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Building Pirate bullpens: Part 1

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Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

The process of building a bullpen has always been interesting, at least to me.  For one thing, it's a never-ending process; not only does it have to take place every year in spring training, it continues throughout the year.  It's specifically been interesting to see the Pirates go through it year after year, because they have a front office that understands that it's an organic process, that the bullpen can't ever be set in stone.  I thought it'd be interesting to try to identify any common or evolving threads over the years in their methods.

Of course, some things we know right off the bat:

  • The Pirates don't like making big commitments, in dollars or years, to relievers.  This follows from their explicit recognition of the fact that reliever performance is highly variable.
  • They like hard throwers; their pitching staff, starters and relievers had the highest average fastball velocity in MLB in 2015.
  • They seem to like having at least one middle reliever who induces grounders to go into the game to try to get a double play ball.
  • They don't like LOOGYs, instead preferring left-handed relievers who can pitch to all hitters effectively.  This dislike has intensified under Clint Hurdle.  Even when he's had pitchers who were suited only to be LOOGYs, he still didn't use them that way, with poor results.

What none of that explains though, is the following, which is the yearly ranking, under this front office, of the Pirates' bullpen in ERA:

2008:  28th
2009:  26th
2010:  28th
2011:  20th
2012:  11th
2013:  3rd
2014:  9th
2015:  1st

One factor, no doubt, was Ray Searage becoming interim pitching coach in August 2010, a post that was confirmed after the season.  I don't think by itself that explains the progress.  Searage is just the coach; somebody is choosing these pitchers.  A recent article (sub. required) at Pirates Prospects pointed out that it took the current front office several years to replace many of the amateur scouts that it inherited when Neal Huntington replaced Dave Littlefield as GM.  Similarly, the front office almost certainly needed several years to build up a group of advisors and coaches (one being Searage) to handle, among other things, the process of building a bullpen.  But that still leaves me with the question, Why did Denny Bautista fail and Arquimedes Caminero (so far) succeed?

I'm going through year by year, two years at a time.  Lefties are indicated by *.  I'll show games pitched in the majors, ERA and saves if any.  I'm going to look at AAA as well as the majors because depth is important and a team can't know at the beginning of the season which pitchers in AAA are going to be needed, and which are going to merit promotions.

2008

Holdovers

Matt Capps (49 G, 3.02 ERA, 21 Sv):  Capps had taken the closer's role from Salomon Torres the previous year and remained in it, except he missed much of July and August with arm problems.

John Grabow* (74 G, 2.84 ERA, 4 Sv):  Served mainly in a setup role and did some closing when Capps was out.  Grabow was not generally used as a LOOGY and didn't have a big platoon split, possibly because his out pitch was a change.

Sean Burnett* (58 G, 4.76 ERA):  Burnett had been struggling to recover from shoulder surgery since 2004 and finally got back to the majors in May 2008 as a reliever.  He was much better against LH than RH hitters, but the Pirates didn't generally use him as a LOOGY.  The Nationals later did to a greater degree and he had more success with them.

Damaso Marte* (47 G, 3.47 ERA, 5 Sv):  Another lefty with a big platoon split, the Pirates did not use Marte as a LOOGY.  He did some closing when Capps was out.  The Pirates traded him to the Yankees with Xavier Nady at the deadline and he broke down almost immediately after that.

Franquelis Osoria (43 G, 6.08 ERA):  A sinkerball pitcher who rarely missed bats, Osoria had been acquired on waivers the previous year from the Dodgers.  He'd pitched mostly poorly with LA and also in 2007 after moving to Pittsburgh, but he was heavily used in long relief in 2008.  He was terrible (.336 BAA), leading to a couple demotions to AAA.  The team released him after the season and he never returned to the majors.

Jesse Chavez (15 G, 6.60 ERA):  A hard thrower acquired in 2006 for Kip Wells, Chavez debuted briefly in 2008.

Romulo Sanchez (10 G, 4.05 ERA, 1 Sv):  Another hard thrower, Sanchez pitched briefly in the majors in 2007-08, then was traded for Eric Hacker early in 2009.

Acquisitions

Evan Meek (9 G, 6.92 ERA):  One of Huntington's earliest moves was claiming Meek in the Rule 5 draft, a process that Dave Littlefield regarded strictly as a means to give away talent rather than acquire it.  Meek threw in the mid-90s with a high groundball rate.  The Pirates worked a cash deal with Tampa that let them keep Meek and send him to the minors early in the season.

Tyler Yates (72 G, 4.66 ERA, 1 Sv):  A less talented version of Meek (mid-90s velocity with a good GB rate), Yates came in a trade just before the season.  He'd been mediocre with Atlanta and the Braves were about to remove him from their roster.  He didn't pitch well for the Pirates, but they seemed enamored with him and used him in a setup role.

T.J. Beam (32 G, 4.14 ERA, 1 Sv):  The Pirates claimed Beam off waivers before the season.  He didn't throw hard and was an extreme flyball pitcher.  He ended up splitting the season between AAA and the majors, where he served in a mopup role.

Denny Bautista (35 G, 6.10 ERA):  Bautista was a former top prospect who threw in the mid-90s but had failed in numerous chances due to poor control.  The Pirates traded for him in June and used him heavily the rest of the season.  Obviously, he pitched poorly.

Craig Hansen (16 G, 7.47 ERA, 1 Sv):  Hansen came in the Jason Bay trade.  He had great stuff, but couldn't overcome injury and control problems.

Marino Salas (13 G, 8.47 ERA):  The Pirates got Salas from Milwaukee in a preseason trade, the point of which apparently was simply to get rid of Salomon Torres.  He threw fairly hard (93 mph).  Salas spent most of the year in AAA and was awful during a couple callups.  The Pirates dumped him after the season.

AAA Depth

The Indianapolis bullpen at the start of the season was Burnett, Beam, Salas, Chavez, Sanchez and Jonah Bayliss.  Except for Bayliss, all reached the majors.  None pitched well.  Bayliss was a trade pickup from two years earlier who'd never worked out.  He was awful in AAA and the Pirates sent him to Toronto during the season.

Except for Chavez and arguably Sanchez, Huntington didn't inherit any impressive arms, and neither was major-league-ready.  Capps had more or less average velocity for a right-hander, probably below average for a late-inning reliever.  The three lefties all had decent velocity; none was close to being a shut-down reliever, although Marte had been earlier in his career.  Torres' (and Capps') arms probably had been degraded by overwork under Lloyd McClendon.  Osoria apparently fit the role of would-be GIDP-inducer, but he just wasn't any good.  To the extent there were any commodities of (very limited) value, it was the three lefties, and Huntington soon set about trading them (more on that when we get to 2009).

One trend that started quickly was the interest in velocity, especially if accompanied by ground balls.  A search for guys throwing in the mid-90s pretty much meant right-handers.  The big acquisitions in this regard were Hansen, Meek, Yates and Bautista.  Hansen was undermined from the start by injuries.  Meek turned out very well, but his success was cut short by injuries.  Unlike Meek, Yates and Bautista had significant major league track records and their performance for the Pirates was consistent with those track records, mediocre in Yates' case an bad in Bautista's.

2009

Holdovers

Matt Capps (57 G, 5.80 ERA, 27 Sv):  Capps returned as closer but had a rough season, partly due to elbow trouble that caused him to miss time off and on.  He was non-tendered after the season because the Pirates didn't want to pay him an arbitration salary and couldn't trade him.

Jesse Chavez (73 G, 4.01 ERA):  Chavez led the team in games and pitched sort of decently.  After the season the Pirates traded him for Akinori Iwamura.

John Grabow* (45 G, 3.42 ERA):  Grabow put up a solid ERA, although his xFIP was 4.87.  He went to the Cubs in a deadline deal.

Evan Meek (41 G, 3.45 ERA):  Meek opened in AAA but came up early in the season.

Sean Burnett* (38 G, 3.06 ERA, 1 Sv):  Burnett, like Grabow, put up a good ERA but had a much higher xFIP at 4.56.  The Pirates traded him to the Nationals at the deadline.

Denny Bautista (14 G, 5.27 ERA):  Bautista spent most of the season in AAA, but came up in August.  He continued to struggle and was non-tendered after the season.

Tyler Yates (15 G, 7.50 ERA):  Yates went out for Tommy John surgery early in the season.  The Pirates clearly thought highly of him, as they brought him back the next two years on minor league contracts.  He was never able to make it back from the surgery.

Phil Dumatrait* (15 G, 6.92 ERA): A waiver pickup before the 2008 season, Dumatrait was tried as a starter but had arm trouble.  He tried again as a reliever in 2009, getting some time late in the season.  He was let go after the season.

Acquisitions

Steven Jackson (40 G, 3.14 ERA):  A groundball pitcher with fringy velocity, Jackson was a waiver acquisition in May.  He spent some time in AAA but most of the rest of the year in Pittsburgh.  He wasn't as effective as his ERA; his xFIP was 5.27.

Joel Hanrahan (33 G, 1.72 ERA):  Acquired in the trade with the Nationals, Hanrahan was a very hard thrower who'd pitched well at times for the Nationals, but had strike zone issues.  At the time of the trade, he had a 7.71 ERA but a 3.91 xFIP, so this apparently was an early example of the Pirates relying on non-traditional stats.

Donnie Veal* (19 G, 7.16 ERA):  Another Rule 5 pick, Veal had been a top prospect due to good velocity and a plus curve, but he had control problems.  The Pirates managed to get him through the season with a combination of mopup outings and a DL stay for a phantom injury.

Chris Bootcheck (13 G, 11.05 ERA):  Bootcheck had struggled in parts of five seasons with the Angels.  The Pirates picked him up on waivers before the season.  He had decent velocity (92-93 mph) but wasn't a groundball pitcher.  He spent most of the season in AAA, then got bombed after being called up in August.

AAA Depth

Jackson, Bautista, Bootcheck and Meek all spent time in AAA.  The rest of the AAA bullpen early in the season was made up of veteran journeyman whom had significant (Jason Davis, Jeremy Powell) or a little (Juan Mateo) experience in the majors.  Romulo Sanchez opened the season at Indianapolis but was traded in May.  Late in the season, the Pirates promoted veteran Jean Machi from AA.  He wasn't a hard thrower, but pitched very well at both levels.  The Pirates brought him back the next year.

The Pirates managed to assemble what, on the surface, appeared to be a passable bullpen, at least if you go by ERA.  The big exception obviously was Capps, but Chavez, Burnett, Grabow, Meek and Jackson -- the five most-used relievers apart from Capps -- all had seemingly passable seasons.  Every one of them, though, had higher xFIPs than ERAs, much higher in the case of Burnett, Grabow and Jackson.

Huntington's trend of disposing of lefties continued.  Burnett, Grabow and struggling starter Tom Gorzelanny, all lefties with just decent velocity, were traded for hard throwing righties, specifically Hanrahan, Jose Ascanio and Kevin Hart.  The Pirates planned to try Ascanio and Hart as starters, but they were done in by injuries.

Despite the decent ERAs turned in by the more heavily used starters, as well as Hanrahan's strong performance the last two months, the team's bullpen ERA ranked near the bottom in MLB again.  This was partly because of Capps and partly because of the depth or fringe guys:  Bautista, Bootcheck, Dumatrait and Veal were awful.  It didn't help that Indianapolis' staff had a lot of pitchers, like Davis, Powell and Mateo, who were just hanging on and offered no upside.  That limited the pool of candidates for callups.