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Pirates and Clint Hurdle Going Against Tradition With Bullpen Usage

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PITTSBURGH – The Pirates took a big step towards advanced metrics and away from traditional thinking when they decided to optimize their lineup for the 2016 season. The traditional thinking said that you don’t bat a slower guy like John Jaso first, and you bat your best hitter third. The metrics say that you prioritize OBP at the top, and have the best hitter, Andrew McCutchen, batting second.

This advanced thinking isn’t just limited to the lineup.

The first two games of the season saw the Pirates using Tony Watson in the seventh inning, with Neftali Feliz coming in to pitch the eighth. This goes against the traditional idea of the better pitcher going in the later inning, and instead uses the better pitcher in the higher leverage situation. The change in strategy came when Hurdle looked back at Watson’s usage in 2015.

“I think replaying last year’s tape on the situations [I found] that maybe I could have done a different way,” Hurdle said on what led to the change. “I’m not ever adverse to listening or trying to learn getting better. And then when Hughes went down, I actually peeled back some more layers. Do I want to put somebody in that spot, provide some more flexibility to keep them open-minded as well out there?”

Just like the lineup optimization, Hurdle had a series of conversations. The first one he said was with himself. He then approached the players, and discussed things with Neal Huntington. All of this was trying to evaluate if there’s a better way to do things than the way they had been doing it.

“It was kind of along the same lines as the lineup construction,” Hurdle said. “We do have some different personnel, although we have some stalwarts that are in the same place. It’s hard to argue [against] Watson and Melancon pitch the eighth and ninth, however, with this bullpen figuration, is there just as good if not a better way to do it.”

This isn’t a full buy in to the metrics like the lineup optimization. There will still be some limits here. For example, Hurdle said he wouldn’t use Watson any earlier than the seventh inning, even though the metrics show that there are times when you could justify using a guy like Watson in the sixth or fifth inning of a close game. And don’t expect Mark Melancon to move out of the ninth inning, with a totally flexible bullpen.

“I think maybe you could, but then you’re starting to deal just with numbers,” Hurdle said of going with a flexible bullpen. “I do think as we speak right now, the closer needs to be the closer.”

I’m a big advocate of the numbers, and of using the best pitcher in the highest leverage situation. However, there was a point last year when talking with Mark Melancon where I bought in to the human side, where he discussed the routine of the closer’s role. Breaking that routine could have adverse effects, and might not work out as expected on paper. Then again, it might depend on the pitcher. Watson said on Sunday that he doesn’t care where he pitches.

Hurdle won’t move Melancon out of the ninth inning, but plans on being flexible with Watson and Feliz, while noting that the latter has closing experience in the past. He also will add Arquimedes Caminero in that mix.

“I’m looking to use Caminero, Watson, Neftali to leverage the best way we can in the seventh and eighth and get the ball to Mark,” Hurdle said. “They all are understanding of that, their job is to get the ball to Mark.”

So far, Watson has come in twice in the seventh inning, and to face a group of left-handers. But Watson isn’t going to be limited to left-handers only. Hurdle said that he’d use him against three right-handers, and would use him in the eighth if the situation called for it.

“I’d send him out in the eighth to face three righties,” Hurdle said. “He’s pitched through a middle of a lineup. He’s pitched 4-5-6, 3-4-5. Brought him in to face Miguel Cabrera last year. That’s not a hangup at all.”

Watson’s average leverage index so far is 1.77, while Feliz is at 1.18. The higher number is the more difficult inning. The traditional approach has Watson pitching the eighth because he’s the best pitcher, and Feliz going in the seventh because he’s a step below. The new approach has Watson pitching the more difficult inning, and Feliz pitching the easier inning, which is the way it should be.

It will be interesting to see how this all evolves throughout the season. Just like the lineup optimization, this is a way where the Pirates can add an advantage and potentially win more games by better positioning their best players to play in the biggest situations.

Pre-Game Notes

**Hurdle on Neftali Feliz: “He’s still developing in my eyes. This is a guy that’s done a lot. When he got here, we tried to simplify things for him. Build off the successes, build off the strengths. We do have a little different pitching philosophy than he’s been accustomed to over the years. We’re trying to help him seamlessly transition into.”

**Last night the Pirates got a big boost from Kyle Lobstein, who pitched two shutout innings. Lobstein struggled at first, throwing six straight balls, before settling down and shutting down the Cardinals. The thing about this is that he doesn’t have the same stuff as the other relievers in the bullpen, with an 85-87 MPH sinker last night that relied more on deception and change in speeds. Hurdle noted that the most important thing for guys wasn’t the velocity, but throwing strikes and movement.

“They’ve got to throw strikes, number one. They’ve got to have movement, number two. Anything where it doesn’t have late life in some degree or fashion, you’re going to get hit. So it goes to show you that it’s not all about velocity. It can help with different arm slots. I think when you get a couple of left-handers out there with deception — Watson has deception and stuff, I think Luebke is going to be a guy who is going to have stuff and deception. Kyle has deception. And then the ability to move the ball around with intention. After the sixth or seventh pitch of the outing last night, that’s what we saw all spring.”

**Lobstein will be the only guy tonight in the bullpen who might not be able to pitch, due to last night’s outing.

**Ryan Vogelsong was next up to pitch last night, if Jordy Mercer hadn’t walked it off in the 11th inning.

**Bullpens have gotten more difficult, with seemingly everyone throwing upper 90s. However, that doesn’t make Hurdle reconsider the idea of getting the starter out of the game quicker.

“I’ve never put together a scouting report that didn’t have the thought of chasing the starter. I still think your intention is to get the starter out.”

Hurdle noted that if the starter is still in during the seventh or eighth inning, then that means you’re probably losing anyway.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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