First Pitch: What is Leading to the Bullpen Struggles For the Pirates?

The Pirates have had some bullpen problems this year. They’ve had some rotation problems as well, but the solution there is easy — wait until Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon are ready, and hope for the best from Jeff Locke, Juan Nicasio, and/or Jon Niese in the few remaining starts until the prospects arrive.

But the bullpen problems aren’t as simple. This isn’t a situation where you can just call up a prospect and fix things. The Pirates had one of the best bullpens in the NL last year, ranking second in WAR, fourth in xFIP, first in WPA, first in shutdowns, and second to last in meltdowns. They were led by Mark Melancon and Tony Watson, who made up the best relief pitching combo in the game.

None of that is holding up this year. They rank next to last in the NL in WAR, next to last in xFIP, 12th in WPA, 8th in shutdowns, and they have the fourth most meltdowns. They had one of the best bullpens last year, and this year they have been one of the worst. So what is fueling this change?

The Late Inning Guys

Mark Melancon – 14 IP, 3.91 xFIP, 0.72 WPA, 6 SD, 1 MD

Tony Watson – 16.2 IP, 4.57 xFIP, 0.48 WPA, 6 SD, 1 MD

Melancon and Watson were supposed to be the anchors for the bullpen, but have both struggled. Out of 173 qualified relievers in baseball, Melancon ranks 96th in xFIP and Watson ranks 136th. They’re not as bad in WPA terms, ranking 26th and 44th, respectively, but that’s a far cry from their placement last year. Likewise, 36 relievers have more shutdowns than them so far this year.

The middle relief for the Pirates has been bad, and we’ll get to that later. But when Melancon and Watson aren’t the shutdown relievers they have been in previous years, then that’s setting a big tone for the bullpen. In this case, you can only hope they revert to their former numbers quickly. For Watson, that involves a mechanical adjustment. Melancon hasn’t been as bad, giving up runs in only three outings, and having only one blown save.

The New Guy

Neftali Feliz – 12.1 IP, 3.21 xFIP, -0.06 WPA, 6 SD, 3 MD

There are a few new faces in the bullpen this year, but Feliz is the guy to highlight. He’s having a good season, although not a dominant season. It looks better than it is right now, just because everyone has been struggling. He makes for a good seventh inning option, but his performance probably isn’t what you want in the later innings to replace Melancon or Watson.

The Usual Middle Relievers

Arquimedes Caminero – 13.2 IP, 5.43 xFIP, -1.14 WPA, 2 SD, 4 MD

Jared Hughes – 4.2 IP, 7.67 xFIP, -0.41 WPA, 0 SD, 2 MD

The Pirates weren’t just successful last year because of Melancon and Watson. They also had a strong middle relief group, led by Jared Hughes and Arquimedes Caminero. Neither of those guys have come close to matching their 2015 production so far.

To be fair, it has only been 4.2 innings for Hughes, and he missed the first month with a lat injury. Caminero, on the other hand, has struggled, leading the team in meltdowns, and ranking last in WPA. Once again, you hope that they revert to their former numbers, although these are guys you can upgrade on.

On the Bubble

A.J. Schugel – 14.1 IP, 3.62 xFIP, -0.48 WPA, 1 SD, 3 MD

Kyle Lobstein – 20.2 IP, 4.54 xFIP, 0.77 WPA, 3 SD, 3 MD

Ryan Vogelsong – 11.2 IP, 6.12 xFIP, -0.12 WPA, 1 SD, 2 MD

There should just be two names in this group, but the Pirates have had so many issues that they’ve been carrying a shorter bench, while carrying an extra reliever. If the Pirates are looking to upgrade on a bullpen spot, it would be one of these guys. Schugel actually has a good xFIP, and Lobstein has a good WPA and has been good in some extended outings. However, they’re both better as depth options, rather than guys anchoring the middle relief spots.

Replacement Options

The Pirates will need to see some of their relievers improving in order to get back to having a top bullpen. That said, not every reliever is going to turn things around, and some of the guys in that last group might need to be replaced.

One immediate option might be Cory Luebke. He showed good results in Spring Training, and flashes of his potential when he was up earlier in the season. However, he was placed on the disabled list with a hamstring issue that had him missing the start of Spring Training. He’s rehabbing in Indianapolis, and looking great. You hope that the hamstring led to the struggles, and that he comes back as an upgrade over the last group.

I think the Pirates might also get an improvement when the starting pitchers come up. Juan Nicasio didn’t have a good outing tonight, but overall he has a 3.62 ERA and a 3.95 xFIP in the rotation. He’d made a better reliever, and would really give the middle innings a boost. That would require one of Locke or Niese to remain in the rotation, and so far Nicasio has been the better option. It’s hard to say how Locke or Niese would do in the bullpen, since neither lefty has really worked as a reliever in their careers.

As for prospects, the best option might be Chad Kuhl, if the Pirates decide they don’t need him as a starting option this year. Trevor Williams is another option for the bullpen, if he returns from his shoulder soreness soon (which is expected). Long-term, I think Kuhl has the better chance to start for the Pirates, but in the short-term, I don’t know if either has a spot in the rotation in 2016. The other starter in Triple-A who could be an option is Wilfredo Boscan, although he’s more of a depth option than a solution for the middle relief spots.

Overall, the biggest boost for the bullpen would be Melancon and Watson returning to shutdown options, and Hughes and/or Caminero returning to strong middle relievers. That said, they could use some replacements in the middle relief spots, which could come from Luebke’s return, from rotation options moving to the bullpen, or from Triple-A starters turning into relievers. Later in the season, trades could enter into this equation, although I’m mostly looking at May and June right now.

There are a lot of things that need to happen to get the Pirates back to being a top bullpen again. I’m not completely sold that they will be as good as last year, but I don’t think they will remain this bad all year.

**Prospect Watch: Kuhl Throws Six Shutout Innings, Newman Collects Three Hits. Speaking of Kuhl, he had another strong outing tonight for Indianapolis.

**Altoona Notes: Changes Could Be Coming to the Rotation Soon. Long-term, there are some starters in Altoona who profile better as relievers. Some of them might be making that switch sooner than later.

**David Todd Podcast: An Extended Look at the Farm System This Week. I had two segments with David Todd this week, and we used them to discuss a lot of prospects.

**Morning Report: The Best Stretches of Command During Tyler Glasnow’s Career. John Dreker takes a look at Tyler Glasnow when he’s at his best.

  • Tim, You omitted the name of Antonio Bastardo from the article? I continue to wonder what in the world happened? He started slow but finished fast for the Pirates last year. The Pirates let him walk? Or did they? Why in the world did he or was he allowed to sign with the Mets?

    Having him on the current staff as a middle inning left hander would go a long ways towards solving some of the Pirates relief problems, no?

    • The Mets outbid us for Bastardo with a 2-year, 12 mil contract. We offered 2-year, 8 mil contract. The Pirates weren’t going to pony up anymore dough for him. They went w reclamation projects like Luebke & O’Flaherty as plan Bs bc the LH reliever market was extremely weak. I believe this manner will be solved at the trade deadline.

  • Not really sure I understand the Vogelsong hate by some of the commenters.

    As a starter, no…it seems a waste of $2M…as a reliever/long/mop-up man? Pfft, he’s doing alright.

    Schugel’s been…meh, on the border of okay. A couple of bad games, but pretty solid other than that.

    Lobstein? Meh…get out the tar and feathers.

    Cammy? In the tank…

    Hughes? Didn’t impress at Indy and is struggling now…he bears watching.

    Watson? It seems like he’s coming around.

    Shark? See Watson…still, would have liked to have seen what the Pirates were offered for him in the off-season.

    Feliz? Well…??

  • As a fan I’m so glad the BMTIB isn’t serious about winning it this year. The moves these posts suggest still wouldn’t make this team a World Series winner. Rookie pitchers rarely come up and pitch as aces. So even with Glasgow and Tallion you would have a rotation with two #2’s, two #3’s and a #4. As Tim stated there really isn’t anything to fix the pen. So why waste an extra year of Glasgow and Taillon to just be a little less mediocre. Stop dreaming and use your brains people!

  • Best option is to bring up two of Taillon, Glasnow and Kuhl to start and move Nicasio and one of Locke/Niese to the bullpen, dropping two of Caminero/Lobstein/Vogelsong/Schugel.

  • could niese add 3-4 mph on his fastball for 1 inning out of the pen and can he get more bite on his” ahem “slider for an inning or 2.

    • I really wonder what they’re going to do with him. If Locke and Nicasio outpitch him (and I use that term loosely seeing as how neither are light it up) how can he not be the first to go? I imagine the picture will be a little clearer in a month and there could always be an injury but he’s first to go to the pen. I get that Nicasio has the experience there but if he’s outpitching Niese I’m not sure I’m sending Nicasio to the pen so we can settle down the 7th inning 3 times a week. You really have 3 guys pitching for one job in the next month or two because I expect both Taillon and Glasnow to be up by the end of June barring an injury even if Glasnow has to work out a kink or two.

      • So let me get this straight! You would send Niese down to the bullpen where we are having BIGGER ISSUES than the starting rotation. They already have enough issues!! Nicasio goes to the pen regardless bc it’s a NEED! Niese is not a reliever and he’s definitely not a solution! PLUS I rather vomit knowing he’s starting on the schedule than vomiting when they decide to bring him in during extra innings!

        • In your scenario Niese pitches more innings than Nicasio. So why not try him out in the pen and keep Nicasio in the rotation? If Niese can’t handle that you cut him.

          • First of all, do you think the Pirates are going to admit a mistake on a $9-10 million dollar pitcher 2 or even 3 months into the season by adding him to the bullpen? No! Plus he has time for improvement and he showed promise in his last start (@Reds). Compliments to Uncle Ray. If he cuts down on the home runs, he will stay on as the #4 later after JT or TG. By no means will the Pirates cut 9 million. A trade to a bad team if he snowballs is all I’ll give you which is still doubtful.

            Second, I was saying Nicasio was a NEED to the bullpen because all 5 starting pitchers are struggling (Coles start yesterday @Cubs changes that) and the bullpen is TAXED. Nicasio is the bridge to getting us to our backend guys and keeping us in games when a starter flops ! His slider is huge for those middle innings and EXTRA innings! Neise can’t do that w the hopes of getting everyone to ground out. We need that strikeout punch! I can guarantee Hurdle will only put Neise in the game as a reliever when the game is out of hand or in extra innings when he has no choice.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    May 12, 2016 11:28 am

    Here are a few recommendations on strengthening the bullpen, that the FO failed to address during the off-season:

    (1) Bring up Taillon and Glasnow – insert both in starting rotation – hopefully before June 1, if the FO is serious about winning THIS year.

    (2) Although I think he below average, keep Niese in rotation for now – but on VERY short leash.

    (3) Move Locke to bullpen, to replace Lobstein – who has no business being on a major league team pitching staff. .

    (4) Move Nicasio to bullpen, to replace Vogelsong or Schugel (I’d vote for releasing Vogelsong).
    Moving Nicasio and Locke to the pen, to replace Lobstein and Vogelsong (hopefully) is an upgrade – and the improvements in the rotation will help the bullpen a lot.

    • THAT IS THEIR GAMEPLAN!! NOT YOURS! hahaha! C’mon man! #4 will happen before #3. Vogelsong was only temporary! The prospects have alot to do w the overall plan plus is gives Locke time in the BP before the trade deadline to see if he has what it takes.

  • The next 23 games will be telling – right now the Bucs are half a game out of the second wild card spot in a pretty large field – Phillies, Marlins, Cards, Giants, Dodgers, Colorado, D’Backs. Eight teams chasing one opening. 13 and 10 or better should be enough to at least tread water. It is a shame the Bucs are choosing to play those games with something less than their best 25 – see my super two post…

  • I keep wondering if the Pirates should rotate the AAA guys. That would allow them to bring up someone prior to the Super 2 date without starting their clocks.
    Having said that, it does seem like the starters are turning a bit of a corner – Niese just needs to eliminate the big hits, Locke seems to be settling into the new delivery, and Nicasio’s becoming a little more consistent.

    • Neise can’t keep up this 100/0 HR/FB rate, can he? (All numbers approximate)

  • The Pirates have to audition for a Closer going into 2017, as Mark Melancon will become a FA after 2016. As June approaches, and some teams realize they are not going to challenge for the playoffs, Closers and Middle Relievers are usually in abundance for trade.

    I think Lobstein, Schugel, and Vogelsong are out, and the Pirates, after Melancon and Watson, will go with Caminero, Hughes, Luebke, Nicasio, and Locke/Niese. Remember, we had Bastardo last year who was a lot less than expected in the first half of the year, but did very well down the stretch.

    • You forgot about Feliz. You’re going to have to cut someone off your list which will be Luebke or Locke/Neise. With a need for another LHP in the bullpen, Locke would be the candidate between him and Neise. I see a trade there bc Im not feeling any of those 3.

  • Ahem. I feel the need to go on a little rant here…

    Neither Caminero nor Hughes was “good” last year. So far neither has been good this year. In fact neither have ever been “good” – both are below replacement for their careers. 2015 was the only year Hughes posted a positive WAR. This year, Hughes has a GB% of 33.3%, which is worse than everyone but Luebke.

    Over the course of their respective Pirates careers, a solid argument can be made that Chris Resop was better than either.

    Going back to the “myth of NH building great bullpens” argument, if you look at the top performers on the two top 10 pens the Bucs have had during the BMTIB era (and yes, they’ve only had two), only Watson and Wilson were home-grown products. The other solid performers on those two staffs: Melancon, Soria, Blanton, Bastardo, Grilli, Mazzaro, all acquired, and all but Mazzaro earning more than MLB minimum. Everyone else was fodder.

    Surely there can be steps taken at AAA to churn out better relievers once they’ve flamed out as starters.

    • This is an excellent post. This myth that nh continually builds great bullpens on the “cheap” is nonsense. In the winter I listed where it has ranked in the no in terms of fip and xfip. 2013 and the second half of 2015 were verygood years. Other years average to poor. And Hughes had some of worst peripherals in mlb after the break last year with a NEGATIVE k-bb percentage. Caminero is below replacement in his tenure with the pirates. Blanton Bastardo and Soria carried were huge boosts in 2nd half last year. And Soria and Bastardo certainly weren’t cheap options which is why they aren’t on club. But more than anything the club has benefitted from mm and tony being the best 1-2 punch in wpa in mlb- not because nh miraculously finds relievers to shine up.

    • Thanks for the great post – can’t tell you how many times I have wanted to send Tim and John and many who post here “Fooled by Randomness” – a great book that goes a long way in explaining how Jared Hughes “success” last season might just be a chance occurrence – good luck that tricked us into thinking he was a good pitcher. It also explains how S-Rod and Jasso’s early season success may just be chance [luck?] and not sustainable.

      • Someone wrote a book about Jared Hughes?

        • Fooled by Randomness by Nikolas Taleb – Jared Hughes would be a great example – thinking someone was goodsmart/better than he really is just because he was lucky for a period of time…

      • What exactly has been lucky about Jaso?

        His BABIP is .302, which is in line with his career .295 number. And that number is a bit low due to his early career numbers, since he’s been above that in his last five seasons.

        His ISO is .162, which is above his .145 career number, but in line with four of the last five years (again, early career struggles).

        His walk rate is actually the second worst of his career, but still fine at 8.9%. That’s below his career mark of 12.4%. His strikeout rate is the lowest of his career, at 10.5%.

        Breaking down those numbers, his contact is way up early, his swinging strikes are down, and he’s actually posting a career low in swinging outside the zone, along with some of his best numbers in contact outside of the zone. He’s also posting good numbers swinging inside the zone, and his career best rate at making contact in the zone. All signs point to smart hitting here.

        His wOBA (.350) and wRC+ (118) are in line with the previous four years. In fact, this is his lowest wRC+.

        Nothing about his results suggest luck, and everything about his history says they’re sustainable.

        Rodriguez is definitely not sustainable at this rate, but we don’t need a breakdown to know that.

        • We will continue to agree to disagree on Jaso – look at his last two weeks – they are either a slump or a regression to the real Jaso – time will tell… My eyeball test says he is swinging at a lot of bad pitches that he took early in the year – and striking out a lot more – pitchers adjust after seeing tape – now he needs to adjust to them

          • Tim just provided an entire career’s worth of stats to say that it’s sustainable and you counter with “yeh, but, look at his last two weeks”. SMH

            • Then you – or Tim – explain why the past two weeks are an aberration and not what will see from Jaso for the rest of the year. Remember – he played his entire career in the AL – NL teams now have enough tape to come up with a strategy – low and away a lot seems to be the approach – until Jaso proves he can lay off those pitches

          • I just posted five years of stats for Jaso. That’s the real Jaso. Every player in baseball slumps for two weeks.

            • This is getting silly – you really think that Jaso should block Bell?
              a ~2.0 WAR singles hiitte should stand in the way of a young man who has the potential to be a 4+ WAR player for the Pirates for a very long time?
              Bell may fail – lots of guys do – but his upside is soonooo much higher than Jaso – and best case you have Jaso until the end of next year.

              • This is now the first time Josh Bell has entered this discussion, so no, I don’t think he should block Bell. I wrote an article a few weeks ago saying Bell should come up, and be eased into the majors this year, taking some playing time from Jaso, and then being named the starter next year.

                This conversation isn’t about Bell, though. It’s about Jaso’s performance being legit. And while I agree with you on Bell’s future, I don’t think you just cast off Jaso with what he’s doing right now and go with a rookie who might not put it all together immediately (SEE: Polanco, Gregory).

    • So much to unpack here.

      Good is relative to relievers. Most relievers aren’t going to post a high WAR. And a guy like Hughes isn’t going to post a high WAR, because that’s based on FIP (assuming you’re using FanGraphs), which assumes a .300 BABIP. In his career, Hughes has a .278 BABIP. He also has a 77.1% strand rate. He’s an extreme ground ball pitcher who gets weak contact. The league average soft contact for relievers the last few years has been slightly over 19%. Hughes has been anywhere from 21-25.2%.

      Looking at WAR and making a sweeping assumption about Hughes just ignores the type of pitcher he is.

      Also, one of my biggest pet peeves is picking apart a subjective word like “good” and trying to make an entire argument on one word, based on your definition. But in this case, you’ll notice I never used “good” for Hughes or Caminero. I said they made up a strong middle relief group.

      There were 137 qualified relievers last year. Hughes and Caminero finished with an 0.2 WAR each. That has them tied with a bunch of other players for 96th. If you figure that the first 30 are going to be closer quality guys, the 2nd 30 are 8th inning quality guys, and the 3rd 30 are 7th inning quality guys, then that puts Hughes and Caminero in there as the middle relief guys who actually provide positive value.

      But WAR isn’t the best stat for relievers. That’s why you’re seeing more of a shift to WPA and shutdowns/meltdowns. Hughes actually was the 31st best reliever last year in WPA in that group of 137. Caminero was 50th. Antonio Bastardo, who I think you’d agree was a “good” reliever, was 51st. For shutdowns, Hughes was 37th, Caminero was 61st. So I don’t see why they’re not considered strong middle relievers.

      • You’re not listening, Tim. I was all luck….smoke and mirrors.

      • michaelbro8
        May 12, 2016 6:25 pm

        Tim, I admire you for taking the time to explain things to people that you know already have their minds made up.

      • Ok, so let’s go advanced metrics. You win on Hughes in 2015. 27 SD v 9 MD and top 10 in clutch. Caminero was still worst on the team in those regards. And while looking at WPA/LI still puts him in the top 50 in MLB, if you start digging into the components, he was essentially put in lower leverage situations and still managed to have 11 meltdowns. It’s certainly fair game to ask if Bucs could do better, whether internal or acquisition.

        Six weeks into 2016 (granted Hughes hasn’t been here) and it’s really looking ugly for both. Maybe Hughes remembers how to throw grounders in next couple of weeks (he says he’s overthrowing although his velocity doesn’t show it), but Gas Cam could use a trip back to Indy.

        • But think about what you’re asking. The Pirates had Melancon and Watson in the late innings, then Bastardo, Hughes, and Caminero in the middle innings. Then they added a few guys at the deadline and boosted that depth. Caminero might have been the fifth best reliever in the bullpen for most of the year, and possibly dropped down to 7th by the end of the year. How many teams have guys significantly better than Caminero as their fifth guy, or even seventh guy, in the bullpen?

          As for the 2016 struggles, we agree, as I wrote in the article. One thing about overthrowing with Hughes is that it doesn’t necessarily lead to better velocity. I’ve seen plenty of prospects in the lower levels who feel they need to put a ton of effort in their delivery to get velocity. It only leads to poor command. Then they relax and just throw with proper mechanics, and the effort is lower, while the velocity is sometimes higher.

      • “That’s why you’re seeing more of a shift to WPA and shutdowns/meltdowns.”

        To judge *past* performance, yes, but neither has been shown to be predictive. The biggest risk coming into 2016 was counting on relievers – inherently the most volatile of all big league commodities – to continue out-pitching the peripherals we know to be predictive.

        • Are there really any metrics that are predictive for relievers?

          • I always fall back on the fielding-independent numbers. If a guy can strike batters out, limit free passes, and keep the ball in the yard he’s probably doing something that isn’t fluky.

            Contact managers can certainly get by for a while in the pen but their margin of error is so small that they seem to flame out very quickly once the stuff backs up a little bit or they start catching more of the plate. Jim Johnson comes to mind.

    • If you rank 34th out of 212 in run expectancy based on base/out state, RE24, over the last four seasons, you aren’t replacement level.

      Not reason to use a number based on FIP, if we want to know what happen.

  • What is going on with Justin Masterson? I assume he is in extended spring training, him being healthy might also help here. I suppose this is the other side of the coin when we talk about the volatility if relievers. NH is really good at finding relievers after a down year and getting the staff to turn them back around. Those guys are just as likely to revert back to bad after the good year it seems.

    • If I remember correctly, Masterson is in extended spring training and had a lot of work to catch up to speed. He signed late cuz he was still getting healthy and needs to build arm strength among other things like actually proving he can throw strikes. At best he’s probably a bullpen option around the all star break, presumably after Taillon and Glasnow push locke, Nicasio or Niese to the bullpen already

  • maybe Kuhl deserves the first shot, he’s been lights out.