Pittsburgh Pirates: Bullpening Revolution may be coming

(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a collection of young arms that can go multiple innings at a time, but might not be good enough to start in a conventional way.  Perhaps the team goes the way of bullpenning.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have acquired a lot of relievers over the last few days.  Bullpenning has been a common theme in the playoffs these last two seasons, with the Cleveland Indians making Andrew Miller into a multi-inning threat compared to that of just a late-inning reliever.  The Houston Astros used Colin McHugh (six innings in two relief outings), Lance McCullers (seven innings in two relief outings), and Brad Peacock (nine and two-thirds innings in six relief outings) as multi-inning threats last postseason.  The Astros also used Charlie Morton to close out game seven of the World Series for four innings and Justin Verlander came in mid-game against the Boston Red Sox in the divisional series.

The New York Yankees, who played the Astros the round before, also used the bullpenning idea.  David Robertson tossed 13 innings in eight outings, Tommy Kahnle 11.1 innings in seven outings, Chad Green eight and a third innings in five outings, and Aroldis Chapman eight innings in six outings.

The idea behind bullpenning stems from the fact that pitchers get worse each time they face a lineup additional time through, the times through the order penalty (TTOP).  In general, relievers are better options than starters when you flip the order around the third time.  The Astros, Indians, and Yankees rode it to success the last couple postseason’s, but it has never really been done in the regular season game for a few reasons:

  1. To apply bullpenning, a team would need great depth with players having options left to call up and send down, something that is rare to do for a full 162 game slate.

  2. Starting pitchers would have to translate to this role, and being used to a set routine and not throwing whenever needed might cause more arm injuries.

  3. By utilizing bullpenning in the regular season, players who are pre arbitration or currently arbitration eligible will have lower numbers when it comes to arbitration and they will likely receive less pay, which harms the players but helps the billionaire owners, something that is happening now.

  4. Relievers are volatile, to begin with, and by churning through a starter and four relievers each game, there’s a higher risk involved.  If the relief pitcher you bring in struggles, you bring in the next one, which can tire a bullpen out quickly.

With all those points against bullpenning, the theory still might work if a team can get the right collection of players, which the Pirates might be doing.  The Pittsburgh Pirates current rotation is thin, and Jameson Taillon and Ivan Nova look to be the one-two punch.  Behind them is a long list of Trevor Williams, Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, Tyler Glasnow, newly acquired Joe Musgrove, and perhaps Nick Kingham, who was granted a fourth option.

Kuhl has always looked like a bullpen arm with his fastball and slider.  Brault and Glasnow both have control issues that might eventually lead them to the bullpen.  Musgrove struggled as a starter last season, though he was much better out of the pen.  Trevor Williams last season posted a 4.07 ERA and 4.03 FIP, but his strikeout rate was just 18.2 percent.  The Pirates might be able to use Williams as an opener type, letting him go just two times through the order, which should cover four or five innings.

Then there are the current pitchers in the bullpen.  Felipe Rivero was dominant last season, and with him signing an extension, the need for him to collect saves in order to see higher pay in arbitration diminishes, and the Pirates can freely use him in the highest leverage situation.  Edgar Santana and Dovydas Neverauskas are young and might be more inclined to handle a bullpenning type role.

Pitchers Acquired

Then there are the pitchers the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired this weekend.  Kyle Crick has experience working multiple innings with the San Francisco Giants and Michael Feliz has a similar experience with the Houston Astros.  George Kontos worked multiple innings for the Giants in 2017, though was more of a one-inning pitcher with the Pirates.  Daniel Hudson, who is a previous starter and has had arm issues in the past, is a one-inning guy, and that’s fine.  Below are pitchers on the Pirates who can be used as a reliever this upcoming season, the games they recorded more than three outs, outings where they pitched multiple innings, and the percentage of each, with all numbers being the 2017 season:

Tyler Glasnow222100.00%100.00%
Trevor Williams64466.67%66.67%
Steven Brault75671.43%85.71%
Edgar Santana193315.79%15.79%
Joe Musgrove239939.13%39.13%
Dovydas Neverauskas244416.67%16.67%
Kyle Crick3091030.00%33.33%
A.J. Schugel325615.63%18.75%
Michael Feliz46131428.26%30.43%
George Kontos65151823.08%27.69%
Daniel Hudson71445.63%5.63%
Felipe Rivero73121316.44%17.81%

Williams was used as the long man at the beginning of 2017, so his data is more because of that, and Glasnow and Brault didn’t have spots late in the season so they pitched in relief.  However, there are 11 of 12 pitchers that can be used in multiple innings.  That doesn’t include rule five draft pick Jordan Milbrath, who I expect to be sent back to the Indians after spring training, but he tossed 56.2 innings in 30 games this past season.  Nick Burdi, another rule five player, has had multiple arm injuries and won’t return until August at best, is going to be a one-inning reliever.  However, that’s a total of 13 of 15 pitchers that can be used as multiple inning relief weapons, and that doesn’t include Kuhl, Kingham, or even Clay Holmes, who threw 112.2 innings for the Indianapolis Indians last season.


There is a concern, as I mentioned above about the volatility of relievers, and given the hard-throwing nature of the potential pitcher with a high walk, rates can ultimately cause bullpenning to fail.  Called strikes above average (CSAA) is a measure to look at a pitchers command, essentially where they want to throw the ball, and called strike probability (CSProb) is a measure to look at a pitchers control, essentially the ability to throw strikes.  Below is a table of the 12 pitchers above, along with Chad Kuhl, their fastball velocity, the total amount of pitches they’ve thrown, their CSAA, CSProb, strikeout rate, and walk rate:

Fastball Velo
Total Pitches
A.J. Schugel91.55040.446.24%19.90%10.30%9.60%
Chad Kuhl95.62708-0.546.88%20.90%10.60%10.30%
Daniel Hudson95.41105-1.246.84%24.40%12.20%12.20%
Dovydas Neverauskas96.9422-1.549.35%16.20%7.60%8.60%
Edgar Santana95.43000.644.64%24.70%14.80%9.90%
Felipe Rivero*98.41167-1.252.41%29.30%6.70%22.60%
George Kontos91.010271.046.76%25.20%7.20%18.00%
Joe Musgrove93.11764-1.151.37%21.20%6.10%15.10%
Kyle Crick95.5607-0.945.88%20.90%12.70%8.20%
Michael Feliz96.3903-1.249.53%32.10%10.10%22.00%
Steven Brault*91.9644-1.747.91%14.20%8.60%5.60%
Trevor Williams92.724362.445.29%18.20%8.10%10.10%
Tyler Glasnow94.41228-1.146.01%18.40%14.40%4.00%

Velocity and Strikeouts

It’s important to note that league average strikeout rate is 21.6 percent, walk rate 8.5 percent, and the strikeout-walk rate is 13.1 percent.  Average four-seam fastball velocity for right-handed pitchers is 93.5 miles per hour and for left-handed pitchers, it is 92.5 miles per hour.  Of these 11 right-handed pitchers, all but Schugel, Kontos, and Williams are below average, with Musgrove being average.  Brault is below average for left-handers as well by 0.6 miles per hour.  Of these 13 pitchers as a whole, 69 percent throw above average, with Milbrath sitting 93-96 miles per hour, Holmes sitting mid-90s, and Burdi having an 80-grade fastball according to Fangraphs.

With that velocity comes above-average strikeout rates, seen by Hudson, Santana, Rivero, Kontos, and Feliz.  Santana has a small sample size and Kontos prior to this year only struck out 19.1 percent, so there is room for concern of that continuing.  Musgrove was just at about league average, and out of the pen was at 25.8 percent last year.  Chad Kuhl could see a similar boost if moved to the pen or only needed to go three innings with a power fastball and slider.  Williams, Brault, and Schugel don’t necessarily have strikeout stuff, but Williams and Brault might be the perfect three starters to go four or five innings to stretch the pen and allow bullpenning to work.  Glasnow has a track record of having strikeout stuff, but his control needs to be harnessed, as does Crick’s.

Walk Rates

The one downside is the walk rates, which might hurt the Pittsburgh Pirates in terms of bullpenning.  Only Nevererauskas, Rivero, Kontos, Musgrove, Williams, and Brault walked less than 10 percent, Brault only facing 162 batters, and only the first four walked less than eight percent of hitters.  The only pitchers to have better than league average strikeout-walk rate are Rivero, Kontos, Musgrove, and Feliz, the latter of which walked 10.10 percent of hitters.  The only pitchers to have a CSAA, ability to command pitches, greater than zero are Schugel, Santana, Kontos, and Williams, players with low strikeout rates.  Pitchers with elite stuff, such as Rivero, can get away with no command, but the high walk rates and lack of control is rather concerning in a bullpenning type strategy.

Next: Looking At new Pittsburgh Pirates Pitcher Joe Musgrove

Is the Strategy Better or Worse?

The good might outweigh the bad, with Taillon and Nova being able to go six innings, Williams and two of Musgrove, Kuhl, and Brault being able to get through the order twice (about four or five innings) with the other being in the pen.  This leaves a lot of depth in hard-throwing pitchers the Pirates can use interchangeably in the latter parts of the game for two innings, and Rivero being used outside of the closer role.  The Pittsburgh Pirates would be limiting the exposure each lineup sees of a pitcher, which can make the pitching as a whole better.

Bullpenning could easily blow up in a team’s face because they are asking multiple pitchers to go full throttle for multi-inning outings, and they could have games each year that end poorly because of it.  The wear and tear on the pitchers might be too much as well.  There’s also the ethical issue of hurting players pay come arbitration years.

However, even with the negatives, the Pirates are loading up on hard-throwing pitchers who can go multiple innings, two in the rule five draft, two in trades surrounding Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, and an additional pitcher who has relief and starting pitching experiences in the Cole trade.  The Pittsburgh Pirates are projected at 78-84, and given the roster depth they’ve created in arms, primarily short stint arms rather than starter type arms, there might not be a better time for bullpenning to be tested in the regular season by a team.

*Numbers from Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Savant