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Pittsburgh Pirates Hot Stove Target Profile: LHP Tony Sipp

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Will the Pirates take a ....Sipp? I am so sorry.

MLB: Houston Astros at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a stated goal of looking for left-handed relief help this year. In a surprisingly thin free agent market, one name might check all the team’s boxes.

Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington flat-out tipped his hand — sort of — when speaking to MLB.com’s Adam Berry from the ongoing GM Meetings in California.

When asked if the team would pursue left-handed relief help, Huntington’s response was simultaneously candid and canned:

“We will explore the Minor League free-agent market, the trade market as well as the Major League free-agent market to see if there’s something out there that makes sense for us,” Huntington told reporters, including MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki, at the General Managers Meetings in Carlsbad, Calif. “We’re still constructed where that lefty has to get righties out, so that’s what makes those guys tough to acquire.”

As Berry reminds us, this is not the team’s first foray into bringing on a southpaw reliever to complement Felipe Vazquez and Steven Brault. Pittsburgh loaded up on cheap left-handers last season — does anyone remember Josh Smoker or Jack Leathersich — yet none panned out. In the offseason the club was loosely linked to Xavier Cedeno before walking away with Smoker.

The seemingly annual southpaw pursuit is going to be even more challenging this year.

This offseason figures to be a thin market for left-handed relief help, at least at the major league free agent level. MLB Trade Rumors lists just 17 left-handed major league reliever free agents. The top end of this market is occupied by Andrew Miller and Zach Britton. The bottom shows names such as Aaron Loup and Daniel Coulombe.

In between, there is value to be had. Especially if the Pittsburgh Pirates stick to their wishlist of a lefty who is equally adept at getting right handed hitters out.

So how about Tony Sipp, he of the 2017 Wold Series champion Houston Astros?

Profile and Performance

Sipp is a nine year veteran who has spent the entirety of his career in the bullpen. At 35 years old, Sipp has spent time with the Cleveland Indians, Arizona Diamondbacks and the Houston Astros.

His present-day toolbelt carries a fastball that has maintained velocity over the years (Sipp averages just over 92 mph on the four-seam), a so-so slider and a split-finger fastball that is an absolute out pitch which carried a 29.4 percent overall whiff rate in 2018. Prior to 2018, he mixed in a sinker as well, though that pitch was not seen last season.

Dropping the sinker might have been the answer to prolonging Sipp’s career, as he enjoyed a strikeout rate of 27.8 percent in 2018, a sharp uptick over the past two seasons.

Career-to-Date

The case for

  • Here’s the breakdown of Sipp vs. LHH and RHH from 2018.

Tony Sipp L/R Splits - 2018

Batter Handedness Batters Faced wOBA K% BB% FIP
Batter Handedness Batters Faced wOBA K% BB% FIP
LHH 76 .249 22.4 7.9 3.16
RHH 75 .267 33.3 9.3 1.61
  • So, yeah, he can get right-handers out alright. He actually strikes out more right handers than lefties by percentage. Digging a bit deeper, that effective spit finger only comes out to play against right-handers. Of the 106 splitters Sipp threw last season, 103 came against right-handers. Indeed, Sipp prefers the slider to same side hitters, throwing 161 of those against them and only 26 sliders to right-handed bats.
  • Sipp’s velocity and overall strikeout ability has held up quite well for someone who will play half of 2019 at age 36.

The case against

  • Yet, Sipp is 35 years old with a checkered injury history over the past two seasons. Though he came back strong after an oblique injury curtailed the beginning of his 2018 season, this history plus his age make him a risky bet.
  • Is it fair to wonder if his effectiveness against RHHs in 2018 was a bit gimmicky, chiefly due to the split in splitter usage? If that pitch suddenly starts to fail, what then?
  • This is likely Sipp’s last chance at any significant payday, so he may be looking for much more than the Pirates are comfortable offering, whether that be in dollars or years. Or both.

What it might take

The lack of other viable major league free agent lefty bullpen help might factor into Sipp’s market ballooning right past what the Pittsburgh Pirates would likely pony up. While Sipp has clearly had ups and downs, he has proven a certain level of resiliency, both against injuries and Father Time. All told, he may be able to command a two-year deal in the range of $12-$14 million.

Conclusion

If the market is cooler than that, and Sipp is only fielding one-year deals, the Pittsburgh Pirates should jump at the chance to sign him, even if the dollar amount ends up a bit inflated.

Even with the built-in reliever volatility, signing Sipp for a short-term deal would be a smart play for a team that is looking to add-on to an already stout bullpen.