Seriously, what is happening in the bullpen?

After last night’s bullpen debacle, Clint Hurdle talked to the press about his weird bullpen management (you can find some of the quotes on Bill Brink’s twitter account and some in his game recap). They were mostly insane and infuriating; his reasoning for not using Joel Hanrahan with Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin due up in the tenth was, “then it’s Daniel for the rest of the night” after that and that he figured McCutchen would be fine in the situation because “[he] went through one of those last year.” That means that Hurdle’s reasoning for using McCutchen ahead of Hanrahan is basically that he’d rather lose the game in the 10th than the 11th. 

That’s not even what bugs me the most. What bugs me the most is what he said about Chad Qualls after Qualls was scored on for the third time in his last six outings. Brink’s tweet is a bit garbled, but what it boils down to is Hurdle isn’t worried because they like what they see from Qualls. They like what they see from a pitcher who’s allowed seven runs (six earned) in 6 2/3 innings. Who has just three strikeouts in those innings. Who was dumped by the Phillies this year, despite having no bullpen to speak of in Philadelphia and who was dumped by the Yankees in exchange for a utility player without much utility. Who hasn’t really pitched well since around the time Clint Hurdle was managing the National League All Star team. What is Hurdle seeing here? More importantly, who cares? It’s not like Qualls has shown anything like the upside Jason Grilli showed late last year that obviously made someone think that he had utility as a high-leverage reliever. Qualls is getting a bunch of ground balls, but he’s getting them at a rate higher than his career high in a tiny sample size and getting ground balls has never been a problem for him, even when he struggles. So what are the Pirates messing around with here? 

This is a larger problem than Chad Qualls, but he’s kind of emblematic of the entire situation here and so I’m going to pick on him. When the Pirates swapped Casey McGehee for Chad Qualls right at the trade deadline, what I thought happened was that the Pirates acquired Gaby Sanchez and decided that they’d rather have Sanchez as the platoon first baseman than McGehee (despite all of the teeth-gnashing about Sanchez, he’s been the better player of the two since the deadline and his OPS+ is better than McGehee’s was as a Pirate, albeit in an awfully small sample). McGehee’s the kind of guy that players really like, though, and it always behooves a team to treat popular, respected veterans well. That means that instead of designated McGehee for assignment and putting him on waivers and letting him dangle in the wind embarrassingly for three days or a week and risk getting claimed by a dumb team in a bad situation and playing out his string in Kansas City or wherever, the Pirates traded him to the Yankees. The Yankees have playing time for McGehee because Alex Rodriguez is hurt and they’re a great team. McGehee can always tell his kids and grandkids that he was a Yankee now and he might even get a World Series ring out of the whole thing. Instead of getting the baseball equivalent of a de-pantsing (released for a .202 hitter), the Pirates let him save face. The players left behind, who seemed to like McGehee a lot, probably appreciated that and it was obvious that McGehee did in his post-trade interview. This is the sort of thing that goes almost completely unnoticed, but maybe helps down the road for a team like the Pirates that has a hard time convincing (useful) free agents to play for them. 

So the Pirates decided to send McGehee off to the Yankees and I just kind of assumed that the Yankees insisted on the Pirates taking Qualls back. Maybe the Yankees had the same motivation and maybe not (I tend to lean towards the latter because only teams like the Pirates have to care about this sort of image problem; the Yankees are always The Yankees), but I figured that at that point the key was that the Pirates didn’t really owe Qualls anything; they could use him once or twice in blowouts and then dump him to make room for one of their more talented young relievers. I never thought they’d try to use Qualls to replace Brad Lincoln. Not with Bryan Morris and his 4.6 K/BB ratio and ability to throw multiple innings down in Indianapolis.

Here we are more than three weeks later, and not only is Qualls still on the team and pitching important innings, but now Daniel McCutchen is on the team and pitching important innings, too. Morris hasn’t budged from Triple-A once and Justin Wilson (who probably represents the Pirates’ best shot at a lefty-specialist for this playoff run) only came up to throw one inning on a day the bullpen was really stressed. 

I cannot for the life of my understand this and it’s driving me crazy. When the Pirates make any move, the first question I ask myself is if I like the move. If the answer is yes, I ask myself why. If the answer is no, I try to figure out what the Pirates’ motivation is. More often than not since Neal Huntington and his crew have taken over the Pirates, I can usually at least see some kind of logic behind what they do. I get why they signed Clint Barmes, even if I didn’t like the move then and I like it even less now. Let’s try to find the logic in this sequence: 

  1. The Pirates played 19 innings on Sunday, with Kevin Correia (2 IP), Chris Resop (3 IP), Jared Hughes (2 IP), and Wandy Rodriguez (2 IP) throwing multiple innings in relief. Correia was throwing on what would’ve been normal rest for him as a starter (four days), leaving him probably available as a reliever the next day. Rodriguez was working on three days rest, ruling him out of his start on Monday. Resop and Hughes were presumably unavailable due to their heavy work over the weekend (3 IP is about Resop’s max and Hughes also threw 2 1/3 on Saturday). Joel Hanrahan may have been ruled out for Monday’s game because he warmed up in the ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth innings before pitching in the fourteenth on Sunday. Juan Cruz wasn’t supposed to pitch on Sunday since he’d previously pitched two games in a row, so he was also presumably unavailable for Monday. That means after the 19-inning game, the Pirates had no starter for Monday and a bullpen with only Correia, Tony Watson, and Jason Grilli available. 
  2. The Pirates designated Cruz for assignment, which was fine, and had an open roster spot for Jordy Mercer’s paternity leave, which was a perfect place to stow an extra pitcher in a time of need. They called up Kyle McPherson, Indianapolis’s scheduled starter for Monday, and Justin Wilson, who’s been a starter all year and who is just now starting to be groomed to work in relief (the only logical reason for this is to help the Pirates down the stretch since the team insists they think Wilson is a starter). These moves make sense, especially if you assume that Correia is maybe available for an inning or two. You can use McPherson and Wilson to piggy-back into a start, have Correia available if things get ugly, and Watson and Grilli can still throw late innings. You could’ve probably mixed Joel Hanrahan in if things got dicey late with a lead. 
  3. Everything makes sense to this point, but now we go off the rails. The Pirates decide to start Correia on Monday. This makes very little sense. Correia is not so overwhelmingly talented that he gives you a chance to start the game off with a few dominant innings before he tires. He’s not a sinkerballer that could see a sharpened sinker with a tired arm. He’s just a guy. In effect, the Pirates called up two minor league starters only to give 4 1/3 innings to an already-tired sixth starter. The only possible thought process that leads to this is that the person making the final decision (in this case, Clint Hurdle) has absolutely no trust in these young pitchers to start the game. The dissonance between the roster move (call up two minor league starters) and the decision to start Correia seems clear to me. 
  4. Monday goes well enough, from a pitching standpoint. Correia pitches 4 1/3 innings, McPherson pitches 2, Wilson one, and they do a good enough job that the Pirates have a chance to win. Now Correia is clearly unavailable on Tuesday, and we can guess that both Hughes and Resop might be after their stressful weekends. That leaves a bullpen of McPherson, Wilson, Watson, Grilli, and Hanrahan. McPherson isn’t really being thought of as a relief candidate for now, though, so it’s just Wilson, Watson, Grilli, and Hanrahan on Tuesday and maybe we have some questions about Watson (he threw hard four days in a row at the end of last week to the point that he was entirely unavailable even in a marathon game on Sunday) and Hanrahan (long warm up on Sunday). Keeping the extra pitcher’s spot on the roster seems like a good idea at this point. 
  5. Chad Qualls is due to come off of the bereavement list at some point on Monday or Tuesday. I could be wrong about this, but since Jared Hughes was called up early from his demotion to replace Qualls, it’s possible that he could be sent down with a different recall clock (that is, with his ten days dating back to his original demotion and not Tuesday the 21st) when Qualls came back. Instead, the Pirates sent McPherson down and they also sent Wilson back down to bring Daniel McCutchen up. Now Wilson and McPherson are both ineligible for a recall before August 31st and they threw three innings between them, in favor of starting a tired Kevin Correia. Then they were both sent back down for inferior pitchers that anyone can see are inferior. We’re not talking about the Pirates giving Joel Hanrahan the ball in the ninth inning in the middle of a slump here; we’re talking about Chad Qualls and Daniel McCutchen. Also, by sending Wilson back down, the Pirates also replaced and available arm with an available arm, which means that the Pirates were still running a short bullpen last night with Correia and Resop and Hughes all unavailable. 

In short, the Pirates called up two minor league starters to pitch three total innings of relief while Kevin Correia started on zero days of rest one day after a 19-inning game, then sent them both immediately away even though they barely pitched and the Pirates still needed fresh bullpen arms last night. This makes so little sense to me that it is literally hurting my head.

Couple this weird sequence with the team’s refusal to bring up Bryan Morris, though, and I can at least gather a hypothesis: Clint Hurdle has told Neal Huntington he won’t use rookies out of his bullpen in a pennant race unless he’s absolutely forced to do it. Think about how late the decision to start Correia came on Monday; we knew Wilson and McPherson were called up early in the day and most websites actually listed Wilson as the starter before the early-evening announcement that Correia would start. You might gain some tactical advantage from not naming Wilson or McPherson as the starter early in the day since the Padres aren’t likely to have extensive books on them, but not from Correia. What if the decision was made late to avoid interference from the front office? (Plausible non-conspiracy theory: the Pirates just wanted to know how Correia’s arm felt.)

I hate to break out conspiracy theories here that point the finger at Hurdle and not Huntington since it’s obvious that I agree with Huntington more than Hurdle most of the time so I’ll say this: ultimately the way the bullpen is constructed falls on the general manager and Neal Huntington is not doing his job well right now. But seeing Morris stay down for so long and seeing the way that McPherson and Wilson were both handled this week is really eye-brow raising. Something is happening behind the scenes right now that we don’t know about.  

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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