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What’s going on with the Pirates’ bullpen?

After yesterday’s Mark Melancon meltdown, I obviously started thinking about the way that the Pirates’ bullpen has seemingly been the biggest obstacle between where they are (borderline out of division contention) and where they could be this year. Every time I started down this road, though, this nagging thought kept coming back to me: by the numbers, the bullpen hasn’t actually been that bad this year.

We can go down the whole list: even after yesterday, Mark Melancon has a 2.37 ERA (148 ERA+), a 4.0 K/BB, and a 1.00 WHIP. His strikeouts are a bit down and that’s a little worrisome, but he’s still been an excellent reliever for the most part this season. Tony Watson, obviously, has been lights out: 19 innings, three earned runs, 18 hits, 25 strikeouts, four walks. Justin Wilson and Jared Hughes have both done solid work, with ERAs under 3.00 in 15 1/3 and 10 innings apiece. Even the much-maligned Bryan Morris has, at the very least, out-pitched his peripherals with his above-average 3.31 ERA. Jason Grilli struggled some, sure, and Jeanmar Gomez hasn’t been quite as excellent this year as last year, so maybe it’s fair to say that this isn’t quite last year’s “Shark Tank,” but if you just looked at the numbers and the peripheral stats, I don’t think that there’s any way that you’d be able to tell that this Pirate bullpen leads the league in blown saves.

I figured that at this point, it was time to start pulling up game logs. Melancon has been scored on in four games this year and the Pirates have lost three of those games. Last year, by my count, he was scored on 11 times and the Pirates only lost six of those games. This year, Tony Watson’s been scored on three times, and the Pirates have lost two of those games (with the third time being a blown-save-win). Think about this: Tony Watson, despite his lights out brilliance this year, has just one fewer blown saves than Jason Grilli. It’s a little tricker to look at Watson’s numbers from last year, since he wasn’t a set-up man all year, but (again by my count), Watson gave up runs in 14 of his appearances last year and the Pirates won eight of those games.

Let’s just focus on the closers. I don’t like using saves in most cases, but I think it might be instructive to simply look at the environment the closer enters in a save opportunity. That means the score in the ninth inning of a game that the Pirates are leading by three runs or fewer — no tie games in the ninth inning at home, no blown seventh inning leads that count as blown saves but wouldn’t have been a save if converted, just the leads the closers have been asked to hold. It’s not perfect, but I think it should be decently representative. Mark Melancon has five saves this year, and he was asked to hold a one-run lead three times in those five games. He also was asked to hold a one-run lead in both of his blown saves. All four of Jason Grilli’s saves came in one-run games, as did his all three of his blown saves. In total, the Pirates’ closers have entered 14 games with the lead this year, and they’ve only had a one-run lead in 12 of those games. Now let’s go back to the closers in last year’s “Shark Tank.” Jason Grilli had 33 saves in 34 opportunites as closer last year (he had another blown save during his time as set-up man while he was working back from his elbow injury), and he was only asked to hold a one-run lead 10 times (again, this is me counting through the gamelogs by hand, so . Melancon had 16 saves in 19 opportunities as closer last year (his two other blown saves were as the eighth inning guy), and he only entered nine of those 19 games with a one-run lead.

The difference here is obvious and staggering. This year the closers have entered ~85% (12-of-14) of their save opportunities with a one-run lead. Last year, it was ~36% (19-of-53). I’m not trying to absolve the bullpen from all blame here, because obviously they’re not as good as they were last year (the eye test on Grilli and Melancon aside, they’ve blown five one-run leads in 12 opportunities this year and last year they blew three in 19 opportunities). The burden being placed on them this year is ridiculous, though. Even the best bullpen is going to give up one-run leads sometimes, and so it’s a huge problem if most of the leads they’re being handed are one-run leads.

Of course, there’s plenty of blame to spread around here and figuring out exactly where the finger should be pointed is a tough task. Is it the offense’s fault for not scoring more runs (kind of: they were ninth in the NL in scoring last year and they’re ninth this year, so there’s not much of a difference, but then again, ninth in the NL is ninth in the NL)? Is it the starter’s fault for not preventing more runs (long story short: yes, this is part of the problem)? Is it the middle relief’s fault for not holding larger leads (I have done zero research on this question because I’m researched out at the moment, but I’ll say  probably yes, a little bit)?

It’s easy enough to point at blown leads, particularly by the closers (and particularly against the Brewers), as the primary culprit for the Pirates’ early season struggles. That’s not unfair; they’ve given up the leads. The reality, though, is that the Pirates are asking for a lot more from their bullpen this year. They’re asking for more than any reasonable bullpen would give them, really. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

Image: Donald Judge, 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.

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