What Does the Future Hold for the Pittsburgh Pirates Bullpen?


The Pittsburgh Pirates have always prided themselves with a strong bullpen, and the future seems to indicate they want to continue that trend

The Pittsburgh Pirates have seemed to always pride themselves with having a deep and effective bullpen. From the ‘Sharktank’ days of 2013 to 2015 with Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, Tony Watson, and Jared Hughes, to more recent times with the Pirates building up young players with a very high ceiling, they’ve always seemed to have a plan.

Going into 2020, there are a handful of names to keep an eye on, and I wanted to go over what the near future holds for the team’s bullpen. The future looks bright for this bullpen, as many of the names are young and have control left.

Bounce back candidates

During 2018, the Bucs had an extremely reliable and effective trio at the back-end of the bullpen. However, they fell on hard times in 2019. This trio was Kyle Crick, Edgar Santana and Richard Rodriguez.

In 2018, the trio combined for a total of nearly 200 innings (196 to be exact), an ERA of 2.71, and a FIP of just 3.09. The most effective out of these three was Rodriguez, as he had the lowest ERA (2.47), FIP (2.60), K/9 (11.4), K/BB ratio (4.63), and SIERA (2.73).

However, 2019 did not go according to schedule for any of the three. Santana missed the entire season after undergoing Tommy John Surgery, Crick was awful from June onward, and Rodriguez saw his strikeout rate fall all the way to 8.7, while his home run rate went up by over double of what it was in 2018 (.6 to 1.9 HR/9). But all three are very talented and I’d expect them to have very good 2020 seasons. After all, the highest ERA out of the trio was Edgar Santana at 3.26, but he carried a sub-3 ERA up until a rough last game in 2018. Another thing of note is that all of them are under control through 2024, so they’ll be around when the Pirates should be back in it.

Breakout candidates

Michael Feliz had an underrated 2019 season. He struck out 73 batters in just 56.1 innings, he only gave up hard hit contact 29.2% of the time, putting him in the top 79th percentile of hard hit rate and top 83rd percentile of average exit velocity, and saw his hits/9 rate drop from above 9 the past two seasons all the way down to 7.0. The only problem? Well, 25% of all the hits he gave up were home runs.

His 34% groundball rate fell way short of the 43% league average mark. Hopefully, Derek Shelton and Oscar Marin can improve those numbers as Feliz definitely has the stuff to be an elite relief pitcher, but the long ball has just always seemed to be an issue for him.

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Clay Holmes is another name you should be familiar with. Despite his 5.58 ERA, 4.97 FIP, and 6.5 BB/9 in 2019, Holmes can blame all of his troubles on his fastball. Of all his primary pitches, it has the least amount of movement, and isn’t even his fastest pitch anymore. That title belongs to his sinker. Opponents slugged the pitch for a .513 percentage, and over 35% of all his walks are responsible for the one pitch (37.9%). Essentially, his BB/9 would have dropped down to 4.14 had he not used the pitch last season.

Nick Burdi is another arm who has tons of talent in it. Of the 40 batters Burdi faced, he struck out 17 of them. He only walked three batters as well across just 8.1 innings.

Burdi is your typical two-pitch power pitcher. Burdi’s power pitch is his blazing fastball. Last season, it averaged out at almost 97 MPH. That would put his fastball in the top 20 of all relief pitchers in 2019. His slider has tons of movement on it. Last season, it averaged at 34.5 inches of vertical movement. That would put his slider at similar vertical drop to Aroldis Chapman (36.6 inches).

The big question is going to be whether he can stay healthy. Burdi has already undergone Tommy John surgery once in his career, and was limited to less than 10 innings last season after a horrific looking injury that caused him to undergo thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. If Burdi can stay healthy in 2020, he can become a dominant reliever.

Up and coming

Last season Pirate fans saw Geoff Hartlieb make his pro debut, but with absolutely no success. Through 35 innings, the youngster gave up 35 earned runs, on 52 hits, eight home runs, and 18 walks. But the right hander was extremely effective in Triple-A prior to his call up. In 39.2 innings at Indianapolis Hartlieb had a 2.50 ERA, 2.24 FIP, and 1.16 WHIP. This also included a strong 11.3 K/9 to go with a solid 3.4 BB/9, and he didn’t give up a single home run either.

His pitches leave much more to be desired as well. Hartlieb’s fastball sits in the mid-90’s, topping out at 97, but the pitch he has the most movement on is his sinker that Baseball Savant tracked to 6.5 inches of vertical drop, and 16.5 inches of horizontal movement. His slider and change up also are ranked as above average in terms of movement. Maybe he needed more seasoning at the time at Indianapolis, and the Pirates rushed him to the majors, maybe his pitches were easy for MLB hitters to hit off of. But Hartlieb will enter 2020 at just 26 years old, and he should get better with time.

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At the end of 2019 the Pirates had one relief pitcher in their top 30 prospects according to MLB.com. That one prospect was right hander Blake Cederlind.

Cederlind was drafted by the Bucs in the 5th round of the 2016 draft, but he didn’t get off to a great start for his professional career. Cederlind had no control, walking over 5 batters per 9 innings in 2017 and 2018, and he didn’t strikeout nearly enough batters to make up for the lack of control. However, the 24-year-old had a breakout season in 2019.

At Double-A Altoona, Cederlind pitched to a 1.77 ERA, 3.06 FIP, and 1.03 WHIP across 45.2 innings. His walk rate fell off a mountain, going all the way down to 3.15 per 9. He also only gave up just one home run in Double-A. Although he did make it to Triple-A Indianapolis, take those numbers with a grain of salt. He only pitched in 3 games and 6 innings for the Indians and opponents had a .435 batting average on balls in play against him in those 6 innings.