This past season, the Atlanta Braves showed the value of having a great bullpen, as they played a big part in their World Series Championship. They weren’t afraid to look to their relievers in clutch situations and played the analytic game when it came to utilizing their starters.
Collectively among those who made multiple starts, Braves starters averaged less than five innings per outing, with that number dropping even more when you count the other three who opened games.
The bullpen was their bread and butter, with Tyler Matzek pitching in 13 of 16 games they played, and two others making 10+ appearances.
As you look at the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, a common theme starts to present itself when it comes to the pitching. They have decent depth when it comes to the position, but a high majority of them seem to be a better fit as a multi-inning pitcher out of the bullpen.
There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s how the game has been trending for quite some time now — use a pitcher while there at their highest efficiency and before the opposing hitters can get adjusted, put another one in.
Not only did it work for the Braves, but the Tampa Bay Rays won the most games in the American League last year employing mostly the same strategy.
We’ve seen breakdowns lately of Bear Bellomy, J.C. Flowers and Logan Hofmann recently, and all of them fit that billing as a multiple inning reliever, but this week we are going to look at another pitcher that circumstances could make him the first of these pitchers to make it to the majors.
Drafted in the 2019 class that continues to produce players that have the potential to make the majors, Austin Roberts was an eighth-round selection out of Sacramento State.
After being taken by the Pirates, Roberts signed and jumped straight into pro ball, making 15 appearances (five starts) with West Virginia of the New York-Penn League. He finished the season with a 2.70 ERA, 38 strikeouts, and 11 walks in 40 innings pitched.
Entering 2021 Roberts was assigned to the Greensboro Grasshoppers, where he finished the year with the most saves on the roster, with nine. Unsurprisingly, he fell victim to the hitter friendly ballpark in Greensboro, with his ERA nearly two runs high at First National Bank Field compared to on the road.
Overall, Roberts finished with nine saves, posting a 4.55 ERA with 99 strikeouts over 65 1/3 innings. That performance was good enough to get him a callup to the Indianapolis Indians, getting all four of his outs by way of strikeout in his lone appearance.
Factoring in his time at Indianapolis, Roberts was one of six Pirates players to top 100 strikeouts in the minor league regular season (Quinn Priester topped the century mark in his playoff start.) Of the six to hit 100 strikeouts, only Jared Jones needed fewer innings than Roberts did – and the Sacramento State product was the only reliever to do so.
A key scenario that is looked at when determining the success of a reliever is how they do when they enter the game with runners on base. In this first clip we see how Roberts responded to one such situation, entering the game with the bases loaded with just one out.
After throwing a first pitch ball to Jagger Rusconi, Roberts has the next two pitches fouled off to make it a 1-2 count. The next pitch was a borderline ball two call with a fastball just below the knees to even the count. He then goes away with a sinker for a swing and miss strike three to get the second out of the inning.
He then bullies Jose Rodriguez with three straight breaking balls that were never in the strike zone, all of which he swung at to get out of the inning.
The final at-bat of the clip was later in the season against Jersey Shore. Despite being able to get up to 97 MPH with his fastball, his breaking ball is his best pitch, and he sets up Vito Friscia perfectly with the two.
After using a fastball to get ahead 0-1, Roberts throws two straight breaking balls, one a ball, the other a strike. Now ahead 1-2, Roberts is able to freeze Friscia with a fastball on the paint for a called strike three.
The final clip is just his outing with Indianapolis at the end of the season, where he struck out all four batters he faced. He generated four swing and misses that day, even getting a strikeout with his changeup to end the outing. It’s a pitch he doesn’t use often, especially in 2021 as he worked exclusively out of the bullpen.
It wouldn’t have been a surprise to see Roberts begin the year in the Altoona bullpen. A strong season in the upper levels could line up him to be one of the first callups whenever the MLB season does take place.
THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS
Anthony began writing over 10 years ago, starting a personal blog to cover the 2011 MLB draft, where the Pirates selected first overall. After bouncing around many websites covering hockey, he refocused his attention to baseball, his first love when it comes to sports. He eventually found himself here at Pirates Prospects in late 2021, where he covers the team’s four full season minor league affiliates.