The bullpen has revived the Pirates, but only the rotation can save them

The moment the Pirates’ first half fell apart was obvious, even as it was happening. Gerrit Cole came out firing against the Cardinals on June 10th, striking out three hitters in his first two innings and looking all the part of the ace after an inconsistent April and May. In the third inning, Matt Carpenter hit an 0-1 pitch hard to right field for a single, and Cole called for the trainers. He covered his mouth with his hand, said a few words, and walked off the mound. His first half was over, and the Pirates lost 9-3 in 12 innings that night, and on the way out of the park I guessed that they were likely going to be swept by the Cardinals over the next two days, due to the stress Cole’s injury would place on an already overworked and under-performing bullpen.

Two days earlier, I had guessed that the Pirates were about to hit an upswing. I thought that because it seemed like Jameson Taillons arrival was going to spell some relief for the bullpen by letting Juan Nicasio move to the bullpen. Instead, Taillon replaced Cole as the Pirates’ best starting pitcher (by default only, as he was pretty uneven before his trip to the disabled list), Nicasio made another start and one of his starts was taken by Wilfredo Boscan and he sort of disappeared for a huge chunk of the month, only to emerge as a reliever on June 26th in Chad Kuhl’s Major League debut in what was ostensibly his rotation spot.

This latest Pirate hot streak started two days earlier June 24th, and there’s an understandable urge to say that the hot streak came paired with Kuhl’s promotion and the Pirates’ sudden willingness to call up young pitchers; Kuhl has made three starts counting that one, and Steven Brault and Tyler Glasnow have each made one. I certainly had been agitating for them to do just that for most of the month after Cole’s injury, as the struggles of Jon Niese and Francisco Liriano have been apparent for most of the year and those struggles amplify Cole’s absence and the presence of Locke and Nicasio in the bullpen.

Here’s the thing, though: Kuhl, Brault, and Glasnow haven’t pitched well. They’ve all had their moments and they’ve flashed stuff at various points, but there’s not really any standard by which you’d call their five starts successes, other than that the Pirates have won four of the games. They haven’t given the bullpen a rest, since only one of the five starts has gone six innings (and that one went exactly that). They’ve given up quite a few runs amongst them, too. Really, it’s hard to find a difference between what they’ve given the Pirates and what Jon Niese is giving the Pirates, other than stuff.

The difference is the bullpen. If we use the beginning of their scoreless innings streak on June 24th as a line of demarcation, here are some stat lines.

  • Mark Melancon: 9 G, 8 1/3 IP, 10 K, 0 BB, 0.00 ERA, 7 SV (you don’t need to start on June 25th to find good Melancon splits, of course, but roll with the exercise)
  • Tony Watson: 9 G, 9 IP, 6 K,  2 BB, 1.00 ERA (and the Pirates lost the one game in which he allowed a run)
  • Neftali Feliz: 8 G, 8 IP, 10 K, 3 BB, 1 HR, 1.13 ERA
  • Arquimedes Caminero: 7 G, 9 1/3 IP, 12 K, 0 BB (!), 1 HR, 0.96 ERA (and the Pirates lost the game he gave up the homer)
  • AJ Schugel: 8 G, 8 2/3 IP, 5 K, 3 BB, 1.04 ERA
  • Juan Nicasio: 7 G, 10 1/3 IP, 10 K, 6 BB, 1 HR, 2.61 ERA
  • Jared Hughes: 6 G, 10 IP, 7 K, 0 BB, 1 HR, 1.80 ERA (and zero runs allowed since giving up two on June 24th)

All told, that’s 54 1/3 innings for those seven guys across the Pirates’ last 16 games. Mark Melancon has allowed no runs, Watson, Feliz, Caminero, and Schugel have allowed one each, Hughes has allowed two, and Nicasio has allowed three. That’s seven bullpen guys in total carrying a 1.49 ERA across more than six games worth of baseball in a sixteen team-game stretch.

The bullpen hasn’t done this alone; the offense has scored (by my count) 91 runs (which is 5-6 per game), this is where the wins are coming from. In other words, the Pirates that started winning in late June and rolled through the All-Star Break are the Pirates that we thought they’d be when the season started. The members of the rotation are almost irrelevant, if they walk and chew gum for four innings.

I’m not sure how far this will get them in the second half. The schedule is easier, but they still need something from the rotation and they haven’t really gotten much at all since Cole’s injury. Gerrit Cole’s return on Saturday after an excellent rehab run is a good start, but he’ll need help from some combination of Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon and Francisco Liriano and Steven Brault and Chad Kuhl to truly make this Pirate team a threat.

Of course, that’s why all the pitchers coming up in June and July matters, regardless of if the results were great; turning over 40% or 60% or a starting rotation to rookies mid-season is a tough trick for a playoff competitor, and it’s a good sign that the Pirates could start their turnaround while it was happening. If the results start to match the hype, it could be a very fun second half.

Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

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.