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How Antonio Bastardo’s Reemergence is Helping Tony Watson

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Antonio Bastardo has been one of the most effective left-handed relief pitchers in baseball over his six-year career. Since 2009, Bastardo ranks third in the National League in WAR among left-handed relievers, behind only Aroldis Chapman and Sean Marshall, and his 11.37 K/9 ranks second only to Chapman.

After the Pirates traded left-handed pitcher Justin Wilson in the off-season, they needed a second lefty out of the bullpen to complement Tony Watson. According to Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington, Bastardo had been a player that the Pirates coveted for a handful of years, and they finally acquired him this past winter from the Phillies in exchange for 23-year old left-handed Double-A pitcher Joely Rodriguez. Bastardo had just finished his fifth consecutive season of striking out over a batter an inning, and was effective against both right- and left-handed hitters.

Bastardo has always been erratic with his control, but the Pirates loved what he had in his arsenal — he has been known to go on stretches where he is virtually unhittable.

“This is a guy that sprays the ball a little bit, he always has.” Clint Hurdle said. “The stuff is swing-and-miss when he’s on.”

However, Bastardo got off to a poor start in the first two months of this season with the Pirates. On May 23rd, he had a 5.56 ERA and hadn’t shown the ability to dominate for long stretches at a time like he showed in the past. Bastardo only pitched once from May 23rd through June 4th, and was on pace to throw only 46 innings, his lowest since an injury-riddled 2013 season. He looked like a player who had lost Hurdle’s trust, and was without a definitive role on the team.

Bastardo had spent his entire professional career with the Phillies organization, and it took him time to adjust to being with a new team and a new system.

“Coming from a different organization and the way we do things out here, it was a little bit of a shock to him,” Pitching Coach Ray Searage said. “It’s a slow process. With some people it takes longer than others.”

It wasn’t an easy transition getting comfortable with his surroundings and adapting to his new role. Bastardo was Philadelphia’s go-to left-hander out of the bullpen, and spent much of his career pitching in high leverage situations. He felt like he needed to prove himself to the coaching staff and his teammates, and that led to him trying to do more than he was capable of.

“He thought he had to throw the ball harder, he had to throw his breaking ball better, had to throw his change-up better, all of these things that go into a guy [trying to do too much],” Searage explained. “[We told him to] just be yourself, Antonio — and he’s embraced it.”

By the middle of June, Bastardo found a comfort zone on the field and in the clubhouse. He posted a miniscule 0.84 ERA in June while reeling off eight straight scoreless outings, which lowered his season ERA to 3.86 to go along with a nearly identical 3.85 FIP.

Not only has Bastardo played a key role in the bullpen’s ability to close out games, but his reemergence has been critical in reducing the number of innings Tony Watson had to pitch. By the end of May, Watson was on pace to pitch an unfeasible 113 innings. The recent work of Bastardo has allowed the Pirates to get Watson’s workload under control, and he is back on a more realistic pace of 77 innings. Searage hopes that Bastardo will be able to be used as a substitute for Watson more often in the second half of the season during certain high leverage situations in order to keep Watson as fresh as possible heading into September and October.

We’ve already seen the Pirates put this plan into action Wednesday night against San Diego. Hurdle was able to rest both Watson and Melancon when he called on Bastardo to pitch the ninth inning in a save situation. He pitched a clean inning, striking out two in the process and earning the save.

“Those guys need some rest, and we need to win as a group,” Bastardo explained. “[Watson] needs some time off because it’s not just about right now — we need him for the playoffs and later in the season.”

Bastardo is another example of a productive player who was under-performing early in the season when the Pirates were struggling to win games. He has now turned that around, and is a big part of the reason why the Pirates’ bullpen is as complete as any team in the Major Leagues. When you combine this bullpen with the starting pitching staff, it’s easy to see why the Pirates have the second best record in the National League.

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