A.J. Schugel, The Unsung Hero Of The Pirate Bullpen
A.J. Schugel has come out of seemingly nowhere this season to become a key cog in the Pittsburgh Pirate bullpen.
To say the Pittsburgh Pirates’ bullpen has struggled in 2016 is to put it lightly. Even though the Pirate bullpen appears to be trending in the right direction giving reason for optimism, the first three months of the season the bullpen has been a problem. One reliever that has not been a problem though is A.J. Schugel.
The Pirates’ bullpen currently ranks 17th in Major League Baseball in ERA (4.07), 22nd in walk rate (3.77 BB/9), 24th in FIP (4.35), 28th in WAR (-0.1), and 29th in xFIP (4.70). A big reason these numbers are so poor is due to a middle relief corp that has struggled most of the season. For the most part the back end of Neftali Feliz, Tony Watson, and Mark Melancon have remained a strength of the team as the Pirates have only lost twice all season when they have led after the sixth inning. The problem is, short outings from starting pitchers combined with poor middle relief has not produced enough opportunities for these three to hold leads.
There is one member of the Pirate bullpen though that has been an unsung hero and is helping to stabilize that middle relief corp, and that is right-handed reliever A.J. Schugel. The Pirates acquired Schugel when they claimed him off waivers from the Seattle Mariners on January 19th. Schugel spent Spring Training with the Major League team in Bradenton, but opened the season at Triple-A Indianapolis.
There have been more unpleasant surprises in the Pirate bullpen this year than pleasant ones. Jared Hughes is having the worst season of his career, even though he has looked better since coming off the disabled list Arquimedes Caminero is having a massive sophomore slump, and Tony Watson has gone through some rough patches this season. Schugel, however, has been a very pleasant surprise.
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Entering the 2016 season A.J. Schugel had just nine career Major League innings. All nine of these innings came last season with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and they did not go well. In those nine innings pitched A.J. Schugel allowed a staggering 17 hits, while also walking five batters, allowing a pair of home runs, and posting a 5.00 ERA, 6.58 FIP, and 5.17 xFIP. When you look at how much Schugel struggled last season, it is not hard to see why the Diamondbacks, and then eventually the Mariners, designated him for assignment before he landed in Pittsburgh.
This season, A.J. Schugel has become the latest pitcher to benefit from the magic of Ray Searage. Even though for reasons unknown to me A.J. Schugel still catches a lot of heat from Pirates Twitter, he has become one of the Pirates’ most reliable relief pitchers. What might make Schugel most valuable is his versatility out of the bullpen, as he has the ability to pitch multiple innings or be used to help hold a lead in a one inning scenario.
A.J. Schugel has pitched 39 1/3 innings for the Pirates so far this season, which is more than any other reliever on the roster. Schugel is averaging 8.01 K/9, 1.60 BB/9, 0.69 HR/9, and he has a WHIP of 0.99, all very strong numbers. This has led to Schugel posting a 3.66 ERA this season but, as his 2.99 FIP shows, that ERA is a bit inflated.
A.J. Schugel has also done a great job of neutralizing left-handed hitters this season. Schugel has faced 78 left-handed hitters this season and has allowed just 13 hits, seven walks, two home runs, and he has struck out 12 of them. Overall left-handed hitters are hitting just .183/.256/.296/.552 with a .247 wOBA off of Schugel.
It is not like A.J. Schugel has been some slouch against right-handed hitters either. He has held right-handed hitters to a .250/.260/.355/.615 slash line with a .264 wOBA this season. So, A.J. Schugel has been able to effectively retire both left and right-handed hitters in 2016.
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What has made A.J. Schugel so successful? Well, there have been two main reasons. One is that he throws a lot of strikes, does not walk many batters, and therefor avoids pitching himself into trouble most outings. The second, and most important reasons, is that his change up has become one of the best single pitches in the Pirates’ bullpen.
So far this season opposing hitters are just 4-for-56 off of Schugel’s change up. That equates to an .071 batting average, the overall slash line against A.J. Schugel’s change up this season is .071/.071/.232/.303. Schugel has also used his change up to record 19 of his 35 strike outs this season.
This change up of A.J. Schugel’s is a big reason he has been so successful against left-handed hitters in 2016. The best way for a right-handed pitcher to neutralize a left-handed hitter is to have a plus change up, and A.J. Schugel most certainly has one.
As the season has gone on, it has become clear that A.J. Schugel keeps gaining confidence from manager Clint Hurdle. When Schugel was first called up to the Major Leagues he was only used in mop up duty of games that were one sided. Then he saw himself start to be used in more of a long reliever role. But now, Hurdle uses Schugel in many situations. Multiple inning outings, high leverage situations, and when the Pirates are only down a run or two and are trying to keep the game within striking distance.
A.J. Schugel has come out of nowhere this season to become an unsung hero in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ bullpen. Schugel has slowly rounded into one of the Pirates most reliable, and important, relievers. Schugel is just the latest in a long list of pitchers who Neal Huntington and his scouts identified, and Ray Searage was able to fix. Schugel should be a fixture in the Pirate bullpen for quite a while.
*- All stats and pitch data courtesy of FanGraphs.