The Pirates Didn’t Make a Big Splash, But Had the Best NL Bullpen in September

It’s no secret that the Pittsburgh Pirates had a weak bullpen. The group collectively combined for a 3.79 xFIP in the first half of the season, which tied for the second worst in the NL. Their -0.5 WAR was also second worst. Despite the struggles, they didn’t add anyone at the trade deadline. Instead, they made a few minor moves.

First, the team claimed John Axford off waivers from the Cleveland Indians on August 14th. About ten days later, they claimed left-hander Bobby LaFromboise, and sent him to Indianapolis. He was called up when rosters expanded. The biggest addition happened a few months earlier, when they signed John Holdzkom out of indy ball. Holdzkom was also called up when rosters expanded in September.

It might not just be the addition of Axford, Holdzkom, and LaFromboise, but the Pirates bullpen was outstanding in the final month of the season. They ranked first overall in the NL with a 2.74 xFIP. Their 1.1 WAR tied for second, behind the Phillies, and tied with Milwaukee. That’s a huge difference from where they were in the first half.

The biggest impact came from Holdzkom, who quickly established himself as an option for the seventh inning, putting up a 2.00 ERA and a 1.65 xFIP in nine innings of work, while dominating with a 14.0 K/9 ratio. Holdzkom said that he was surprised at how quickly manager Clint Hurdle trusted him in the late innings.

“A little bit, just because he had never seen me before,” Holdzkom said about the instant trust. “I’m happy he did. I messed up in Cincinnati, but hopefully I can go back out and get on the right track.”

The entire bullpen had trouble in the final series, which was an outlier for the month. The performance from Holdzkom was impressive enough that you could pencil him in to future bullpens. But the tall right-hander, who was playing in indy ball about four months ago, isn’t getting comfortable just yet.

“I haven’t secured anything by a long margin,” Holdzkom said. “I’ve been here a month and I’ve had some success, but that’s all it’s been. Every time you go out there, you’ve got to prove yourself.”

One thing that Holdzkom has almost certainly secured is a spot on the Wild Card roster tomorrow. There will be some relievers left off the list, as the Pirates will be carrying nine pitchers, but Holdzkom doesn’t look like a risk to be one of the guys left off the list.

Bobby LaFromboise is a risk to be left off the list, although if the Pirates want three lefties — which would be smart against the Giants — then it would make sense to carry him. That’s especially true considering his limited success as a LOOGY. He had a 2.45 ERA and a 9.82 K/9 in 3.2 innings over six appearances, with a .400 ISO against the five left-handers he faced.

LaFromboise said that the Pirates had watched him for a few years, and were excited to get him, as he was also excited for the opportunity. He also said that he was a little surprised to get the call to the majors in September and get time in important situational roles.

“I was a little surprised, but at the same time, they don’t know what they’ve got until they get somebody out there,” LaFromboise said. “I was just happy for the opportunities that they kept giving me.”

Axford has been to the playoffs before, including last year against the Pirates while he was with the Cardinals. He was the first of the trio to join the team, and while his September numbers aren’t as good, he offered up a different theory on why the bullpen did so well down the stretch.

“I think a lot of it just had to do with lifting a little bit of the weight off some of the guys,” Axford said, noting that he’s a guy who has pitched in a lot of roles in the past, allowing him to lift some pressure off other guys.

That definitely fits the results. Mark Melancon and Tony Watson have been lights out all year, and that continued this month. Jared Hughes also continued his strong season. But Justin Wilson and Jeanmar Gomez have struggled this year. Both relievers had good months in September. Gomez only made five appearances, but didn’t allow a run in those outings, with a 3.13 xFIP. Wilson drastically cut down on his walks, going to a 2.35 BB/9, which resulted in a 3.52 ERA and a 3.35 xFIP in nine appearances.

With Melancon and Watson, the Pirates had a strong late inning combo. They just couldn’t get the middle innings working. It all came together in September, and hopefully that strong finish will carry over to the post-season, allowing the Pirates to shorten a lot of games if they get a lead.

  • But, but, the bullpen makes people nervous. People really need to get some perspective by looking at the Bucs in the context of other teams. Its basically the same thing that was driving all the complaints about the offense, even though we had the second best in the NL this year.

  • It helps that the SPs went deep into games in Sept.

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