Coming into the season, Tony Watson was the Pirates closer. He currently has a 4.00 ERA with a 5.05 FIP. In the off-season, Daniel Hudson was signed to be the primary setup man. He has a 4.91 ERA with a 5.05 FIP. The Pirates two most important relievers coming into the season have a combined 4.43 ERA with a 5.05 FIP. They have 7 of the Pirates 12 blown saves.
Despite that, the Pirates bullpen ERA is actually not that bad. In fact, they have the 11th best ERA in the entire league. But what has been bad, however, is their ability to close out ball games.
Win Probability Added (WPA) is a context dependent statistic that allows you to see how well a player performed in important situations. For example, if Jameson Taillon gives up a solo home run in the first inning of a game, his WPA would hardly be affected. However, if Tony Watson gives up a home run in the bottom of the 9th of a tied game, his WPA would go down significantly. FanGraphs mentions that WPA will not tell you how well a player performed, but it will tell you something about how important a players performance was.
The Pirates bullpen has the 6th worst WPA in the league (-1.93). This means that that the bullpen has cost the Pirates 1.93 wins. Round that up to 2 wins, and the Pirates record should be 39-40 with a bullpen that was completely average.
So, in summary, the Pirates bullpen hasn’t actually given up a ton of runs. They are even slightly above average in that department. But the runs they have given up have been important.
As of right now, the Pirates are rolling without a ‘closer’. When Watson was removed from the closer role, Hurdle said that Rivero and Nicasio would stay in their current roles. However, they would now be allowed to pitch in the 9th inning. Rivero staying out of a fixed 9th inning role has helped this team tremendously.
Rivero has been used against the heart of the lineup most often, while Nicasio has been used against the bottom of the lineup most often. This means that if Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant are expected to bat in the 8th inning, then the 8th inning belongs to Rivero. If not, the 9th belongs to Rivero. The fact that Rivero has faced the opposing teams top batters, and still has an ERA below 1.00 is amazing.
The above lists the amount of runners the pitcher has inherited, and how many inherited runners the pitcher has let score. Once again, Rivero shows he is insanely valuable. Not only has he had to face the heart of the order most often, he has also had to come into the game with runners on base. If Rivero becomes the fixed 9th inning guy, you lose this wonderful perk.
Hurdle’s decision to use a “closer by platoon” is a decision no other manager has made. If Hurdle decided that Rivero would become the full time closer, you would lose all of the above. He would not get the Pirates out of jams. He would not face the top of the lineup. He would do what all other closers do, which is enter the 9th inning whenever a team has a lead of 3 runs or less.
This bullpen is not far from being reliable, or even very good. They simply need one thing to happen.
They need Antonio Bastardo or Tony Watson to be good.
The Pirates starting rotation has 5 right handed pitchers. That means that every game, opposing teams are trying to get as many left handed bats in their lineup as possible. Right now the Pirates starting rotation is giving up a .347 wOBA to lefties but just a .299 wOBA against righties.
Like the Pirates rotation, the bullpen has no issues getting out right handed hitters. Jhan Marinez, Juan Nicasio, Edgar Santana, and even Daniel Hudson have all been fine against righties. However, 54% of the batters the Pirates pitching have faced this year were right handed, which means that around 46% of the batters the Pirates have faced have been lefties. That is the 3rd biggest percentage of lefties faced in the league. Teams have attacked the Pirates with lefties, and so far it has worked. The Pirates need a lefty that can get out left handed hitters.
Right now, the Pirates have 4 lefties in their bullpen. Those 4 are Felipe Rivero, Tony Watson, Wade LeBlanc, and Antonio Bastardo. Felipe Rivero is phenomenal. But you need more than one good lefty to be successful, which is especially true of the Pirates. Since the Pirates have faced lefties 46% of the time, they probably should have at least 3 good lefties.
Wade LeBlanc could certainly qualify as a good lefty. He has had a good year, and he is a lefty. But he isn’t a typical lefty. His best pitch is his changeup, which has a reverse platoon effect. That means LeBlanc does better against opposite handed opponents than he does against same handed opponents. So for the purposes of getting lefties out, LeBlanc isn’t really an ideal option.
That leaves Tony Watson and Antonio Bastardo. Bastardo has been bad all year. He got hurt and went on a 30 day rehab assignment. He proceeded to be bad for 30 more days. There aren’t many reasons to be optimistic, but his velocity had ticked up towards the end of his rehab assignment. Maybe he could still be good. I’m skeptical.
Tony Watson has also been bad this season. But, there are reasons to be optimistic. Watson has given up 7 home runs this year, but 3 of them have traveled less than 360 feet. Those home runs were responsible for 6 of Watson’s 16 earned runs. A 360 foot home run is a wall scraper, so Watson has certainly had at least some bad luck. Balls that weren’t hit very far have elevated Watson’s ERA.
Since being removed as the closer, Watson has pitched 9.2 innings and has a low 2.79 ERA. He has managed to strike out 21.9% of the batters he has faced, which is something Watson has struggled to do this season. But more importantly, Watson has dominated lefties during that span. The below might be the reason why:
That is Tony Watson’s slider usage by month since 2013. Over the last two months Watson has seen a dramatic increase in his slider usage. Batters are hitting just .095 against Watson’s slider this year to go along with a 58.3% groundball rate. His slider is a great weapon against lefties and it could help turn him into the player the Pirates need him to be.
However, we always need a backup plan. Let’s assume neither figure it out. The Pirates still have a lefty problem. They could try and trade for a left handed reliever like Sean Doolittle, Mike Minor, or Ryan Buchter. If the Pirates decide trading is not for them, they have an obvious option in AAA.
Steven Brault has been stellar this season for Indianapolis. If he was promoted, he would immediately become an excellent weapon out of the pen. He, like Kuhl, has some issues against opposite handed batters. He, also like Kuhl, has command issues.
The Pirates have already been willing to think outside the box this year with ditching the traditional closer role. Why stop there?
Kuhl has shown that his command is poor, which has led to short outings. He and Cole both have shown that they struggle against lefties. Brault would help alleviate both problems.
Here is a scenario: Chad Kuhl is the starter. The opposing team has 7 lefties in the lineup. The Pirates could use Chad Kuhl for 2-3 innings, pull him for a pinch hitter whenever his spot in the order comes up, and use Brault for another 2-3 innings. This would not put any additional stress on the bullpen, and would be a killer for teams that stack lefties against Kuhl. Decide to stack lefties against Kuhl? Fine, you get Brault. Decide to not stack lefties? That’s fine too, because then Kuhl will just (hopefully) go 5 strong innings against you.
This isn’t a completely new concept. The Rockies attempted ‘piggybacking’ back in 2013. However for whatever reason, I can’t think of a single team who has attempted something like this recently.
Think of it as Chad Kuhl is the Pirates 5.1 starter and Brault is the Pirates 5.2 starter. Both pitchers would remain stretched out, both pitchers could continue developing as a starter, both pitchers could pitch to their strengths.
The ideal scenario for the Pirates is Tony Watson becomes good again, Antonio Bastardo doesn’t suck, and Daniel Hudson starts pitching like a 6 million dollar pitcher. But if these don’t happen, Neal Huntington has options. Will they be buyers at the deadline? I hope so. Sean Doolittle and Ryan Buchter both have multiple years of team control. Trading for them could help the Pirates in 2018 and beyond. If they aren’t buyers, though, they can always turn to AAA All-Star Steven Brault to help get this bullpen back on track to being the dominant force it was in 2015.