When thinking about the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen in 2019, do not overlook their dominant setup man
During last July’s non-waiver trade deadline no team was more active than the Pittsburgh Pirates. By adding starting pitcher Chris Archer and reliever Keone Kela the Bucs added two of the best pitchers available at the deadline. They also made the team better not just for 2018, but in 2019 and beyond as well.
Prior to being traded to the Pirates, Kela served as the closer for the Texas Rangers. As closer, he converted 24 of 25 save opportunities. However, upon arriving in Pittsburgh his role changed.
With Felipe Vazquez entrenched as the Pirate closer Kela was made the team’s primary setup man. In this role, unsurprisingly, Kela would excel. Now, the Pirates have one of the best bullpen duos in the National League.
Overall last season, Kela logged 52 innings in 54 games for the Pirates and Rangers. The young righty posted a 3.29 ERA, 2.97 FIP, a 31.1% strikeout rate, 9.0% walk rate, and a 1.3 fWAR combined between the two teams.
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After coming over to the Pirates in a late, or early morning depending on how you want to look at it, trade Kela was lights out. Kela posted a 2.93 ERA, 2.97 FIP, a 36.7% strikeout rate, and a walk rate of 8.3% in 15 1/3 innings pitched for the Bucs. Had he not been shutdown in September due to a combination of his work load and the Pirates falling out of postseason contention, his numbers may have been even better.
Quietly, Kela has developed into one of the most dominated right-handed relievers in all of baseball. In 2018 Kela allowed contact at a career-low 70.0% clip, while his 13.0% whiff rate was the second best of his four year MLB career. He absolutely dominated right-handed hitters to the tune of a .144/.217/.257 clip, .209 wOBA, and a 32.2% strikeout rate. While he was not as strong against left-handed hitters, his 29.7% strikeout rate and .268 opponent batting average against were still strong.
Due to Kela and Vazquez at the back end of the bullpen, if the Pirates have a lead after seven innings in 2019 the game should be considered over. To be honest, due to Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez the team may have the opportunity to play a lot of five and six inning games in 2019. But that is a discussion for another day.
As 2019 Spring Training looms, the bullpen appears ready to be a strength for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Keone Kela is prepared to play a big role in this bullpen for the Pirates. While Felipe Vazquez may grab the headlines, do not forget about Kela when thinking about the Pirate bullpen.