Similar to the starting rotation, 2021 was a year to forget for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ bullpen. Of the 63 players to appear on the Pirates’ revolving door roster, 24 of them, not counting John Nogowski, appeared in relief at some point. Whether they were reclamation projects, young arms looking to prove themselves in a lost season, or forgetful names brought up to fill in for injured regulars, the bullpen that was once heralded as the “Shark Tank” has now resorted to being a mere goldfish bowl.
At the beginning of the year, the bullpen had some potential to be stout with the likes of Richard Rodriguez, Chris Stratton and Sam Howard returning from a promising 2020 season, and David Bednar, Chasen Shreve and Duane Underwood Jr. showing signs of potential during Spring Training.
Some followed through on that potential, while some left a lot to be desired.
Let’s address the elephant in the room: David Bednar was outstanding in 2021.
Not only did he lead the Pirates in ERA (2.22), but he also acclimated the highest strikeout rate among all relievers with at least 20 innings pitched at 30.2 percent, according to Fangraphs. Not to mention his 8 percent walk rate.
Bednar also didn’t have much to improve on since Opening Day. He had excellent command of his off-speed pitches and his four-seam fastball topped out in the mid to upper-90s.
David Bednar, Filthy Curveballs.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 6, 2021
And sword. ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/S2G3AIEwop
Prior to his trade to the Atlanta Braves, Rodriguez was also great this season. He not only held his ERA to 0.88 at one point, but he also made opposing hitters whiff on with a three-pitch arsenal.
Chris Stratton had his best season in a Pirates uniform. The right-hander led all Pirates pitchers in wins (7) while only posting one late-season loss, and his numbers show just how effective he was.
He posted his second-best K/9 mark at 9.8 while also matching a career high WHIP of 1.298 according to Baseball-Reference. In addition, hitters could only muster a .233 batting average against him.
Stratton also showed promise from the closer role towards the end of the season, posting eight saves - his first time in the save column since 2017 when he was a member of the San Francisco Giants.
After giving up a lead off triple in the bottom of the 9th, Chris Stratton proceeded to strike out three of the next four Marlins preserving a 2-1 win. After the game Robby Incmikoski caught up with Stratton to talk about the first win on a long 10 game road trip. pic.twitter.com/gXysgmPMdU— AT&T SportsNet™ PIT (@ATTSportsNetPIT) September 18, 2021
One reliever who had an up-and-down season was Sam Howard. After a fiery start to the year, hitters quickly picked him apart and ballooned his ERA from under two to a little above eight. He did, however, work his way back into being an effective middle relief option, lowering said ERA to 5.60 to finish out the year.
Lastly, after a great season with Triple-A Indianapolis, Shea Spitzbarth had a good run in his short time with the Pirates.
While he only appeared in five innings, he made the most of his time by allowing just a pair of earned runs and holding opposing hitters to a .211 average.
Honorable mentions: Tanner Anderson, Clay Holmes
Leading off the average category is someone who was a late-season waiver claim: Anthony Banda.
After Pittsburgh claimed Banda off waivers on Aug. 2 from the New York Mets, he went on to go 1-2 with a 3.42 ERA in his last 30 games. He did, however, run into trouble during his final five appearances by allowing six hits and four earned runs over seven innings.
Anthony Banda with the Mets: 7.36 ERA/2.05 WHIP in 7 1/3 innings— Jake Crouse (@JakeCrouseMLB) September 18, 2021
Anthony Banda with the Pirates: 2.95 ERA/1.53 WHIP in 18 1/3 innings pic.twitter.com/xmmXr9pkpC
In addition to Banda, Duane Underwood Jr. fits in this category, simply because his goal was to eat up innings, which he did.
Pitching in 72.2 innings out of the pen this year, Underwood went 2-3 with a 4.33 ERA. He totaled 65 strikeouts this season, but surrendered 77 hits, 35 earned runs and nine home runs on the season.
One bright note from him this year was his ability to leave runners on base, as he finished with a 71.3 LOB percentage, marking the second-best among all Pirates relievers, according to Fangraphs.
One final average reliever is someone who Derek Shelton turned to the most during intense situations: Chasen Shreve.
While Shreve didn’t have a “bad” season, finishing 3-3 with a 3.20 ERA, he finished with a -0.1 WAR on the season, joining the majority of arms out of the pen. It also seemed that, from a spectator’s point of view, in almost every situation where a tying run was on base with either one or two outs, he was unable to strand them.
It was a weird season for Shreve, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see him back in 2022.
Honorable mention: Nick Mears
Now, things get a bit easier to breakdown
Starting off the bad list is Luis Oviedo. In a season where the former Rule 5 pick was plagued with injury, he could never get his footing as a stable relief option.
He was used once as an opener — which almost never pans out for a pitcher — and made several middle inning relief appearances. While he showed some positive signs, he mainly floundered in his first season in Pittsburgh.
Statistically, Oviedo was average in the strikeout realm, finishing with a 21.7 strikeout percentage, but his troubles came from walks and hits against.
According to Fangraphs, Oviedo tallied the fifth-worst walk rate of any Pirates reliever and put up an opponent batting average of .282.
While this does not seem promising for Oviedo down the road, he has the chance to grow during the offseason to become a better bullpen piece for next year.
Luis Oviedo was making hitters look silly in his MLB debut. pic.twitter.com/F6T76AHp1g— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) April 3, 2021
Another bad reliever was Shelby Miller, one of the Pirates’ many reclamation projects this season.
Miller was signed to a Minor League deal earlier this season and spent most of his time in Indianapolis prior to joining the Pirates, and was used as a long relief option. Needless to say, it wasn’t a spectacular return as many had hoped for.
In just 10 games, Miller let up three home runs and tallied an underwhelming strikeout rate of 15.3.
Starting off the ugly list of Pirates’ relievers is Kyle Keller. While he throws hard, he finished fifth on the team in HR/9 and had the worst WAR among all relievers this season with a -0.6. Need I say more?
Also on the list of ugly seasons out of the bullpen is Cody Ponce.
Despite showing signs of potential in 2020, Ponce struggled to gain momentum this season. After finishing above average last year in Base-Out Runs Saved — a statistic used to measure how many runs a pitcher saved when runners are on base — Ponce’s numbers fell to -16.3.
In addition, his hard-hit percentage went up from 33 to 38 percent this season, and hitters were able to post a line of .344/.382/.613 against him this season.
This could have just been a bad year for Ponce and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone if he finds his way back into the bullpen in 2022.