down the stretch (hopefully he isn’t injured).

Among Pirates’ relievers with at least 20 appearances, Wilson ranks 1st in opponent batting average, 2nd in ERA, 3rd in strikeouts, and 4th in WHIP. Having two dominant lefties in the ‘pen – Wilson and Tony Watson – is a huge weapon for the Bucs.

Hopefully he’s well-rested and ready to go for the playoffs. It’d also be nice to see him throw his 95+ mph heat against the Reds this weekend.

What’s up with Grilled Cheese?

whats wrong with jason grilli

In the first half of the season, Jason Grilli was one of the most dominant relievers in baseball, saving 30 games and making the National League All-Star team. But he went down with an arm injury on July 22nd, forcing him to miss the next six weeks of action.

Since coming off the disabled list September 3rd, Grilli has made four appearances – none in the closer role. Manager Clint Hurdle has been trying to ease him back into it, but it’s really not going well so far. He pitched well last Wednesday in Milwaukee, but his next three outings haven’t gone so well:

Date Opp IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA BF Pit Str
Sep 7 STL 0.2 1 1 1 1 0 0 2.45 4 20 12
Sep 10 TEX 0.2 2 1 1 0 1 0 2.62 4 20 14
Sep 13 CHC 0.2 2 2 2 1 2 1 2.98 5 20 12
45.1 35 15 15 12 71 4 2.98 185

Grilli has failed to finish an inning in all three tries, giving up four runs in the process. What’s the deal?

A big issue seems to be his velocity. He was consistently hitting 94-95 mph on his fastball during the first half of the season, but his velocity has dipped this week:

Avg Speed Max Speed
9/7/2013 94.03 94.65
9/10/2013 93.32 94.05
9/13/2013 92.24 92.82

(via Brooks Baseball)

A hard 95 mph is obviously a lot more effective than sitting in the 92-93 range.

Jason Grilli 95 mph

The velocity concern brings up a few questions…

– Is he still hurt?

– Did he rehab enough?

– Do you include him on the postseason roster?

It’s hard to say if Grilli is still hurt, but the velocity decline could point to a possible issue. Maybe he didn’t rehab enough? He only made two appearances for Altoona, then skipped one or two in Indianapolis to join the team in Texas. Who knows?

The third one is a serious question and could be quite important in a few weeks. Grilli is eligible for the playoff roster since he was on the DL, but do you carry him at this point? He still has time to prove himself, but if his recent trend continues, there might be a few other arms you’d like to use instead.

Grilli’s last three appearances haven’t been promising; all we can do is hope that he will turn it around in time for the playoffs.

Data courtesy of Brooks Baseball and Baseball-Reference.