Analysis: Felipe Rivero has been the Pittsburgh Pirates best relief pitcher, transitioning from a setup man early on in the season, and becoming the teams closer. The way the Pirates deploy Rivero, especially as the closer, has been suspect.
Felipe Rivero has a 1.47 ERA and 2.51 FIP out of the pen this season, and he struck out 30 percent of hitters this season. He has been historic, having the third lowest ERA among relievers in a season in Pirates history. On the season Rivero has pitched with the following scores, with percentage being the appearances over the total games pitched:
For the season, 46.16 percent of the games Rivero has pitched have come with the score being between down one, tied, or up one. On the season, Rivero ranks 18th in high leverage situations, but before being moved to the closer spot Rivero ranked 24th, and since he has ranked 16th. Though, Rivero did pitch 31 games before becoming the closer and is at 34 after being named closer on June 8th. Rivero ranking top 20 among qualified relievers in innings pitched in high leverage situations is great, it shows he’s being used in the most pressing situations compared to low-level ones, but as a late inning reliever that is to be expected.
The problem is that when he is deployed, the leverage index when he enters the game is only 1.41, where the average is always 1.0. Rivero is 44th of 162 qualified relievers and is tied with relievers Juan Nicasio and Joakim Soria. Part of the problem is the way the Pirates have used him since becoming the closer. In fact, the club has used him in a way manager Clint Hurdle said they wouldn’t. Via the Pirates website, this is what Clint Hurdle had to say about moving Tony Watson from the closer spot, and how the club will use Rivero and Nicasio:
"“We’re going to use the bullpen to win games. There’s not a closer. Depending on the lineup, depending on the game situation.”"
Since the move of Watson, Felipe Rivero has started the eighth inning only twice. The first being June 16th against the Chicago Cubs. Rivero tossed a scoreless inning before Juan Nicasio blew the save in the ninth. Furthermore, the Pirates ultimately lost 9-5. After that appearance, Rivero’s only other time starting the eighth inning occurred on August 30th, in a game that in Chicago, and he was only used to get some work, as the Pirates trailed 15-3 to start the inning. Clint Hurdle has not only done the opposite of what he said he would do, but he has used Rivero 41.18 percent of the time when the Pirates are winning by three or more runs:
Of course, some of those games are games where Rivero was warming up and the Pirates don’t want him to get hot without pitching. This occurred on Saturday as Rivero began warming up when the Pirates were up 1-0 before Jordan Luplow hit a three home run in the eighth, and a Starling Marte groundout made it 5-0. Using Rivero in that situation is fine. But then there was Sunday when the Pirates were up 3-0 against the Reds entering the ninth. The Pirates not only were warming up Rivero, they also had Joaquín Benoit warming up in case the Pirates scored, which would make it a non-save situation.
Managing to the save situation has long been a problem, and it potentially cost the Pirates game just two weeks ago. On August 19th and 20th, the Pirates were up by three runs entering the ninth inning, Clint Hurdle turned to FelipeRivero both times. Needless to say, those situations were really not high leverage. Former relief ace Goose Gossage said in February:
"“Ah! … And let me tell you something, these guys that pitch one inning with the three-run lead (and get a) save. It shouldn’t even be a save for one inning and a three-run lead…. If everybody in that (bleeping) bullpen can’t save a three-run lead for one inning, they shouldn’t even be in the big leagues.”"
It’s not an analytic versus old school approach when it comes to these situations. Goose is as old school as it gets, and pitching Rivero back-to-back games with a three run lead hurts. The next game, Gerrit Cole tossed 6.1 innings because he almost had to toss seven, despite clearly being gassed after six. The Pirates turned to A.J. Schugel, Daniel Hudson, Juan Nicasio, Benoit, and Dovydas Neverauskas to finish the final 5.2 innings. It would’ve been a perfect game for Rivero to pitch in, especially when in the eleventh inning Benoit faced Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Curtis Granderson, and Yasmani Grandal in a tie game.
The Pirates would be better off in the future deploying Felipe Rivero in better situations. They should not use him over 40 percent of the time when the score is a three run or more advantage. Having a shutdown guy in the ninth inning is great, and teams that win need one, but you have to be able to get to the ninth inning first. Using Rivero against opposing teams best hitters in close games to start the eighth inning can, and likely will be beneficial to the club in the future. This offseason, Neal Huntington needs to add more weapons to the pen. Hopefully, that will make Hurdle follow his word because right now Felipe Rivero is not being used ideally.