First Pitch: Could Pirates See Royals-Like Success With Best Bullpen in MLB?

The Pirates lost to Madison Bumgarner and the Giants again tonight, although unlike last year’s Wild Card game, this time they were able to score some runs off Bumgarner. The problem tonight was that Jeff Locke struggled, giving up six runs in five innings, and making it difficult for the offense to come back. If the Pirates do face the Giants and Bumgarner in the Wild Card game again this year, you’d hope that they would be able to match up with their own ace this time around.

Really, these days the Pirates don’t seem to need much more than five good innings from their starting rotation. At that point, the bullpen can take over.

All year, the back of the bullpen has looked fantastic. Mark Melancon ranks as the best relief pitcher in the game in terms of his shutdown to meltdown ratio and his WPA. Tony Watson hasn’t been that far behind him, rating as one of the top ten relievers in the game. The two pitchers have given the Pirates a dangerous late inning combo that have closed the door on a lot of games this year. Combined with the ability of Jared Hughes to get a much-needed ground ball most of the year, and the Pirates have had a good group to shut down opponents.

The problem for most of the year has been that they needed help in the middle innings, and needed other guys who could step up so that they weren’t over-using Melancon and Watson. At the trade deadline they added that help, and things got better when a few of the guys who were already on the team emerged with recent improvements to their game. The result was on display tonight, as the biggest bright spot of the game was the bullpen combining to pitch four shutout innings, giving the offense a chance to battle back.

The offense didn’t make that happen tonight, but the offense can’t come back every night. That said, the bullpen has done a fantastic job this month of shutting opponents down, leading to eight wins from the relievers this month. I’m not a believer in the win stat, but getting eight wins from your bullpen in a month is notable, especially with the way the Pirates have been doing things. Their middle relievers have stepped up, pitched multiple innings, and allowed the offense to come back. Tonight was only the sixth time that the Pirates couldn’t come back or take a lead once the game was turned over to the bullpen, compared to those eight wins in the same span. Credit to the strong offense for coming back so many times, but credit to the bullpen for keeping the Pirates in the game that often.

Perhaps no trio has been better than the guys who went tonight. Joe Blanton, Arquimedes Caminero, and Antonio Bastardo have been outstanding lately, as Pete Ellis outlined tonight.

Those numbers would be unreal for late inning guys. And that’s just what the Pirates are getting from their middle relievers and long-relief options. It doesn’t include Melancon, Watson, or Hughes. It also doesn’t include Joakim Soria, who was acquired at the deadline and has put up a 1.93 ERA, a 3.37 xFIP, an 8.68 K/9, and a 2.89 BB/9 in his limited time with the Pirates. On the season, Soria ranks 11th in WPA, and has an excellent shutdown/meltdown ratio.

But let’s go back to the guys who pitched tonight, and specifically focus on Blanton and Caminero. In the month of August, they rank fourth and fifth respectively in WPA. They are a big reason why the Pirates’ bullpen had a 3.05 WPA this month, heading into tonight’s game. If you’re unfamiliar with WPA, it stands for Win Probability Added, and keeps track of how players improve or decrease the probability of a team winning based on their performance in a game. The bullpen for the Pirates has increased the probability of the team winning by a combined three games this month.

The relievers also have 28 shutdowns, which lead the majors in the month of August. Their five meltdowns rank fifth, although none of the four teams above them have more than 17 shutdowns this month, and only one of those teams is over a 1.00 WPA.

Simply put, the bullpen is firing on all cylinders right now. Every single reliever is stepping up, from the guys who were reliable all season, to the guys added at the deadline, to the guys who had struggled during the summer but are now turning it around. Pete Ellis wrote a great article today on what led to Joe Blanton’s career revival as a reliever. Sean McCool looked at what changed for Arquimedes Caminero and made him so unstoppable lately. We could go ahead and find out what is working for every other reliever, but the point is that things are working for every reliever right now.

If you followed the Kansas City Royals last year, then you know how crucial a strong bullpen can be, especially when they’re performing the way the Pirates are performing right now. A bullpen like this shortens games, meaning you don’t need seven innings from every starter — especially guys like Morton, Locke, or Happ, who you might not trust some nights after the sixth inning, even when they’re on. A bullpen like this can also pick up a struggling starter, and allow this powerful offense to get back in the game, as we’ve seen happen so many times this month.

The bullpen could get a further boost in September when guys like Vance Worley, Radhames Liz, Deolis Guerra, Rob Scahill, and/or Bobby LaFromboise could join the team. And when the playoffs roll around, the Pirates will have plenty of strong relievers to choose from, hoping to repeat what the Royals did last year.

So many things seem to be clicking for the Pirates lately, but nothing is working better for the team right now than the bullpen.

**Jeff Locke’s Second-Half Struggles Continued in Loss to Giants. Pete Ellis with the game story live from PNC Park.

**Site Updates: Get a Free 7-Day Trial to Pirates Prospects. If you’re reading this, then you either have a trial right now, or you’ve already subscribed, so the trial is irrelevant to you. But there is a bit of news about the Prospect Guide in there, along with news on our upcoming coverage.

**Pirates Recall Josh Harrison, Josh Wall DFAd. An expected move that will only start to make the bench stronger.

**Prospect Watch: Worley Goes Seven Strong, Garcia Sets a Career-High in Start. Yeudy Garcia continues a strong season, and it’s good to see Worley getting back on track as a starter.

**How Joe Blanton Went From Being Retired to One of the Best MLB Relievers. Pete’s great article on Blanton. The Zach Duke stuff has been out there for a bit, but this is the first I’ve seen explaining why Blanton has suddenly been so successful in relief.

**Glasnow and Meadows Rank High on Another Prospect List. I think the best part about the Pirates having continued success is that they keep getting high rankings for their prospects and their farm system by national outlets (and this outlet). This “being one of the best teams in baseball” thing isn’t ending anytime soon.

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After watching Cole work with Stewart again today…he need to always be throwing to Stew. He was confident and in command almost the whole game and his stuff was incredible.

Luke S

That’d make his struggles August 1st and 7th odd….since he was not elite twice in a row with that catcher.

The idea that Cole is always better with Stewart isnt really well tested. SSS with Cervelli, and the 2 with Cervelli came after Cole was already looking like a guy struggling a bit.

Scott K

Hate to say anything about Blanton for fear of jinxing him, but dang has he been way, way, WAY BETTER than expected!

Mark S

Crossed my fingers after “hate to say…” Hope it worked.

Douglas C

Tim another great article as usual. You may.have or are going to show but is there a free agent list for the Pirates to see who is under contract and for how long?


Those are the free agents/retirees after this year. Their “problem” so to speak, is literally half the team is going to get a raise either through arbitration or contractual. So it’s more than reasonable to expect some movement.

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