The Pirates have had some sustained success over the last two weeks. It started with the series against the Los Angeles Dodgers last month, and included six come-from-behind wins during a seven game winning streak that ended Thursday afternoon.
While several of the position players have certainly carried their weight in the last two weeks, the pitching staff, and particularly the Pirates’ bullpen, have been crucial contributors to keeping the team in the NL Wild Card race as we approach the All-Star break.
Here are some relevant pitching stats for the 13 games from June 25th through last night, in which the Pirates had a 10-3 record, broken out by pitching roles:
As you can see from the table, both the starting rotation and the relief corps have seen improvement in recent weeks compared to their season averages, with marked improvement happening in the bullpen.
To use a different measure, the 4.91 ERA put up by Pirates starters in the last two weeks is not impressive, but the underlying numbers paint a rosier picture. Conversely, the 0.72 bullpen ERA in the same span exaggerates the progress that unit has made in the last two weeks. It’s those bullpen performances that I would like to focus in on, since the starting rotation is very much in flux at the moment.
The roughly two-week timeframe for reviewing the bullpen may seem like an arbitrary endpoint, especially given their recent success, but it’s mostly not. June 24th also happens to be the date that Juan Nicasio was reinstated from the restricted list, and though he did not appear in his new role until June 26th, his reinstatement prompted a slight reshuffling of the bullpen that has been very useful for the Pirates so far.
THE MIDDLE OUTS
Nicasio has bolstered what has been a middle relief corps that has been struggling throughout the season, relying heavily on inconsistent performances from Jared Hughes, Arquimedes Caminero, and a rotating group of replacement level performers.
Aside from the consistently good A.J. Schugel, each middle relief pitcher has struggled at times, but the games since June 24th have shown that almost everyone is getting on the same page:
The table demonstrates that each of the Pirates’ middle relievers, Hughes to a noticeably lesser extent, has found a way to help out in the last two weeks. Nicosia’s FIP in this span jumped by nearly a run after the home run he allowed last night, but you don’t see that reflected as much in his ERA since one of the runners was charged to Francisco Liriano.
Caminero has apparently rediscovered the strike zone, increasing his strikeout rate and avoiding walks completely. Schugel’s emergence continues, with limited walks and a strong ground ball rate, and generally speaking, Nicasio has transitioned well in returning to the bullpen, generating lots of grounders while maintaining a solid strikeout rate.
Obviously, this run of strong performance isn’t just because Nicasio became a reliever again, but his presence and ability to handle more than just one inning allows the two riskiest options (Hughes and Caminero) to be shifted to lower-leverage roles. It also ensures that replacement-level options like Kyle Lobstein, Curtis Partch, et al. get few, if any, innings.
Put simply, aided by the arrival of Nicasio, the Pirates middle relievers have been pitching very well during the current streak. In recent days, this has allowed the Pirates to remain in games without falling too far behind, thus preserving opportunities for comeback wins.
Once those comebacks are complete, the back-end of the bullpen has been shutting games down with 2015-level efficiency. Consider the following:
Melancon’s numbers jump off the screen here, and though any pitcher can be successful in a small sample of only seven appearances, it’s difficult not to conclude that he has been doing everything well over the last two weeks.
There has been speculation that the Pirates might look to trade Melancon before the end of the month, given that he is an impending free agent, and the Pirates’ playoff odds—though significantly improved—are still below 20%. If he is not traded, the Pirates are unlikely to make him a qualifying offer, thus forfeiting their right to draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere.
I think a trade is unlikely to happen, given that the Pirates are certainly in the Wild Card race, and have a favorable schedule after the All-Star break. While it may make sense for the 2017 team and beyond, the negative signaling value of trading the team’s best reliever while they are firmly in contention will likely prevent the Pirates from moving Melancon barring a major, unforeseen development.
Which is not to say that the Pirates do not have two other, strong options at the back-end of their bullpen. After struggling to start the season, Tony Watson has found his command, cutting down considerably on his walks and generating more ground balls. Neftali Feliz has become another Ray Searage resurrection success story, and had not allowed a run in nearly a month until Anthony Rizzo took him deep for a two-out solo home run last night.
HOW LONG WILL THIS LAST?
It’s reasonable to believe that this is the bullpen the Pirates were hoping for when the season began. It seemed that Nicasio was destined for his current role once Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow (and Chad Kuhl, and Steven Brault) were able to contribute at the major league level.
Things got risky when Caminero and Hughes had to shoulder more innings, but Schugel and Feliz have provided surprisingly consistent performance to help contain the damage more often than not until workload could be shifted in other directions.
As I’ve discussed before, there is little reason for concern about Melancon and Watson, but it’s obvious to say that the middle of the bullpen will allow runs with greater frequency as time goes on. What matters, though, is that they seemed to have found a formula that works more efficiently, and I think it is reasonable to expect that the Pirates will have an above-average relief unit through the remainder of the season.