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Five Fast Facts: The Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen rebirth

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Pirates relievers have been through the fire in 2018, and are stronger for it.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Five Fast Facts, a semi-weekly series where we throw out five fast analytical facts surrounding the Pittsburgh Pirates. Today, let’s look at the club’s solidified bullpen.

Earlier this season, the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen looked to resemble more of an out-of-control rickshaw rather than the finely tuned engine we have seen in years’s past.

Flash forward to the All-Star Break, and suddenly the Pirates have a bullpen that is fast on its way to being considered a ‘weapon’ much like the 2013-2015 relief units.

This is especially true of the last 30 days. Pirates relievers have accrued 1.5 fWAR during that span, good for sixth-best (second in the NL) overall. Here are Five Fast Facts regarding Bucs’ relievers over the past month.

Back-end? Check.

It seems like forever ago that I opined that hitters were winning early against Felipe Vazquez. Though the young fireballer was never a complete liability on the mound, his aura of near-invincibility seemed irrevocably shattered.

All Vazquez has done since then is go about his business, picking up those pieces and putting himself back together in an impressive fashion.

Over the last 30 days, Vazquez is tied for first in individual fWAR amongst qualified MLB relievers with a 0.9 rating. He has allowed all of zero earned runs during that span. He carried a 52.2% groundball rate over the month, with an even 50 percent strikeout rate against just a four percent walk rate.

Yep, he’s back.

And he’s got a perfect caddy with him in Kyle Crick. I recently wrote how under-appreciated Crick might be. A week later, I’m not so sure if that still holds true. Crick is 10th in fWAR at 0.6 over the last 30 days, with a 26.9 percent strikeout rate and a 5.8 percent walk rate. The strikeout rate comes in at a modest increase over his season long number at the time of that writing (24.7 percent), but the eye opener is the walk rate. When I wrote that piece last week, his season long rate was 11.1 percent; over the past 30 days he has enjoyed a near six percent drop.

Talk about dialing yourself in.

Aside from personal accomplishment, Crick and Vazquez in their current forms give the Pittsburgh Pirates something they have not had since 2015: A completely solid 1-2 punch to close out games.

Vazquez will have to prove that he has the fortitude to continue pitching at the level he is capable of, and Crick will have to show that he can maintain effectiveness after blowing right past his previous career high in appearances. However, right now the club and its fans should feel very comfortable with these two at the end of the bullpen.

Yin and Yang

It’s not all hunky-dory with the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen over the last 30 days.

As a team, Pirates relievers throw the eighth-most pitches when ahead in the count at 12.3 percent. That’s good!

Those same relievers also throw the 3rd most pitches behind in the count at 13.6 percent. That’s not so good!

Are Pirates relievers playing with fire? Maybe. And here’s why:

Still coming back to ol’ reliable

When Pittsburgh Pirates relievers are behind in the count, they rely on their fastball to get them out of a precarious position.

That’s not very surprising, on a number of levels. Of course pitchers — relievers, starters, LOOGYs, specialists, fireman, long man, particle man, universe man, whoever — will throw more fastballs to get back into counts. Fastball counts are not yet dead, despite news of the contrary.

The other level is that these are the Pittsburgh Pirates we’re talking about, of course, and it should come as no surprise that they throw the second-most fastballs by percentage — 38.7 percent when behind in the count over the last 30 days.

Their resulting .452 wOBA against fastballs (good for an 18th overall ranking) when behind in the count looks bad on paper, but in the context of MLB as a whole — where the wOBA against rate for relievers over the past month is .439 — it might not be quite so bad.

So yes, the Pirates bullpen may be playing with fire; But right now, it’s working. At the very least, it’s not hurting them as much as one might think.

But, they put them away

However, in two-strike counts, Pittsburgh Pirates relievers do as good a job as anyone at putting hitters away. Their .207 wOBA against when ahead in the count is seventh-best in MLB over the past 30 days.

Middle-out

It’s not just the end of the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen that has been reborn over the past month.

Richard Rodriguez burst on to the scene early in the season, seemingly striking out everyone.

He’s come back to the pack a little bit, but over the past 30 days in particular, Rodriguez has limited hitters to an average exit velocity of just 84.9 mph, the lowest among Pirates relievers over this time frame with at least 30 batted balls.

Though Tyler Glasnow’s performance over the past month might leave a little to be desired to the naked eye, his peripherals tell a different story. He is striking out 35.2 percent of his batters over the past month. With a developing slider and a newfound mindset, his maturation could be the top storyline to watch in the second half.

Edgar Santana has been able to harness his stuff to the tune of a 1.7 percent walk rate over the past 30 calendar days.

And we haven’t even talked about Michael Feliz, who is trying to put himself back together but has the talent to do so. We did not mention Steven Brault, the long man whose future as a reliever is anything but certain. If these two can get back to their level, the Pittsburgh Pirates suddenly have a structurally sound bridge to get to Vazquez and Crick.

The Pirates’ bullpen has seen some rough patches this year, but it is firing on all cylinders right now by many measures.