Gajtka: There’s a Lot Riding on George Kontos … And His Go-To Pitch

BRADENTON, Fla. – George Kontos’ locker position in the Bill McKechnie Clubhouse at LECOM Park is centrally located among several pitchers expected to make the Pirates’ opening day bullpen.

To his right, we see Michael Feliz and Kyle Crick. To his left, Steven Brault and Tyler Glasnow. All bring different skill sets to the table, but they have one thing in common: They make Kontos feel a little like a fossil, or at least that’s what I was able to gather from the following exchange this week …

Me: “How do you feel about your role in this bullpen? Looks like you’re going to be one the veteran guys.”

Kontos: “Well, I think I’m the oldest pitcher in camp, at 32.”

Me: “Oh, that’s humbling.”

Kontos: “Right?”

The thing is, though, Kontos’ role will be far from ceremonial elder. He’ll be just as critical to the functioning of the Pirates’ 2018 bullpen as emerging relief ace Felipe Rivero.

And, tempting as it is to consider relievers last when taking stock of a team’s chances, there is no other position in the sport that can have such an outsized impact in relatively little work. Just recall how dominant Mark Melancon and Tony Watson were on the playoff teams of 2013-15. Those teams — particularly that final one — got every ounce out of their production because late leads didn’t vanish.

Some spring struggles aside, Rivero is on track to be every bit the ninth-inning nightmare Melancon was with the Pirates, if not even better. But can Kontos fit as Rivero’s Watson?

That’s what the Pirates appear to be banking on, and it’s not too much of a stretch when we consider the careers of the two relievers, both of whom debuted in 2011 and both of whom will turn 33 during the season.

Watson: 453 innings, 2.68 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 3.86 FIP
Kontos: 330 innings, 3.00 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3.67 FIP

Kontos can’t match Watson’s 2013-15 peak — 1.97 ERA, 0.95 WHIP — but Kontos has had the slight edge in performance over the past two seasons, including an eye-opening finishing stretch with the Pirates last fall. After the Bucs claimed Kontos from the Giants in early August, he had a 1.84 ERA and a 15-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 15 appearances, occasionally pitching to his old buddy from the Yankees’ farm system, Francisco Cervelli.

“Once I got to Pittsburgh, working with Cervelli again, I’m really confident and comfortable throwing to him,” Kontos said. “We picked up right on the same page. Everyone was working really well when I got to Pittsburgh.”

Kontos told me he felt his entire year was solid, and that just three rough outings with the Giants cost him what could have been a career year. In looking at his game logs, he’s not far from the truth. If we look at the non-blowups alone, Kontos would’ve had a 2.42 ERA in 62 appearances, instead of a 3.39 in 65 games.

Such is life for a reliever. You can’t pick and choose when considering a body of work.

Still, the Pirates were confident enough in what they saw after that early-August waiver claim to give Kontos an important seat the table. Call him the eighth-inning guy, the primary setup man or a high-leverage specialist, but his 2018 performance will be pivotal.

“Going into camp, into the season, when you know your defined role, I think it makes it a lot easier to prepare and get ready during the game,” Kontos said. “I know I’m going to be pitching in the eighth inning in a certain situation.”

When asked about Kontos’ appealing attributes, Clint Hurdle didn’t beat around the Bradenton bush.

“You’d like to have experienced guys,” Hurdle said. “We’ve got one. Rivero’s got two years of major-league service. That’s not an experienced guy. There have been times when a young bullpen has done well. We have the makings of good arms, and good angles, and different speeds and shapes. We have the men out there. It’s going to be interesting. It’s going to be fun. We may cut some teeth along the way. However, the experience thing … it’s interesting, no doubt.”

Here’s something else that intrigues about Kontos: He has become increasingly reliant on his cut fastball as the years pass, gradually reducing his usage of his four-seam fastball and slider in favor of what could be called a hybrid of the two. In 2017, PITCHf/x had Kontos throwing his cutter 53 percent of the time, a single-season career high by more than 15 percent. Not coincidentally, his slider (18 percent) and four-seamer (9 percent) were at career lows.

Pitch-tracking technology can occasionally confuse a cutter for a slider and vice versa, but Kontos confirmed that he’s basically a ‘cutter guy’ these days.

“I’ve always been able to manipulate the ball that way (to the glove side), with the curveball and the slider,” he told me. “I had just a pretty good feel. After I tinkered with it a little bit, I was able to control breaks. Control where they broke horizontally or vertically.

“Once I got that release point down, it was a matter of staying in my mechanics and being able to repeat it. I worked on it, got the feel for it, and I got really comfortable, to the point now that I’m comfortable throwing it any time at any location.”

Since he doesn’t consider his cutter a true fastball, Kontos calls himself a guy who pitches “a little backwards.” (He also mixes in a sinking fastball he has used more than his four-seamer since 2015.) His career certainly isn’t in reverse, though, partially due to his adoption of a pitch he only experimented with prior to a fateful trip to the mound five years ago.

I’ll let George take the cutter’s origin story from there.

“I started throwing it a little bit in 2011 and ’12,” he said. “I dabbled with it, then I had a couple pitching coaches who were saying that I probably shouldn’t throw both the cutter and the slider, because they can kind of mesh a little bit.

“But then I was in a game in 2013. We were playing at home against the Dodgers. I was out there for a few innings of work and I was starting to get a little tired. My fastball started running back over the plate. So I just cut one, and Buster (Posey) came out and was like, ‘What was that?’ I said, ‘It was a cutter.’ He goes, ‘Can you throw it again?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’

“So I started throwing a cutter midgame in a Major League Baseball game. Ever since 2013, I’ve just kind of refined it and it has turned into a really good weapon for me.”

Considering Kontos’ apparent willingness to try new things, a recent development regarding his seldom-used changeup could be significant. Ray Searage spied Kontos using A.J. Schugel’s changeup grip during a recent throwing session. Schugel has arguably the best change on the Pirates’ staff, so why not?

“It was really good,” Searage said. “(Kontos) threw it the other day against a right-handed hitter, who had a swing and a miss and then he threw it again and got a little weak ground ball to first base. So it was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, now he’s in a good spot.’ That’s how you learn.”

Sure sounds like the Pirates are willing to take a chance on a pitcher who likes to take some chances.

“All we’ve done,” Hurdle said, “is validate his work.”

With the critical role Kontos has been given, now it’s on him to deliver on that good faith.

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I like the potential–deep and many power arms–of the bullpen this season. Now, will the starters turn over enough winnable games to the bullpen so that this team can be a legitimate contender? Time will tell. If they do, I like the Pirates chances this season.

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