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Pirates’ post-mortem: The bullpen

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s probably been noted here once or twice that the Pirates’ 2017 bullpen was terrible apart from Felipe Rivero and Juan Nicasio. The numbers are pretty stark. Rivero and Nicasio totaled 3.3 fWAR. The rest of the relievers (I’m not including relief appearances by starters in any of this) totaled -1.1 fWAR. Combined, Rivero and Nicasio had an opponents’ slash line of 194/259/278. The other relievers: 266/341/447. Overall, the Pirates’ bullpen ranked 21st in the majors in fWAR, 19th in xFIP and 25th in K/9.

The Pirates’ inability to come up with decent relievers apart from Rivero and Nicasio really showed up in the seventh inning. The Pirates were terrible in that inning, with a team ERA of 5.00 and opponents’ OPS of .845. The NL averages were 4.35 and .742. It gets even worse when you take out Rivero and Nicasio. In the seventh, they combined for a 1.44 ERA. Everybody else (this includes starters) had a seventh inning ERA of 5.65.

A lot of the trouble resulted from the team’s initial late-inning group — Rivero, Daniel Hudson and Tony Watson — quickly becoming a fiasco right from the start . . . the last two-thirds of it, of course. The horrific start required some early adjustments, such as relegating Hudson to white flag duty until he started to pitch better, and sending Antonio Bastardo to the phantom DL. The bullpen never had a really good stretch, though, as its monthly xFIP shows:

April: 5.01
May: 4.07
June: 4.23
July: 4.13
August: 4.68
September: 4.55

Surprisingly, Hudson wasn’t bad after April. His ERA was 9.90 in the first month, then 2.08 from May through July. It was 7.15 in August, then dropped back to 2.70 in September.

I can’t help thinking that the Pirates’ growing obsession with middle relievers hampered them in finding the sort of late-inning, shutdown relievers that teams increasingly look for. Teams don’t just expect their closers to dominate these days; they look for 3-4 relievers, or more, who can go in and strike out a bunch of guys. The Pirates, though, seemingly worried about the young pitchers in their rotation having early exits, have tried to compensate by loading up on relievers “who can pitch multiple innings,” which is becoming the pitching version of the dreaded bench player who can “play a lot of positions.”

The Pirates tried a number of pitchers who were ostensibly on the roster due to the supposed ability to last multiple innings, although some of them pitched badly enough that they rarely did so. I specifically recall Wade LeBlanc, Johnny Barbato, Josh Lindblom, Jhan Marinez, and A.J. Schugel being touted in that role. Of course, that meant that the Pirates had two, and sometimes more, long relievers in the bullpen at a time. What seemed to be missing from the equation was that multiple innings don’t help the team if they’re not good innings. Here’s what the team’s long relievers did:

LeBlanc: 4.06 xFIP, 0.1 fWAR
Marinez: 4.66 xFIP, -0.1 fWAR
Schugel: 4.23 xFIP, 0.1 fWAR
Barbato: 5.76 xFIP, -0.3 fWAR
Lindblom: 4.68 xFIP, 0.2 fWAR

Joe Blanton is a distant memory. So is Vin Mazzaro, for that matter. Schugel and Marinez were especially prone to letting inherited runners score. Between them, they let 21 of 41, or 51% come around. The NL average was 31%.

Of course, long relievers don’t generally stand out as strikeout artists. That was true of the Pirates’ bullpen generally. Pirates’ relievers ranked 15th in K/9 at 8.26. The top six teams (Yankees, Astros, Dodgers, Indians, Cubs and Red Sox) all got 9.81 K/9 or better from their bullpens. The Astros’ top seven relievers all had a K/9 in double figures. Oh, and all six of those teams made the playoffs. No playoff team ranked lower than 20th. That was the Nationals, who no doubt spent the year wishing they still had Rivero. The Diamondbacks were 15th.

Maybe finding dominant relievers would be easier if the Pirates’ farm system started producing them. I’ve written before about the current regime’s track record, or lack of one, in producing relievers. If you eliminate Tony Watson and Jared Hughes, who were drafted under Dave Littlefield, the list of successful relievers developed by this front office begins and ends with Justin Wilson. I can think of two factors contributing to that track record.

One is the team’s continuing reluctance to rely on prospects to fill secondary roles on the major league team, like bench players and relievers. That reluctance surfaced again this year. Even though the organization finally developed some potentially promising relievers — Edgar Santana, Dovydas Neverauskas and Angel Sanchez -- the Pirates didn’t want to give them opportunities despite the continued struggles of most of their relievers. Instead, the front office preferred turning to other team’s rejects, like Barbato and Marinez. The whole thing reached a bizarre peak when the Pirates acquired Joaquin Benoit for no coherent reason. It wasn’t until partway into September, when the team was long since out of contention, that Santana and Neverauskas started getting opportunities, probably in part because Benoit was so embarrassingly bad that he simply disappeared. (At least we know Ciriacoville is somwhere in the dugout. Benoitburg can’t even be located on Google Maps.)

The second possible reason for the team’s inability to develop relievers is the rigid refusal to convert starters to relief. This year, the Pirates had pitchers in AAA -- Nick Kingham, Clay Holmes and Tyler Eppler — who have very good stuff, but who have no clear path to the major league rotation. All three have had issues of one sort or another as starters, so it seems logical to try them in relief at some point. Maybe the Pirates will try it eventually. So far, though, they just don’t seem that flexible, unlike the Cardinals, who’ve moved guys like Trevor Rosenthal and Kevin Siegrist to relief with little or no bullpen experience in the minors.