The Pittsburgh Pirates Bullpen Has Become A Strength Again
By Marty Leap
After struggling for most of the season, in recent weeks the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen has once again become one of the team’s strengths.
A big reason the Pittsburgh Pirates have been so successful the past three seasons was due to a strong bullpen. The past three seasons the Pittsburgh Pirates were able to shorten games thanks to their bullpen. In fact, one could argue that the past three seasons the Pittsburgh Pirates had the best bullpen in all of Major League Baseball.
2016, however, was a different story through the first two and a half months of the season. Outside of closer Mark Melancon and setup man Neftali Feliz, the rest of the bullpen had been inconsistent at best. While the middle relief had been a total and complete mess.
From 2013 through 2015 the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen ranked second in Major League Baseball in ERA (2.94), fifth in FIP (3.48), sixth in xFIP (3.62), and eighth in WAR (10.8). The fact the Pirate bullpen was so dominant the past three seasons is a big reason a struggling bullpen has been so frustrating this year. The struggles of the bullpen this season have also come as a surprise, as the Pirates returned essentially the same bullpen they had a year ago just with Neftali Feliz replaces Joakim Soria.
When you look at the overall numbers of the 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen, they are not pretty. The Pirate bullpen has a good ERA, ranking 11th in the Majors at 3.74. However, the rest of the bullpen’s numbers are ugly.
The Pittsburgh Pirates currently rank 21st in Major League Baseball in FIP (4.17), 25th in WAR (0.6), and 28th in xFIP (4.58). Furthermore, the Pirate bullpen has issued too many walks this season currently ranking 19th in the Majors with a 3.59 BB/9 average. It is not all doom and gloom with the Pirate bullpen, however.
In recent weeks, the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen has been trending up in a big way. The biggest reason why has been due to three pitchers: Arquimedes Caminero, Juan Nicasio, and Tony Watson. These three players have begun to right the ship that is their 2016 seasons, and in turn the Pirate bullpen has begun to right the ship as well.
As I said above, Mark Melancon and Neftali Feliz have pitched well all season. In 35 1/3 innings pitched this season Mark Melancon is averaging 7.90 K/9 (which is better than last season), 2.04 BB/9, and 0.25 HR/9. All of this has resulted in Melancon having a career best 1.27 ERA, a 2.55 FIP, and a 3.75 xFIP. As a result, the Pittsburgh Pirates closer was named to his third All-Star Game in four years as a Pirate.
Neftali Feliz has also been excellent for the Pittsburgh Pirates this year posting a 2.76 ERA, 3.39 FIP, 3.54 xFIP, and averaging 9.92 K/9 and a career low 2.20 BB/9. Neftali Feliz has proven to be a great signing by Neal Huntington, as has right-handed reliever A.J. Schugel. Schugel has become the Pittsburgh Pirates best middle reliever, and he can also be used as a long man or set up man if need be.
A.J. Schugel leads all Pirate relievers with 42 1/3 innings pitched this season. In those 42 1/3 innings pitched Schugel has averaged 7.87 K/9, 1.70 BB/9, and 0.64 HR/9. As a result Schugel has a 3.40 ERA, 2.99 FIP, and a 3.81 xFIP. The biggest reason for Schugel’s success has been his plus change up. Without a shadow of a doubt, A.J. Schugel has been the Pittsburgh Pirates best rookie in 2016.
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The first step in the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen righting the ship was the emergence of A.J. Schugel as a solid middle reliever. But in recent weeks, Arquimedes Caminero, Juan Nicasio, and Tony Watson have turned their seasons around. As I said above, these three turning their seasons around is the single biggest reason the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen has turned into a strength once again.
Just to go alphabetically, we will start with Arquimedes Caminero. After having a strong rookie season in 2015 (3.62 ERA, 3.80 FIP, 3.77 xFIP, 8.80 K/9, 0.84 HR/9), Arquimedes Caminero appeared to be on his way to having a massive sophomore slump. Caminero’s overall numbers this season are not pretty. In 33 innings pitched he’s averaged 7.09 K/9, 5.18 BB/9, 1.09 HR/, a 1.79 WHIP, and he has a 5.17 FIP and a xFIP of 5.33. However, it has been a tale of two seasons for Caminero.
On May 25th Caminero was placed on the disabled list. When he was placed on the disabled list he had a 5.19 ERA, 6.58 FIP, 6.17 xFIP, and was averaging 7.27 K/9, 6.75 BB/9, 1.56 HR/9, and he had a 2.14 WHIP in 17 1/3 innings pitched. Since returning from the disabled list however, Caminero has looked like his 2015 self.
Arquimedes Caminero came off the disabled list and rejoined the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen on June 11th. Since then, Caminero has pitched 15 2/3 innings and has a 1.72 ERA. In those 15 2/3 innings pitched Caminero has allowed just one home run, he’s walked just six batters, and he has struck out 12. Caminero’s 3.62 FIP is also a huge improvement over his pre-DL FIP of 6.58. Caminero has also been able to give Clint Hurdle more than one successful outing of multiple innings, and a reliever capable of pitching multiple innings is always a great asset to have.
Maybe most importantly, Caminero has looked more comfortable on the mound. His free and easy delivery from a season ago has returned and he is regularly hitting 100+ miles per hour on the radar gun once again. Caminero turning his season around has helped to strengthen what had previously been a meddling middle relief corp for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Right-handed pitcher Juan Nicasio’s season took a turn for the better when he was moved to the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen last month. Juan Nicasio began the season in the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation, but he is better suited for the bullpen. Nicasio has a plus fastball and a wicked slider, however a lack of a true third pitch makes him less effective as a start than he is as a reliever.
63 1/3 innings into his 2016 season Juan Nicasio was averaging 3.84 BB/9, 1.71 HR/9, he had a 1.48 WHIP, and he owned a 5.83 ERA, 4.96 FIP, and a 4.43 xFIP. Well, ever since be moved to the bullpen on June 25th Nicasio has been nearly unhittable. He has shown that his best role is in the bullpen and that it is a role he is very good at.
Juan Nicasio has pitched in long relief, multiple innings, and one inning situations to help preserve leads. In a bullpen setting, Nicasio’s fastball is even better as he can just rear back and throw. In turn, this makes his slider even nastier.
Since moving to the bullpen Juan Nicasio has pitched 8 1/3 innings. In those 8 1/3 innings he has allowed three hits, four walks, he has struck out seven batters and he has a 0.84 WHIP. This has resulted in Nicasio allowing just one run, a 1.08 ERA, and having a much improved FIP of 3.65. All along I said moving Juan Nicasio to the pen would help the Pittsburgh Pirates immensely, and that is exactly what has happened.
The weekend of June 3rd-5th the Pittsburgh Pirates hosted the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. In both Saturday and Sunday’s games, Tony Watson was roughed up. In fact, his poor outing cost the Pirates the game on Sunday the 5th and in turn cost them the series.
Following these two outings the also dominant Tony Watson found himself with a 4.50 ERA, 5.09 FIP, 4.74 xFIP, and allowing an average of 3.75 BB/9 and 1.50 HR/9. All of these numbers were career worsts. However, Tony Watson has since found himself, turned his season around, and has turned back into the dominant Tony Watson fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates know and love.
In 13 innings pitched since June 5th, Tony Watson has not allowed a run. Furthermore, he has a 1.94 FIP and a 3.25 xFIP which shows he has pitched better. His control has also returned to the pinpoint accuracy Watson became known for over the years, as he has averaged just 1.38 BB/9 during this stretch.
Tony Watson turning back into Tony Watson has given the Pittsburgh Pirates arguably the best 7-8-9 trio in the National League in Neftali Feliz, Tony Watson, and Mark Melancon. This is a big reason the Pirates have only lost twice all season when leading after seven innings. Because if you hand a lead to these three relievers, odds are they are going to shut the door.
Right now, the only member of the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen that is a weak spot is Jared Hughes. As Dave wrote about earlier this week, Hughes is having the worst season of his career. In 26 2/3 innings pitched Hughes has a career high 5.42 FIP and 5.60 xFIP, and this goes along with a career low 4.05 K/9. Hughes also has a career high 4.05 BB/9, and his 51.6 groundball rate is by far the worst of his career.
In my opinion, the only member of the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen that needs replaced is Jared Hughes. The Pirates could replace him with Jon Niese, and replace Niese in the rotation when Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon come off the disabled list. Or, what I would do, is look to acquire another reliever before the trade deadline to replace Hughes. But right now six of the Pirates’ seven relievers are reliable, and that is the makings of a great bullpen.
Over the course of the last three weeks, the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen has turned into a strength for the team once again. A big reason has been Arquimedes Caminero, Juan Nicasio, and Tony Watson turning their seasons around. It is not coincidence that as the bullpen has done better the team has won more. The bullpen’s resurgence is a huge reason why the Pittsburgh Pirates are 10-3 in their last 13 games.