Hurdle's rare bullpen strategy key for Pirates down stretch

Friday July 26th, 2013

Mark Melancon has had to step in to the closer's role for injured fellow All-Star Jason Grilli.
Keith Srakocic/AP

After Pirates manager Clint Hurdle used four relief pitchers in the first game after the All-Star break, I asked him the next day if any of those relievers were unavailable for the second game. None of them -- Justin Wilson, Vin Mazzaro, Tony Watson and Bryan Morris -- had thrown more than 20 pitches the previous night. Hurdle said he preferred not to use any of them.

"I try to stay away from using them back to back days," he said.

I was taken aback. I've heard of managers not wanting to use pitchers three consecutive days. But two? Sure enough, Hurdle used two relief pitchers the next day, neither of whom had pitched the previous night.

The Pirates could be in some trouble in the second half because their bullpen hit the break with the most innings in the National League. Closer Jason Grilli has already broken down with a forearm injury. His replacement, Mark Melancon, is on pace to pitch 80 games. But Hurdle's preference for not using pitchers back-to-back days got me thinking: Is it possible that Hurdle has spread the workload well enough to keep his relievers strong down the stretch? And is he more careful than other managers about using relievers on consecutive days?

To gauge Hurdle's bullpen usage, I looked at his top six relievers at the All-Star break and measured what percentage of their appearances came with no rest. I did the same for the two other contenders in the NL Central, Dusty Baker's Reds and Mike Matheny's Cardinals, and looked at how often their top six relievers pitched with no rest. And then I looked at the totals for the 2011 Braves, the model of a team that wilted down the stretch because of a tired bullpen. Here are the results:

TeamNo restTotalPct.
2013 Pirates4623119.9
2013 Reds4521720.7
2013 Cardinals5519428.4
2011 Braves12541330.3

Maybe Hurdle is on to something. Maybe all those innings thrown by the Pirates' bullpen are not as alarming as they appear because of how careful the manager has been about getting his relievers rest. The depth of the Pittsburgh bullpen may be more important than how many innings it has accumulated.

The Pirates rely on their bullpen so much because they are a poor offensive club (13th in runs) that plays plenty of close games (33 one-run games and 12 extra-inning games.) That same formula doomed the 2011 Braves, another poor offensive club (10th in runs) that played plenty of close games (55 one-run games and 26 extra-inning games).

The 2011 Braves went 10-20 down the stretch and lost a playoff spot on the final night of the season. Of Atlanta's top six relievers that season, only Craig Kimbrel remained healthy and is pitching in the big leagues just two years later. The others included three pitchers who underwent Tommy John surgery (Johnny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty and George Sherrill), another who underwent shoulder surgery (Christhian Martinez) and another who retired after shoulder and biceps injuries (Scott Linebrink).

2. System failure for Yankees

Are the Yankees that desperate for offense that they would trade for a 37-year-old one-way player with a .287 OBP and commit to a 2014 roster that includes three outfielders between ages 35-40 with OBPs of .313 and worse? Well, yes. The Yankees could wind up with Alfonso Soriano, Vernon Wells and Ichiro Suzuki. Even if those outfielders were making little money (and they're not), the upside is very limited because they are older, diminished players chewing up roster spots.

The problem is that with the New York farm system continuing to produce next to nothing, the Yankees need to consider any alternative to finding offense to stay afloat in the AL East. The team formerly known as the Bronx Bombers is downright dreadful when it comes to production from righthanded hitters: New York ranks last in baseball in home runs, total bases and OPS from the right side.

JAFFE: How Soriano could impact Yankees

The offense overall is rather ugly, too. This is the worst hitting Yankees team (.242) since 1990 and the worst Yankees team at getting on base (.306) since that 95-loss club of 1990, and, for the first time in history, New York ranks 14th in the league in home runs.

Soriano is not a very smart addition, but is perhaps a necessary one for a franchise bound by its payroll and prices to try anything to reach October.

3. A three hour tour

If you think games are taking longer this year despite the decline in offense, you're right. The folks at Stats, Inc. found that games in the first half of the season averaged more than three hours (3:00:11) for the first time in 13 years (3:01:22 in 2000). But remember, runs have dropped by 18 percent and hits by 7 percent in those 13 years. The games are taking longer with less action.

One disclaimer: There are more extra-inning games this season, as a percentage of all games (10.5 percent), than any season since 1965 (11 percent). I've been telling you that a more equal distribution of talent and better pitching are making for more competitive games. All those extra innings lead to longer games. Still, the time of game for all nine-inning games this year is up by more than two minutes.

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