First Pitch: A Look at Everything Going Wrong For the Pirates Bullpen This Year

If there’s one thing Neal Huntington has been consistently good at, it has been building a bullpen and finding a lot of quality relievers. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case during the 2014 season.

Last year the Pirates had a ton of success stories with their bullpen. Jason Grilli was given the chance to close, and was fantastic in the role. Mark Melancon was acquired in a trade from Boston, and bounced back from a horrible season to be one of the best relievers in baseball. Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez were acquired for nothing, and both had quality seasons in relief. Justin Wilson and Tony Watson both emerged as dominant left-handed relievers. Bryan Morris had good, but not great, numbers throughout the season. Even late season additions like Ryan Reid, Kyle Farnsworth, and Stolmy Pimentel were good. There were a few players who struggled, but overall the Pirates had almost everything working.

This year has been the exact opposite. The Pirates have a dominant pair of relievers in the late innings, with Mark Melancon and Tony Watson looking like two of the best relievers in baseball. But the Pirates lack guys who can get the ball from their starters to Melancon and Watson, or keep a close deficit close enough for the offense to come back. Jared Hughes has posted some good surface numbers, but hasn’t really gotten the trust to be the 7th inning guy. That might be due to his 3.90 FIP, which shows that he’s still good, but not as good as his ERA indicates.

So what has happened this year? Why did a bullpen that looked like one of the best in baseball last year suddenly look like one of the worst in baseball? Here is a look at the guys who have struggled.

Jason Grilli

Jason Grilli - Photo Credit: David Hague
Jason Grilli – Photo Credit: David Hague

We’ll start with the guy who was expected to be the anchor of the bullpen this year. Grilli struggled with the Pirates, posting a 4.87 ERA and a 4.56 xFIP that suggested he was on a rapid decline. His strikeouts were down. His walks were up. It looked like he was finished. Then the Pirates swapped him for Ernesto Frieri (who I’ll get to in a bit), and it looked like a deal that sent a guy who was on the way down for a guy who could rebound quickly. Unfortunately, the guy who actually rebounded immediately was Grilli.

Grilli has a 2.41 ERA and a 2.95 xFIP with the Angels so far in 18.2 innings. He has a 10.6 K/9, which is lower than his 2013 totals, but higher than his numbers this year with the Pirates. His 2.4 BB/9 is on par with last year, and half of the walks he was allowing with the Pirates. The switch was literally night and day. In Grilli’s last appearance for the Pirates, he gave up two runs on four hits in 0.2 innings of work. Three days later he made his Angels debut and didn’t look back. I don’t know what was wrong with Grilli this year in Pittsburgh, but the quick turnaround makes this look like a classic change of scenery scenario.

Jeanmar Gomez

Jeanmar Gomez - (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Jeanmar Gomez – (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Gomez wasn’t the greatest reliever last year, with a 3.95 xFIP. However, the fact that he could fill a lot of different roles gave him some value to fill out the bullpen. He was never expected to be a key late inning guy for the Pirates this year, but was expected to continue last year’s role. On the surface, his 3.54 ERA doesn’t look bad. However, the advanced metrics are hurting, with a 4.36 xFIP that suggests he won’t continue like this going forward. The big change with Gomez this year is that he has seen his ground ball rate drop from 55.4% last year to 46.9% this year.

Looking specifically at his sinker, opponents are hitting .279 off the pitch this year, after .230 last year. That pitch is the key for Gomez, and it’s not working for him this year.

Justin Wilson

Justin Wilson - (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Justin Wilson – (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Wilson has always had issues throughout his career with control. Last year those issues weren’t as major, and he limited his walk rate to a respectable 9.5 BB%. This year that percentage has gone up to 12.6%, which is worse than any level of Wilson’s pro career. The simple issue here is the walk rate. Wilson isn’t allowing many hits, and his strand rate is unlucky at 62.7%. If he can get the walks under control, he could be a good guy to have in the middle innings. Until that happens, the Pirates might want to look for an additional lefty to join the bullpen later in the season when rosters expand.

Bryan Morris

Bryan Morris - (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Bryan Morris – (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Here is a situation that is almost identical to Grilli. Bryan Morris had a 3.80 ERA this year with the Pirates, along with a 5.3 K/9 and a 4.6 BB/9. Coming up through the system, he looked like a potential late inning reliever. He didn’t show any of that in his time with the Pirates the last few years. Since being traded to the Marlins, Morris has been dominant. He has an 0.53 ERA and a 2.99 xFIP. His strikeout rate is way up, at an 8.5 K/9. His walk rate is the best of his career, at 2.7 BB/9.

From a pitch perspective, Morris made a switch when moving to Miami. With the Pirates he was using his four-seam fastball 32.5% of the time, his cutter 15.7% of the time, his sinker 27.7% of the time, and his slider 14.9% of the time. The slider might be the cutter classified wrong, since his cutter was a slider.

Since moving to Miami, Morris has almost eliminated the four-seam fastball, throwing it 7% of the time. He has been throwing the cutter a ton, at 42.7%. The slider isn’t showing up, which means he either made a switch, or is doing something better with the cutter where the readings aren’t inaccurate. He ramped up his sinker, throwing it 40.1% of the time. Basically, he’s a cutter/sinker guy now, mixing in the occasional curve and four-seam fastball. With the Pirates he was a two-fastball guy, and didn’t use the cutter as often. On the surface, it seems like that switch is what is leading to his current success.

Ernesto Frieri

Ernesto Frieri - (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Ernesto Frieri – (Photo Credit: David Hague)

I mentioned above that Jason Grilli looks like he benefitted from a change of scenery. Frieri’s numbers have only gotten worse since the deal, and he has received no such benefit. The Pirates just outrighted him to Indianapolis today, which means they’ll get more time to try and turn him around. It will also provide a setting where he can get constant work in without having to worry about the standings. Last year, this is the type of story that would have led to a dominant reliever for the Pirates.

Stolmy Pimentel

Stolmy Pimentel - (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Stolmy Pimentel – (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Pimentel is in a weird situation this year. He had a great season last year in the minors, re-emerging as a prospect and a guy who could have an MLB future. The Pirates obviously love his stuff, since they’ve held on to him all year in the majors. He’s out of options, so they’ve got no other choice if they want to keep him. Yet the way they are using him is strange. He’s basically being treated like a Rule 5 pick, rarely getting into games, and never really getting regular work. I don’t want to blame all of his issues on that, but it can’t be easy for a reliever to be used once a week and be expected to have success in that role. It makes sense why you do this with a Rule 5 guy. You can send that guy to the minors to continue his development the following year. This is it for Pimentel. If he can’t be trusted with a regular bullpen role now, then when can you trust him?

Fixing the Bullpen

It’s easy to look at the stats and give possible reasons why players are performing well or performing poorly. I can tell you that Justin Wilson is struggling because of his walks. But what can the Pirates do to get him back to the 2013 version that didn’t walk as many batters? What can they do to have a bounce back pitcher of their own, much like they had last year? So far, Jason Grilli and Bryan Morris are the only bounce back guys associated with them, and both pitchers rebounded for another team.

We’ve seen the Pirates build a successful bullpen before. We saw it last year. They’ve got a great late inning combo in Melancon and Watson. They just need to find some guys who can help get the ball to those late inning relievers. That could be accomplished by fixing their current options. It could be accomplished by a trade or a waiver claim. I don’t think anyone in Triple-A will really help much, since all of those guys are replacement level options, and that includes Vin Mazzaro. The Pirates have had success finding or creating good relievers before. They need to find a way to make this happen again, and soon.

Links and Notes

**Prospect Watch: JaCoby Jones Does Something That Hasn’t Been Done Since 1996

**Ernesto Frieri Outrighted to Triple-A By the Pirates

**Pirates Designate Wirfin Obispo For Assignment

**Pirates Claim Ramon Cabrera From the Tigers

**How a Sports Handicapper Tried to Frame Jeff Locke For Fixing Games Over a Facebook Message

**When Will Tyler Glasnow Be Promoted to Altoona?

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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This is precisely why some fans argued, vociferously, that the team should give up prospects to get Jon Lester, David Price, John Lackey, Huston Street, Andrew Miller, or another quality starter or reliever. If we got a a starter, we could have then moved Worley to the BP, which would have been an instant upgrade there, too. So, a two-fer. But, this site argued with equal passion that the team should hang onto the prospects (to increase the odds of fielding a competitive team in 2020, I suppose) and not deal, especially for a reliever. And, now, we see an article that “points out” the bullpen is a big problem. Oy veh!

R Edwards

The bullpen wouldn’t be nearly a problem if they wouldn’t have traded Morris, and would replace Pimentel with Mazzaro. Oliver over Gomez would also be an upgrade. All moves without having to trade away prospects for grossly overpriced relievers.


Big problems don’t always require big solutions. Justin Wilson appears to be finding his good control recently, and I’m not buying the articles opinion that Mazzaro is incapable of pitching quality innings. What’s he done to go from quality season to not even replacement level? Regardless, the team has never needed to give up top prospects for relievers before, and I still don’t see a reason to overpay now.


Then how about trade for a quality starter? The fact that there is no clear no. 1 starter on this team says it all. While many fans might now say, Liriano!, only a month ago it was unclear whether he should even have a spot in the rotation when returning from his injury. The fact that none of the Bucs starters crack any key top 20 NL stats categories (ERA, WAR, WHIP, etc.) says it all. Think about…there are 15 NL teams — and some stink — and none of our starters are in the top 20. How the heck are they going to win a playoff series, or more, with that? I say, trade the supposed 2020 all-star prospects (e.g., Bell) for quality pitching. Don’t be satisfied with just a .500+ team, let’s field a team that has a real chance to win.


The only guy I feel really comfortable with providing the pirate a solid chance to win is worley. Who would have thought this possible a couple of months ago, liriano is almost there, another start like today and I will feel the same about him and the big key to this has got to be how cole performs when he comes back. As far as morton,locke and volquez they are what a 4-5-6 starter should be with volquez being the most consistent of the bunch.


You’re now complaining about something that isnt even an issue for this team right now. The starters have been good these past few months. The issue is the bullpen. Why trade prospects to crowd that part of the team even more? You want change just for change’s sake and that doesn’t help this team win. It creates confusion and destroys chemistry. Liriano pitched fine as the ace last year and he looks to be an entirely different player from before his injury. That makes me think that the injury is what’s deflating his numbers. Another 40% percent of the rotation (Locke and Worley) simply don’t qualify for the stat categories you’re talking about. Volquez may well get to that top 20 plateau in a couple weeks, if not sooner, with the way he’s played. And then you have a fantastic talent in Cole coming back in another 7 days. The rotation is a non issue to me at this point. Bullpen problems should be fixed by bullpen pitchers


Which means you either have to trade for them (i.e., bullpen pitchers, groom them in the minors, or convert a starter (e.g., Worley into one if you acquire a much BETTER starter). They don’t just materialize out of thin air, especially mid-season. And, no, I don’t want change for the sake if change. Having passionately followed this team since 1970 (I remember the ordiginal Moose well) I’d like to see a MLB winner again. I can only get so excited about what supposed prospects might do for us 5 years from now, when the club is close to being a real contender now… But not with this staff or pen. P.S. The 2014 Axford model is not likely the answer.


There’s obviously a ton of noise in a half-season sample of a reliever, but it would sting if Morris ditching his 4-seamer in favor of his sinker – basically the Pirates bread and butter pitching move – allowed him to turn the corner on his career. Morris’ zone rate has actually been almost 5% LESS than with the Pirates, which is impressive considering his concurrent drop in walk rate.


But that is why a move was beneficial for Morris NMR. Sometimes a guy just has to be in a different situation to change their career course. Anothebrecent good example, though a starter ? Max Scherer.


Stats don’t mean much when it comes to pen pitchers, how they are used is more important. Hughes is a specialty right hander and should be used that way, not starting innings. Pimentel is not a relief pitcher of any kind. Gomez should be used in long relief and mop up, not as a high leverage pitcher. Morris was not a pitcher that was ready to be used in high leverage situations, the Marlins don’t use him that way. The Pirates know they need pen help, but they are reluctant to get it because they want to move one of their starters to the pen when Cole comes back and they want to stash Pimentel to use as a starter for next year, since this is the case the question arises, why did they not use Pimentel as a starter instead of Cumpton when they had the chance?


Seems like when Huntington and Hurdle grab players who don’t work out they just can’t let go. I understand the situation with Pimentel

and in one dominating relief situation this year you could see why. But baseball players need to be kept up to game speed to be be reasonably successful.

Bryan Graham

I’m not sure why any of this would be a surprise, basically the entire bullpen last season pitched so far above anything else they had ever done in their careers that a decline had to be expected. The only two who have improved are Watson and Hughes with their being no complaints on Melancon as he has been very solid although not as good as last year.


Melancon was a setup man last year, quite a bit different being the closer for most of this year.

R Edwards

So, the Pirates couldn’t “fix” Bryan Morris – but Miami did – yet they thought and still think they can fix Frieri, Pimentel, etc.?

I am still mad that the Pirates so easily gave up and then gave away Morris. What was once a strength is now a mess. Then to make it an even worse trade, passed up guys like AJ Reed to draft a corner OFer with no power/catcher which we don’t need – in Connor Joe.

Then they keep Pimentel up, when Mazzaro sits in Indy.


Miami did not fix Morris either, they just don’t use him in high leverage situations, they actually have a better field manager.

R Edwards

I don’t know what you are basing this on, but you are dead wrong. Since joining Miami, Morris has been largely their late inning setup guy – then handing games over to their closer. BTW, their bullpen is pretty impressive.


Morris has pitched the 8th inning or later in every appearance since the beginning of July.


This is incorrect.


Works both ways. Some guys the Pirates can fix, some they can’t. And some they can’t go to other teams and shine. Morris stopped throwing 4-seamers with Miami. Grilli found his location with Oakland. But Grilli would’ve never got to Oakland w/o the Pirates fixing him first. Nor would Melancon have been an All Star and current closer.

R Edwards

That is true – but the Pirates gave up on Morris way too early and what they got for him was a joke. It was just a terrible trade. Which we then made worse with the draft selection. The Marlins have to be giddy about it.
I think teams generally take way too much credit for “fixing” this guy or that guy. Maybe the pitcher figures it out??


The “legend” that Neal can assemble a bullpen is overblown, IMO. Appears to me any number of teams annually take some guy off the trash heap and that guy has a decent season. And they’re not all with the Pirates. In fact some are ex-Pirates.

If all of these guys were consistently good, they probably would’ve been starters. Such is life.

That said, my blood pressure goes up every time Hurdle sends Hughes in to start a clean inning. With the number of guys our pen puts on base, Hughes is the only choice to clean up the mess. Once he’s in the game, there’s no ones else to clean up, unless you’re going to use Watson/Melancon outside their typical roles.

So give the clean innings to Wilson or whomever. Leave Hughes to get the double play once the first guy blows up. That strategy alone probably would’ve netted an extra 2 wins this year.


Not often do I criticize in game decisions, but if sending Hughes in to start a clean inning sends your blood pressure up, how did that decision to send in Pimental last night down 1 run affect you ? I know what I thought ! And I was right.


There’s a conversation in comments on the Frieri post about that.


If Hurdle isn’t going to give Stolmy regular work then he certainly shouldn’t be trotting him out there in a high leverage situation in a pennant race. What drives me even crazier is when I see Gomez warming up in like the 7th inning…Gomez? Really? Hurdle does a terrible job of managing the pitching staff if you ask me and I don’t want to take any credit away from people, but maybe Searage isn’t the person who should be getting the kudos for pitching adjustments maybe that should all go to Benedict bc Searage certainly hasn’t helped the pen or helped Hurdles management of the pen. Watch Frieri work with Benedict and become Hanrahan.


Just two times in seven years under Huntington has the bullpen ranked above the bottom five teams in the league as judged by ERA, FIP, and WAR.
The perception that the Pirates put together “good” bullpens in the early rebuilding years is relative to the rest of the team, which was terrible.


I think the perception is based upon the ability to get good seasons from relief pitchers without paying much for, Hanrahan, Evan Meek, Jose Veras, and Grilli, come to mind. Then trading them at peak value, two months of Octavio Dotel was trade for Lambo and James MacDonald.

If your team has little starting pitching, your middle relievers are going to be worse and the bullpen numbers will be terrible. Relief pitchers are volatile, don’t be dependent upon them, don’t pay much for them, and have options.


I agree with this. I think finding good bullpen pitchers and building good bullpens are used synonymously, when that isn’t actually correct.


That was the point I was attempting to make in a meandering way. I think it is correct to say this front office has been good at finding late inning guys at low cost, and like you said that doesn’t equal a good bullpen.

The difference is this year one of those late innings guys struggled, maybe injury played a role. And it was not realistic to expect both Watson and Wilson to repeat 2013’s performance of below average K rate propelled by .230 BABIPs and Bryan Morris to actually be good, because he never has been. I haven’t looked this up but in prior years it seemed like the Pirates didn’t have as many middle relief arms that were out of options.

Lee Young

NMR …..quit bringing logic and stats into this argument. 🙂

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