The trouble with the bullpen

If you want to look at the first two games of this Pirates/Cardinals series with absolutely zero emotion and only with cold logic, the conclusion that you would probably draw is this: the Pirates have continued to play well this week, but a combination of bad luck and a thin bullpen has cost them two games that could have been wins. The Pirates play a lot of close games: three of their last 13 wins have been via the walkoff and 35 of their 90 have been decided by one run. When you play a lot of close games, you will eventually lose games like these last two. Sometimes they’ll stack up. That’s it.

That might well be true, of course, but the Pirates losing close games in late innings to divisional foes is a maddening trend in 2014. 23 of the Pirates 43 losses have come to the Cardinals, Reds, and Brewers. If you want to break down those 23 losses, ten of them have been by one run and another four have been by two runs. Of those ten losses by one run, five of them have involved the bullpen either blowing a lead or not keeping the game tied. That total goes to six when you count Monday’s 2-0 loss. In a close division race where four teams are fighting for one or two playoff spots, those six games might as well be a million: four of them are against the Brewers. If you give the Pirates wins in just three of those six games (two of the bad losses against the Brewers and one of these two against the Cardinals), the entire NL Central landscape is different right now. The Pirates have a half-game division lead, the Brewers are in second, the Reds are in third, the Cardinals are in fourth.

That’s a fool’s errand, though, and the “cold logic” stuff is a bit of nonsense because it assumes that the reason that the Pirates are losing this close games to good teams in painful fashion is mostly a bit of universal randomness and that there ‘s a universe that exists in which this exact Pirate team has managed to pull these wins off. It implies that if the Pirates just keep on doing what they’re doing, that this will even itself. There is a flaw in this logic and the flaw is this: the bullpen.

Now, the flaw isn’t quite in the bullpen itself, because the Pirates have a pretty good bullpen. Most teams would kill for a 1-2 punch like Tony Watson and Mark Melancon. Jared Hughes and Jeanmar Gomez are both very good in the roles that they’re asked to fill. The problem is that the back of the bullpen is full of guys like Ernesto Frieri, Stolmy Pimentel, and Justin Wilson, all of whom have great stuff and who have the potential to be solid relievers, but who just haven’t been this year. The result is that you’ve got a Pirate bullpen that’s generally excellent when pitching with a lead (this was a shaky thing at points this year, but it’s basically true without Jason Grilli in the closer role), but that goes to shambles in close games otherwise.

Now, everyone has their own ideas of how a bullpen should be used during a week like this. Obviously, I do, or I wouldn’t have put up a post like I did last night. The problem, though, is that this particular Pirate bullpen makes it difficult to see an easy solution to this problem. Let’s walk through the decision to pitch Frieri in the ninth last night. Hurdle had already used Jared Hughes for two innings and then brought Tony Watson in for the eighth. Watson only threw eight pitches, but didn’t come back out for the ninth. Asking whether or not Watson should pitch more than one inning in these situations is a sort of Catch-22 with no good answer: as Watson becomes a better reliever, he slides into a more defined late-game role, which is good. But as he slides into a more defined late-game role, we move further and further away from his time as a starter and his time as a multi-inning reliever, which understandable makes Hurdle less likely to use him for multiple innings. Now, I think you could probably have made a case for Watson to throw a second inning on Monday after only throwing five pitches, but on Tuesday? Now he’s warmed up and pitched two nights in a row and four times in the last five days, and maybe it doesn’t matter that he’s only thrown eight pitches and 13 total in two days, because we’re talking about a guy that’s only had two 1+ inning appearances all season. He hasn’t thrown a ton of pitches, but he has worked pretty often lately. Hurdle didn’t want to use Watson for a second inning on Monday, and I’m OK with that because “Should Tony Watson have been turned into a one-inning set-up man?” is its own question with its own wide-ranging discussion to be had . I’m even less sure of the answer there, to be honest.

So Hughes and Watson have already been burned, and Justin Wilson probably isn’t the best option after Monday night’s fiasco. That leaves Frieri, Gomez, Pimentel, and Melancon. There is a segment of the population that would say, “Use Melancon in the ninth, get to the tenth, hit again, and deal with the bottom of the tenth when it happens.” That’s not awful logic: play each inning as it happens and make sure your best players get into the game before your worst players. As a manager, though, you have to at least consider the possibility that the game is going to continue, because while you might get to a point where you throw Stolmy Pimentel out on the mound and say, “This is your game kid,” you don’t really want that to happen in the 11th inning. Hurdle said after the game that he wanted to use Melancon in the tenth inning against the middle of the Cardinals’ lineup. Hurdle doesn’t use his closer in tie games all that often, but I don’t feel great about flat-out calling Hurdle a liar (I mean, I did say this last night, but I’m going to revisit it now). Let’s say he is saving Melancon for the heart of the Cardinals’ order in the tenth. From the perspective of a road team in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, you know that you have to pitch the bottom of the tenth if you’re going to win, so saving Melancon for that point is defensible given the way that the lineup was shaking out.

OK, so now you’ve used Watson and Hughes, you’re not comfortable with Wilson, and you want to use Melancon in the tenth. That leaves Gomez, Pimentel, and Frieri. Gomez is probably the best reliever out of that group right now, and even though he’s not a sure thing, I think he could’ve been trusted to get through the bottom of the Cardinals’ order there. The problem is that you know in the tenth that you’re only using that pitcher for one inning, and Gomez is certainly your best long guy in a game that has the potential to go long. Both Pimentel and Frieri are coming off of outings that could be described most charitably as flat-out disastrous. We could revisit Wilson, but is anyone more likely to walk a bad hitter and bring the top of the lineup around faster that Justin Wilson?

The options, as I see them, were this:

  • Use Melancon in the ninth, then bring Gomez in for three innings starting in the tenth (which is complicated by Gomez having to hit, but hey, the remaining options were going to be Michael Martinez, Chris Stewart, or Gaby Sanchez vs. a righty, so let’s just ignore that for now)
  • Use Gomez in the ninth, Melancon in the tenth, and let Pimentel or Wilson split up the bulk of the long innings up ahead.
  • Put Frieri, whose stuff still looks good on most nights despite his massive home run problem, out there and hope he can fake his way through the inning against the unimposing bottom of the Cardinal lineup, which will set you up nicely for the tenth and maybe even beyond with Melancon and Gomez.
  • Use Pimentel or Wilson in the ninth and pray like hell that they don’t start walking people and bring Matt Carpenter up with the winning run in scoring position.

Which of these options was the best one? Probably the first one, and maybe the second one, but one of those options asks you to put your long man on the mound in the tenth inning and one of them asks you go risk the possibility of going into the 11th without your long man.

The point isn’t that Hurdle was right for going to literally his most homer-happy reliever in a situation where a homer was going to be deadly, it’s that the bullpen itself right now is constructed in such a way that almost any lever he pulled at that point could have ended up being the wrong lever. You can hide a bullpen that has two very good relievers, two decent relievers, and three ticking time bombs when you have an excellent rotation that’s very capable of eating innings almost every night. It is much harder to hide that sort of bullpen when you have a rotation like the Pirates do right now, in which at least three of the five starts could come out after five innings on any given night. It’s fine to like arms like Wilson’s and Pimentel’s and hope that they can get things ironed out. It’s fine to see potential in Frieri and to take him on as a project that might pay off long-term. It might even be fine to do all of that at once if Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano were clipping along the way they were in the second half of 2013. It’s awfully hard to get away with this bullpen and this rotation against good teams, though, and I think that’s why the Pirates have so many brutal divisional losses this year.

Image: Robert Neff, Flickr

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.