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The Pirates' bullpen: Not as bad as you think

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I didn't watch yesterday's game, a situation for which, in retrospect, I'm profoundly thankful.

To whatever extent grown men tossing around a cowhide sphere for money can, should, or does, influence one's mood, yesterday's loss was especially disheartening. When your closer blows a three-run lead, there will be some gnashing of teeth. Post-game discussion, accordingly, centered on two topics:

  1. Potential ways to fix the Pirates' suddenly catastrophic bullpen, and
  2. Apportionment of blame for inferior construction and/or sub-optimal usage of said bullpen
Both of these statements rest, however, upon the premise that the bullpen needs fixing. You'd think I'd agree--after all, I wrote just a week ago that Mark Melancon's early-season struggles were worthy of significant concern. But in this case, I think our collective emotional reaction to a particularly painful loss is clouding our judgment a bit. Yesterday wasn't fun, but the sky isn't falling.

Consider, for example, the chart below, pulled from today's FanGraphs team stats page. It summarizes the Pirates bullpen's performance using a variety of metrics and ranks their performance against the 29 other teams. Note that for 'rank,' a lower number is always better (so you want to be 1st, not 30th in walk rate).

The information above indicates that while Pirates relievers have been ineffective thus far (4.20 ERA), this is primarily a product of awful BABIP and HR/FB luck in a small sample size. In the absence of any previously existent reason to believe that the Pirates bullpen is composed solely of the worst contact managers in the entire game, we should expect significant positive regression in both these areas.

Which is good, because the bullpen's underlying peripherals have been excellent, and these tend to stabilize much more quickly than high-variance statistics like BABIP and HR/FB. Pirates relievers throw really, really hard. They get tons of swings and misses. They strike people out, and they don't walk many people. These are all unambiguously positive qualities.

This isn't definitive evidence that they'll pitch well the rest of the season, of course, just that their struggles thus far have been more a product of bad luck and sequencing than actual poor pitching. The more interesting question is how we can expect them to perform the rest of the way, and whether what we've observed thus far ought to give us pause.

The bullpen currently looks like this:

Antonio Bastardo
Arquimedes Caminero
Jared Hughes
Radhames Liz
Mark Melancon
Rob Scahill
Tony Watson

This is the same group that, roughly three weeks ago, was strong enough to warrant the DFA-ing of the instantly-claimed Stolmy Pimentel and the demotion of itinerant palmball-throwing sensation John Holdzkom.

It seems as though during the intervening time period, the community's faith in Bastardo, Caminero, Melancon, and Watson has waned perceptibly. Liz and Scahill never engendered much confidence to begin with--neither has ever managed to translate impressive raw stuff into above-average performance. That leaves Hughes as the only steady performer in the group.

I'm a bit surprised by how quickly the mood has turned on Bastardo and Watson, in particular. Bastardo has pitched all of 2.2 innings, and his ugly ERA is completely the result of an utterly ridiculous, unsustainable .600 BABIP. If there's a concern with Bastardo, it's that despite his excellent strikeout numbers, he's maintained an unrealistically low HR/FB the last two years, and given the number of fly balls he allows a bout of gopheritis could be costly. But our expectations of Bastardo should be the same as they were a few weeks ago: he's an above-average reliever. There's no reason to expect him to perform poorly moving forward--his ZiPS RoS projection (3.01 ERA/3.16 FIP) reflects this.

Watson is a similar case--though he's already yielded two home runs, he has yet to walk anyone, is striking out a batter an innings, and has retained his impressive stuff. As with Bastardo, ZiPS (3.04 ERA/3.21 FIP) thinks Watson is still plenty good. Caminero has also been more effective than his ERA would indicate. He's among the hardest throwers in the game, and under Searage's tutelage he's gained more velocity than anyone else this year (3.5 MPH). His 5.40 ERA masks a 2.77 FIP.

Hughes is polarizing in that he's unlikely to maintain his excellent walk and strikeout rates, but whether you think he's an effective reliever serves as a litmus test for whether you believe in contact management as a repeatable skill and potential market inefficiency. I do, but that's a subject for another article. For now, I'll just say that Hughes has been phenomenal so far, and even his detractors probably wouldn't expect him to be anything less than adequate the rest of the way. Scahill and Liz have, respectively, over- and under-performed our modest expectations for them, but neither has demonstrated anything, process-wise, to make us radically re-evaluate their talent.

The only reliever about whom we've learned anything meaningful and new is Melancon. Not to beat a dead horse, but his velocity is significantly down (though it's experienced a modest rebound lately), his release point is off, and until his velocity returns he's basically slinging meatballs. In such a small sample size, scouting and process-based metrics are invariably more useful than outcome-based metrics, but in this case both tell a similarly ugly story. It's entirely possible that Melancon could reinvent himself to remain effective with his new, lower, velocity (Vance Worley did it), and if anyone can help him do so it's Ray Searage. But that's a difficult change to make on the fly, and it's going to be frustrating if we lose more high-stakes games while he's figuring things out.

It seems, then, that Pirates don't have a bullpen problem so much as a Mark Melancon problem. That is, their bullpen would, holistically, appear to be perfectly fine, outside of Melancon. And if Searage can fix Melancon's mechanics quickly, the problem may resolve itself.

What to do, then? We're confronted with a problem where the seemingly obvious solution (replace Melancon with Watson or Caminero in the closer's role) is difficult because of the interpersonal dynamics involved. Melancon's been a good soldier, and, asinine 'mental toughness' critiques aside, everyone acknowledges that he's been an elite reliever the last two years. If he insists he's healthy, a face-saving DL trip might be out of the question. And as much as many of us love to criticize Hurdle's over-reliance on predetermined roles, I think there probably is some value to his loyalty to his players--our inability to quantify a phenomenon is not proof of its nonexistence.

One off-the-wall option might be to bring Charlie Morton off the DL as a reliever, rather than bumping Vance Worley or Jeff Locke to the bullpen. Morton's electric stuff could play up in shorter spurts, and the stress on his body would be attenuated.

Ultimately, the Pirates need to decide whether Melancon can regain his velocity in the near future--this probably means identifying the root cause of his velocity loss, whether it's an unidentified injury or the change in his release point. If he's going to be working in the upper 80s, Hurdle is faced with the difficult proposition of moving on from a player who has, over the last two years, been the steadiest presence in the Pittsburgh bullpen.

The drama surrounding Melancon should not, however, lead us to panic about the entire bullpen's effectiveness. The Pirates' bullpen still has plenty of talent, and with Morton returning, Kingham and Sadler at AAA, and guys like Holdzkom and LaFramboise floating around, options exist. There's no pressing need to acquire someone like Papelbon, for example. Chances are, in a few months we won't even remember Melancon's April 21 meltdown.