The start of a season magnifies everything. If a player does well, the hopes for that player skyrocket. If a player struggles, the panic sets in. And perhaps no position experiences this more often than the bullpen.
In fact, bullpen panic exists year round. If Starling Marte starts the year 3-for-29, people will have concerns. If he goes 3-for-29 in July, people will hardly notice, outside of just pointing out that he’s had a bad stretch of eight games. But that’s not the case with the bullpen. Their struggles are highlighted year-round, and that’s especially true early in the season.
The Pirates have seen their bullpen struggle this year, and that continued in tonight’s game against the Chicago Cubs. Mark Melancon blew a two-run save opportunity, giving up three runs in the ninth inning. That came after Tony Watson gave up a run in the eighth inning. And all of this wiped out the Pirates scoring six runs combined in the sixth and seventh innings, going from down 4-2 to leading 8-5.
These types of losses hurt. They’re the types of games a team should win, especially when you hand a three run lead to two of the best relievers in the game last year. Normally you’d just chalk it up to a bad night and move on. The problem is that it hasn’t been just one night.
Monday night’s game saw Arquimedes Caminero inherit a 1-1 game, and then proceed to give up three runs, with two earned. Caminero has been fantastic outside of this outing. Antonio Bastardo followed by giving up another run, and the Pirates lost 5-2.
Prior to tonight, Tony Watson gave up three runs on opening day, giving the Reds a 5-2 victory. But between that outing and tonight’s outing he made five appearances with five shutout innings.
Then there’s Mark Melancon, who came on to pitch last Monday with a four run lead and gave up three runs before closing out the game. I will add that he made three appearances between that outing and tonight’s outing, combining for 2.1 innings, with no runs, one hit, and one walk. Prior to that, he pitched two shutout innings in two appearances. So he’s had two bad outings out of seven, and one of those cost the Pirates a win.
But there is additional concern with Melancon, which comes due to his decreased velocity. When I talked to him last week about this topic, he said that he didn’t notice the velocity drop. Apparently that’s still his response.
I don’t think the velocity is an issue, as long as Melancon can be effective with a lower velocity. And I’m not sure that we can call two bad outings in seven appearances a big enough sample to say that he is or isn’t effective. You can go back to last year and find a few seven game groupings where he had two bad outings. He led to two losses in his first five appearances in August. He blew two saves in games that the Pirates lost in the first half of May. Then there were other instances where he had bad outings, but didn’t cost the Pirates a game.
Right now the bullpen looks like a concern, but it’s a much smaller concern than the reactions would indicate. Those reactions are based on a 14 game sample which is highlighted by the start of the season, along with the addition of a velocity drop from the top reliever, who has struggled in two of his appearances.
A month from now we might be looking back at this situation as the start of a bigger problem. And if this does turn into a bigger problem, then the Pirates should eventually act. I just don’t know if now is the time to act on this, especially since the alternative scenario would have us looking back at this a month from now and laughing at how a few bad games had people worrying about the bullpen. Or maybe no one will remember it, just like no one remembers how plenty of Pirates hitters struggled during the first few weeks of the 2014 season, before the offense went on to become one of the best in the majors.
The moral of the story? The early season results aren’t always a good indicator of how things will go. The bullpen is a concern, but not a concern that needs to be acted on yet.
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.