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Comparing the “new” Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen to the rest of Major League Baseball

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MLB: Texas Rangers at Minnesota Twins Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

After the dust settles on the 2018 MLB non-waiver trade deadline, how does the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen compare to others around MLB?

The Pittsburgh Pirates remember the success they enjoyed from 2013 through 2015, and the club was likely lost in reminiscence when recalling the “shark tank.”

Jason Grilli, Tony Watson and Mark Melancon kicked things off back in 2012, reaching their heights as a trio in 2013. Grilli departed, yet Melancon and Watson stepped right up to keep the party going. Names floated in and out — Jared Hughes, Justin Wilson, Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton just to name a few — but the idea remained static: A lengthy bullpen that wasn’t just top heavy.

Things turned in 2016 of course. Felipe Rivero Vazquez quickly rose to prominence after coming over from Washington, and Tony Watson was still effective. Juan Nicasio even provided some length in the pen once his dalliance as a starter was cut short.

Yet the end result was a unit that was lights out in the back end, but lacking in the road there.

After the addition of Keone Kela, the emergence of Kyle Crick and the surprising successes of Richard Rodriguez and Edgar Santana, the Pittsburgh Pirates seem to have a more well-rounded bullpen again.

Everything old is new again. The question now becomes: How does this Pirates bullpen stack up? Is their solidified bullpen as solid — front to back — as those of other post season contenders?

Three Key Factors

To start trying to answer this question, I wanted to compare the current Pittsburgh Pirates relievers to the rest of baseball in three key areas - strikeout rate (K%, the percentages of batters that a pitcher strikes out), walk rate (BB%, the same as K% but for walks), and FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, better indicator for relievers than ERA).

These were somewhat arbitrarily selected, yet with reason. To me and others, chief signs of good relievers are the ability to miss bats and limit walks. Plain and simple. Clean. Let’s throw in FIP in there as a good measure

I then looked up every single reliever in MLB that has thrown at least 30 innings this season. This was done to limit our look at those with a significant enough sample size to draw decent conclusions.

The current league rates for K% / BB% / FIP for relievers are as follows:

K% - 23.2%
BB% - 9.3%
FIP - 4.01

All things above considered, perhaps the best way to gauge the “length” of a bullpen might be to see how many relievers a team has that post rates/FIP that are *better* than the league rates for all three metrics shown above.

I grouped all of the teams together with current relievers after the trade deadline and found that one team blows everyone out of the water in terms of how many of these relievers they have.

Houston Astros

Reliever K% BB% FIP
Reliever K% BB% FIP
Collin McHugh 35.10% 5.70% 2.42
Brad Peacock 35.10% 6.40% 3.74
Ryan Pressly 32.40% 8.80% 3.18
Will Harris 30.50% 6.70% 2.53
Hector Rondon 30.10% 7.10% 2.25
Chris Devenski 27.30% 6.80% 3.99

Note: newly acquired Houston Astros reliever Roberto Osuna was not included in this study due to having only pitched 15.1 innings this season.

Wow.

That is a pretty impressive bullpen that the Houston Astros have put together. Even before the addition of Ryan Pressly, the Astros had the most relievers that carry K%, BB% and FIP rates that are BETTER than the league rates for all three. The Astros also take home a special bonus award for having the most relievers with a 30 percent or higher strikeout rate.

The rich will only get richer as well, with the Astros being “forced” to add one of their starting pitchers to the bullpen for extra juice when the postseason rolls around.

If we look around the rest of baseball, the next “lengthiest” bullpen is one that you might recognize.

Pittsburgh Pirates Relievers

Reliever K% BB% FIP
Reliever K% BB% FIP
Felipe Vazquez 32.50% 9.10% 2.18
Richard Rodriguez 29.40% 5.60% 2.82
Keone Kela 29.00% 9.20% 2.97
Edgar Santana 23.40% 3.10% 3.08

Yes, the Pittsburgh Pirates now carry the second-highest number of relievers (four) that better each of those three key metrics. There are several teams with three such relievers, about 10 with two and many with one or zero.

Think back to the beginning of the 2018 season. The bullpen was stocked with names such as George Kontos and Josh Smoker. Santana had not yet solidified, and Rodriguez did not join the big-league club until April 17th.

Oh, and Kyle Crick (not pictured here, due to a 10.4 percent walk rate (25.4 K% and 2.72 FIP though)) also didn’t start the year with the Pirates.

It has been an incredible turnaround that has the Pittsburgh Pirates absolutely set for the rest of the season and beyond. Even during the Shark Tank days, the club would have to deal with attrition, some of which brought about more speedily through ineffectiveness, but attrition nonetheless.

These four — five if we count Crick, which we should — are under control for at least the next two years (Kela) or more (everyone else). Ineffectiveness can always creep in, but from where we are standing at this very moment, that fact should be awfully exciting for Pittsburgh Pirates fans.

They say the best bullpens are usually built throughout a season. The 2018 bucco bullpen is no exception. The key difference is that this one is also built for the future.

Just a starting point

This study aimed to look at those relievers who could be dominant. In the end, however, outs are outs. If a reliever or overall bullpen gets them without giving up too much damage, their mission can be considered accomplished, even if they don’t dominate each of those three metrics.

A case in point would be the Boston Red Sox. They actually have zero relievers who meet our criteria above. Yet they carry the fourth-best team fWAR among relief pitching with 4.9. They carry two all-world relievers in Matt Barnes (37.6 percent K%; 1.95 FIP) and Craig Kimbrel (36.6 percent K%; 3.10 FIP). Should Boston be considered any less “effective” simply because they don’t have any relievers that meet the criteria above? Absolutely not. Nor should the Yankees, who carry two arms that meet those standard who are not Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances, owners of 43.7 and 43.3 percent strikeout rates, respectively. They are David Robertson and Chad Green. Would anyone contend that Robertson and Green - perfectly good releivers - are thus considered to be better or more effective than Chapman and Betances?

No. of course not.

It is not much of a coincidence, then, that the Yankees lead baseball in team reliever fWAR with a nice 6.9 figure.

Again, the study above should be considered a starting point, but what a starting point it is for Pittsburgh Pirates fans eager to see a return to the days of a dominating bullpen shutting the door.