The Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen struggled mightily this past year, both on and off the field. They were decimated by injuries, but they kept on fighting, just not in a good way. They fought each other, coaches and team representatives, and they fought other teams. As a unit they sported a 4.91 ERA for the season, blew 24 saves, gave up 102 home runs, walked 304 batters (4.37 BB/9) and combined for a 1.47 WHIP. It is a season that many of the relief pitchers on the roster would probably rather forget. However, if we forget everything that happened it will be almost impossible to figure out exactly what went wrong and what can be done to fix it. This is true for all of the issues that the Pirates’ relievers experienced. I wish that I could address all of the problems as a whole, but I I realize that if I tried to tackle every concern both on and of the field together this could easily get out of hand and turn into a book instead of an article. For right now I would just like to focus on the issues that they encountered while on the mound, particularly the types of pitches they chose to throw.
In a previous article I had written about the best and worst pitches for all of the potential members of the Pirates’ starting rotation. In order to make educated determinations for each of these pitchers I utilized multiple statistics to get a complete picture of each of the pitches in their repertoire. I will be using the same statistics for all of the relievers in this article. The first stat is the simplest; it is the number of each particular pitch they threw and the percentage this equates to. Next I will be looking at the overall batting average and OPS (On Base plus Slugging) to try to differentiate between hard hit balls and bad luck dribblers, as well as to take into account walks that could occur leading to the batter getting on base. Finally, I will be focusing on the average velocity (mph) for each particular type of pitch, as well swinging strike percentages because as I have stated before, missing bats is important in today’s baseball. For pitchers with less of a major league track record or numbers that were too close to call, and I didn’t want to make a judgement call, I even broke out spin rate. That’s enough of an explanation, so let’s just get started to see what the numbers tell us.
The Pirates’ current “closer” by default and one of the main culprits of many of the off and on the field issues, all non baseball performance related. Say what you will about Neil Huntington, the trade he made to get Keone Kela from the Rangers was one of his best, but I digress. On the mound Kela has been nothing short of masterful at times, so it is no surprise that he doesn’t really throw a “bad” pitch.
He utilized his fastball 62.9% in 2018 and 53.8% in 2019, for a combined average against of .248 and an OPS of .820. The only downfall with this pitch is that he only gets a 8.25 swinging strike rate (SwSt %) when he throws it.
His other main pitch, his curveball is absolutely filthy. He threw this pitch more last year (43.6% to 35.7% to be exact) and with almost the same amount of success. A .130 average against vs. .119, a .338 OPS vs. .398 and a 19.3 SwSt % vs 16.4.
The only other pitch Kela throws is a “keeping them honest” pitch, a changeup, that he throws only around 2% of the time. It and falls in between the 97.4 mph velocity of his fastball and the 83.6 mph velocity of his curveball. The results on this pitch are so varied due to such a small sample size that it is not detrimental to keep, but may affect the results of his other pitches if it goes away completely.
Another constant in many of the Pirates’ extracurricular activities on and off the field and a part of the Andrew McCutcheon trade; Crick’s progress concerning many of his pitches seemed to be stunted and/or reversed during the 2019 season.
The only one that had minor regression in was his slider, which is far and away his best pitch. In 2018 he threw this pitch 25.8% of the time. Batters hit .100 with a .323 OPS and a 17.4 SwSt%. In 2019, they did not fare much better as they hit for a .130 AVG, a .551 OPS and a 17.8 SwSt%, as he threw it 37.3% of the time.
Crick’s pitch that regressed the most was his sinker. Batter’s went from hitting .227 against it to .364. Their OPS ballooned from .618 to 1.000. It is not even a reliable SwSt% pitch, which is obviously because that is not the type of pitch it is. My analysis is that if a pitch isn’t working the way it is designed to work, you can consider dropping it and I would highly recommend giving this pitch some extra consideration.
The last pitch he throws on a consistent basis was his fastball, approximately 53% of the time. Over the past year his fastball was hit a lot harder or didn’t find the strike zone as often, which resulted in a .955 OPS vs. .679. The average against rose slightly from .254 to .274 and the SwSt% was nearly identical, 10.3% to 10.2%. I still have faith in this pitch and would use it just as much as he has over the past two years.
One pitch that I might consider Crick using a little more is the same “keep them honest”pitch as Kela, his Changeup. He only used it 3 times this past year after using 13 times the year before. I know that this may not seem to matter at all, but if you have a pitch that has a .000 average against and a .000 OPS from opposing batters and can keep them on their toes, I would probably consider throwing it at least 13 times a year or the equivalent of 2 to 3%.
His pitch selection is as simple as his shortened nickname, "Rich Rod." He throws a fastball (approximately 80% of the time) and a curveball (approximately 20% of the time). This past year he used his curveball a little less (14.3% vs. 24.8%) and it was more successful (.194 AVG and .701 OPS vs. .262 AVG and .783 OPS). However he used his Fastball more (85% vs. 75%) and it was less successful (.265 AVG and .761 OPS vs. .198 AVG and .512 OPS). I wish it would be easy to just say split the difference to find success with both pitches, but for him it will probably comes down to pitch sequencing, working with his catchers and pitching coaches more concerning game plans for the batters he could be facing and preparing for different situations that he could be brought into.
Feliz is one of four players that has the unfortunate circumstance of being attached to the Gerrit Cole trade, so everything he does is put under a microscope. This is unfair to him, especially since he has been a very good reliever at times over the past 2 years.
Feliz’s most successful pitch over this time has been his slider. Batters have hit .209 with a .653 OPS and 21.85 SwSt% (27% in 2019).
His fastball has been almost as good over this period (.229 AVG and .732 OPS), but has not gotten the swing and misses that he probably is expecting from his #1 pitch (8.6 SwSt%).
Feliz has two other pitches in his repertoire, a changeup and a sinker, that he uses to a lesser degree and could probably get rid of if he wanted to. It should be noted that he nearly got rid of his sinker last year, so we can ignore that one. The changeup has not been a good pitch for Feliz to the tune of a .443 AVG with a 1.373 OPS. It did get a little better last year, but not enough to justify keeping it around.
Holmes has had potential for what has seemed like forever. Unfortunately for the Pirates he has never seemed to able to unlock his full potential. He has a large array of pitches and just this last year he added another one, a slider. It turned out to be one of his most successful pitches. Batters couldn’t figure it out and only hit .136 with a .422 OPS against it.
Another off speed pitch, his curveball was also very good, even with an increase rate of use (13.6% to 23.1%). Hitters only hit .202 with a .574 OPS and posted a SwSt% of 15.55, the 2nd highest of any of his pitches over the past two years.
Holmes’ favorite pitch is his sinker. The velocity and movement on this pitch are both above average resulting in a .241 average against and a .735 OPS.
He has had mixed results with his cutter, but the combined .192 average and 25.8 SwSt almost makes me overlook the 1.000 OPS and wants him to give it another chance.
The two pitches I want to see him totally drop are his fastball and his changeup. Against each of these pitches, which he threw a combined 9.7% of the time last year, batters pounded Holmes for a .417 AVG, a 1.223 OPS and only a 1.4 SwSt%. Hopefully getting rid of these two pitches could finally help unlock his potential.
Stratton has been the poster boy for how spin rate does not always equal success, as he posted the 7th highest spin rate on average (1st highest for his Curveball) in the entire MLB, but struggled to stay consistent and ended the year with another disappointing season.
Stratton’s three best pitches are his fastball, his curveball and his slider of which he throws a combined 94% of the time and all for an average amount of positive results.
His curveball use produced a .260 AVG and a .770 OPS from opposing batters, his fastball allowed hitters to have a .271 AVG and a .790 OPS and his slider was the worst of the three ending in a .297 AVG and a .799 OPS. Nothing terrible, but nothing great.
His changeup was more toward the terrible end of the spectrum, bringing about a .364 AVG and a 1.036 OPS. Dropping this pitch alone won’t solve all of his problems, but maybe it can start him moving in the right direction.
This man has had a busy off-season. Hartlieb had surgery on his right foot on October 19th and got married soon after. I am going to make his time off a little more hectic by asking him to drop one of his most used pitches, 31% of the time to be exact, his sinker. Opposing batters have teed off on this pitch (.431 AVG and 1.217 OPS) and it is by far his worst one. Also it is not even amongst his two most highly rated pitches; those are his Fastball (70 grade) and his Slider (50 grade).
These two pitches didn’t exactly blow hitters away this past season, but they definitely could as his fastball has an average velocity of 96.6 mph with a 2479 spin rate and his slider has a spin rate of 2511 rpms. This accompanied with a 85.4 mph velocity caused his Slider to have more movement than just an average pitch; as evidenced by a 15.6 SwSt%.
Hartlieb’s most successful pitch was his changeup. However, he only used this pitch 8.9% of the time, even though it resulted in a .222 average against and a 13.8 SwSt%. I know it can’t be this simple, but I would like to see Hartlieb try a three pitch rotation of his fastball, slider and changeup.
Before you riot in the streets and start sending me Neverauskas memes and GIFs on Facebook and Twitter, please hear me out. Neverauskas focuses on throwing his fastball way too often; 48.4% in 2018 and 57.1% in 2019; He commits to it even when it isn’t working because he can throw it around 97 mph. Over the past two years MLB hitters have posted a .436 AVG and a 1.451 OPS against this pitch. It’s not like he doesn’t have any other pitches.
His curve has produced a 16.95 Swst% and only allowed hitters to bat .204 against it, but he only threw it 24.5% of the time. It is a similar story with his cutter. He threw it only 21.6% of the time in spite of 13.85 SwSt% and a .245 AVG.
Neverauskas does have a fourth pitch, a changeup, but has only thrown it 8 times over the past two years, so it is barely worth mentioning. However, I wouldn’t care if he threw it a few more times and stopped trying to throw his fastball down batters throats.
Birdi’s promising season ended in a heap on the mound on April 22nd and I’m not gonna lie, it was hard to watch. A bicep injury that was later diagnosed as neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome, which is a fancy term in my world as Not Tommy John. Burdi is currently on track to return for spring training. Prior to going down with his unfortunate injury we all got to see him showcase his 80 grade Fastball and his 65 grade Slider.
He used his Slider more often (54.7% to 45.3%) and produced a higher SwSt% (28.7% to 5.6%). Neither pitch was extremely effective in fooling batters beyond this stat. Hitters crushed his Slider for a .318 AVG with a .939 OPS and were successful against his Fastball to the tune of a .267 AVG with a .646 OPS. However, both pitches showed remarkable potential and promise.
Santana spent all of 2019 recuperating from Tommy John surgery, which was a huge disappointment after a successful 2018 campaign. Biceps, as he is nicknamed, has three main pitches; a sinker (44.6%) , a slider (39.4%) and fastball (14.8%).
His slider is his best pitch statistically and he started to throw more often in 2018, which was a positive. Hitters struggled to locate this pitch on a regular basis as evidenced by a 24.8 SwSt% and a lowly .198 AVG with a .571 OPS.
His sinker was a little farther behind as far as AVG (.272) and OPS (.760), but not as far behind as his fastball (.348 AVG and .809 OPS). With increased use of his slider and sinker and decreased use of his fastball it could be easy to see him build upon his 2018 season, if he is a full go coming back from surgery. Unfortunately it is usually the second season back from this type of surgery, where the pitchers regain their previous forms.
My hope is exactly the same for the relievers as it had been for the starters from my previous article. This hope is that Ben Cherington, Derek Shelton and Oscar Marin stick to the player centered mantra that each of them have been emphasizing because the Pirates do have some talented relievers and I would hate to see them give up on some of them after one terrible season for the bullpen.
Follow Craig on Twitter: @BucsBasement