Throughout most of the season, the Pirates’ bullpen has been led by three relievers. Mark Melancon and Tony Watson have locked down the late innings, while Jared Hughes has emerged as a solid middle reliever who can get the game to the eighth and ninth innings.
It’s a great thing to have three relievers who have been performing as well as Melancon, Watson, and Hughes. The only problem for the Pirates is that for most of the season, those were the only relievers who were performing well. The other middle relievers weren’t consistent with their performances, and there was no one would could give Watson a break in the eighth inning. The result was that all three relievers were on pace to exceed their 2014 innings totals by the end of the first half of this season.
The Pirates have been focusing in the second half on reducing the workloads of these three guys. That’s difficult, as you need relievers like this in order to keep winning. At the same time, if you want to win in October, you’re going to need to make sure those three relievers still have something left in the tank.
“We’re wanting to go to October and play in a World Series in Pittsburgh,” Tony Watson said. “You can’t use all your bullets and be a hero every night. You’ve got to share the load.”
The Pirates have added some depth in the second half. They traded for Joakim Soria and added Joe Blanton on a waiver claim. Both relievers have been huge additions, and have allowed the Pirates to give Hughes and Watson a bit of a break in the late innings. The re-emergence of Arquimedes Caminero has also been a big boost during this time.
“Trading for Joakim Soria and Joe Blanton was outstanding for our team,” Jared Hughes said. “They’re two excellent pitchers, and they just provide depth for our bullpen. Caminero has been pitching extremely well. Melancon and Watson in the back of the pen. We’ve got a deep pen. So it’s good to be a part of it. I’m just ready to step up and do my job when called on.”
The Pirates have actually been calling on Hughes a lot less frequently in the second half compared to the first half. It’s the same story with Watson, as detailed by the chart below, and the big reason is due to the added options in the bullpen.
“Once we got Soria and brought over Joe [Blanton], those two experienced arms that have been there, done that, just helped us all out tremendously,” Watson said of the impact of Soria and Blanton. “Not just myself, but everybody down there in the bullpen. Going out and giving us quality innings. Big innings late. Joe’s throwing whenever and getting the job done every night. It’s big to have those two for sure.”
Watson wasn’t too far off his 2014 pace in the first half. His usage has dropped a bit in the second half now that they have Soria to step in for the occasional eighth inning role. But overall, he’s the least of the worries when it comes to the workload for these three relievers.
The big focus lately has been on Hughes, who got some time off in the last week, and has seen a dip in his usage in the second half. Clint Hurdle noted that the Pirates wanted to get Hughes to a point where he had pitched in less than 50% of the Pirates’ games this season. Hughes had pitched in 51% of games by the end of July. In the month of August, he has pitched in 38% of the team’s games. By comparison, Melancon and Watson were both around 47-48% through the end of July, and both are over 50% in August (57.7% for Melancon, 53.8% for Watson).
“Anytime [a pitcher] is over 50% for games, that’s what I call red-lining,” Hurdle said of Hughes. “He’s under now. Now it’s the fine-tuning of getting him in repeatedly enough where the sinker is playing consistently. We’ve seen a little bit in the past could of outings, he’ll have five sinkers thrown, and three will be really good.”
Hurdle has noted a few times in the last week that there’s a balance to strike with Hughes, as they don’t want him to get rusty. And in this specific case, Hughes tends to have more movement and better stuff when he’s used more often.
“It does seem like sometimes if I’ve been pitching a lot, my timing is better is what I like to call it,” Hughes said of how he performs with a bigger workload. “My timing is better, I’m on top better, and the ball is usually moving a little better. It definitely is something, it is to my advantage when I pitch a lot. So I do welcome it, and I’ve been enjoying it.”
There’s a limit to what Hughes can do, as too many appearances could also lead to his stuff declining due to fatigue. I talked to Hughes at the end of the Miami series about how he’s feeling with his reduced workload, and it seems the Pirates are finding a good balance with him in the second half.
“I feel good. I think they’re taking care of me,” Hughes said. “There will be some stretches where I throw a lot, but then they’ll give me a couple days, like the last two days I haven’t been throwing, which is really nice. Honestly, I say it’s nice, but at the same time, I want to pitch in every game. They’re doing a good job as a coaching staff to take care of us.”
The biggest red flag in the chart above has been the workload for Melancon. His first half pace was over his 2014 totals for innings, and his second half pace is higher than the first half. The Pirates have tried to give him a break a few times in the last week, but ended up calling on him in the middle of the ninth inning once a save situation came up.
“There’s been rest when we needed it,” Hurdle said. “We’ve been smart with his ups. He very rarely gets up and doesn’t get in. He conditions extremely well. The work he does to stay fresh and stay ready again. It’s a tribute to the training staff, to him, our strength and conditioning coach. All of those guys play a part.”
Hurdle likes to stick to bullpen roles, and in this case, Melancon is the closer who automatically gets called upon when there’s a save situation. The Pirates are a winning team, and they’ve played a lot of one-run games, which means you’re going to see the closer used a lot more frequently. Therefore, it could be hard to reduce Melancon’s workload down the stretch.
“It’s up and down. Some weeks are more than others,” Melancon said on Wednesday about his workload. “When you have a high usage week, you just assume the next week might be a little lower. It all averages out. In the last couple of weeks it’s been a little bit lower, but there’s still been some stretches. The last three days, four days here have been high use. There’s no predicting there.”
Melancon also said that “hopefully it’s all high use,” as this means the Pirates are winning a lot of games. He noted that the workload isn’t something he thinks about much, as he is feeling good. The playoff race with St. Louis helps fuel the relievers as well.
“Especially when the team is winning and we’re playing well, you want to come to the yard everyday,” Melancon said. “Those things help those little aches and pains.”
The Pirates have a great bullpen now, and the upgraded group has ranked first in the National League in WAR during the month of August, while also ranking first in baseball during the month in WPA and shutdowns.
“Since I’ve been here, I think this is one of the best group of arms that we’ve had [in the bullpen],” Watson said. “Each guy can go out every night and do a quality job. It doesn’t matter the situation. There’s a lot of trust in every guy that he rolls out of the gate. We’ve got guys that have pitched in big games late in October, which is where we want to end up.”
For the Pirates to do this, they’ll need their big three arms producing to keep the team winning, while also finding enough rest so that those arms can still be productive during their playoff run in October.