Two Relief Pitchers That Have Potential for the Pittsburgh Pirates
By Noah Wright
Nick Burdi and Blake Cederlind are considered the best young relief pitchers in the Pittsburgh Pirates pen, but these two right-handers are overlooked quite often.
The Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen has many young arms in their bullpen. While Blake Cederlind and Nick Burdi might have the most potential and get the most attention, there are a few other arms who aren’t getting their just due. This is the case for two young right-handed relief pitchers in the Bucs’ pen. Namely Geoff Hartleib and Clay Holmes. When you look at their pitch movement and velocity, both have stuff that rivals some of the best pitchers in the MLB.
First, let’s look at Clay Holmes. Holmes was originally a starting pitching prospect but moved to the bullpen fulltime in 2019. On paper, Holmes was not good. He had a 5.58 ERA, 4.97 FIP, and 1.62 WHIP in 50 innings. He also walked 15% of all the batters he faced. However, Holmes collected 56 strikeouts, en route to a 10.1 K/9 and 23.3 K%.
That was also combined with an outstanding ground ball rate of 60.3%, the 8th best GB% in the MLB among relief pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched. That helped him have a low home run rate of just .9. Although he sits around average in exit velocity and below average in hard-hit rate, he clocked in at the 85th percentile of barrel percentage.
Holmes’ 4-seam fastball gave him a lot of trouble last season. 37.9% of all his walks were because of that pitch, or 13 of his 36 walks. While his slider, sinker, and curveball all had expected batting averages below .250, his fastball had a xBA of .322. In terms of slugging percentage, it sat at .563. His other 3 pitches didn’t even reach .400.
Holmes should really just drop the pitch entirely. Not only does he struggle to control it and batters seem to be able to recognize it easily, it sits in the bottom 7th percentile of spin rate, and has 20.5 inches of vertical movement, or 34% below the average. Plus it’s not like he can throw it for a high velocity. Last year, it sat at 94 MPH. On average, he threw his sinker harder at 94.3 MPH.
Not only can he throw his sinker harder, but it has more movement. With 27.8 inches of vertical movement, it sits on the opposite side of the spectrum of his fastball, being 32% better than the average. In terms of horizontal movement, it sits at average with 14.6 inches of break. His curveball has the most movement. Vertically wise, it has 55.2 inches of drop which places it at 7% above average. But horizontally, it is 33% better than average with 9.9 inches of break. While his slider has below average horizontal movement (2.8 inches of break, 33% below average), it has tons of vertical break (38.1 inches, 11% above average).
On the other hand, you have Geoff Hartlieb. Hartlieb did awful in 2019 giving up an ERA of 9, FIP of 5.56 and a 2.00 WHIP. He also surrendered 8 home runs and 15 walks in only 35 innings of work, but make no mistake. Hartlieb has some serious potential. First of all, just look at his numbers at Triple-A. In 39.2 innings of work throughout 2019, Hartlieb had a 2.50 ERA, 2.24 FIP and 1.16 WHIP. He gave up no home runs because of a ground ball rate of 63.2%. He struck out 50 batters resulting in a K% just above 30% at 30.7%, and 11.3 K/9 rate. He also walked batters at a solid 9.2% clip and 3.4 per 9 rate.
When you look at the movement Hartlieb has on some of his pitches, it’s no wonder why he was so great at Indianapolis. Like Holmes, Hartlieb has tons of potential in his sinker. He can throw it in the mid-90’s, already making it effective. It had some of the most movement in baseball last season with 27.5 inches of vertical drop. Horizontally, it had 16.5 inches of movement, also placing it above average. Both of which rank in the top 50 of MLB sinkers in movement.
However he can throw his nasty slider. It has 8.8 inches of horizontal movement, making it 104% better than the average slider, and the 20th best in baseball. Couple that with around average vertical movement (36.1 inches), and you’re looking at what could be one of the best sliders in all of baseball. In the MLB, he racked up a whiff percentage of 34.9%. Plus with a 10 MPH difference between that and his sinker, it makes for a nice change of speeds.
His change-up is also good at mixing up eye levels, and he can throw it really hard for a change-up. At 90.1 MPH, it is the 6th fastest change-up in baseball. It also has more movement than Jacob deGrom’s 90.3 MPH change. Last year Hartlieb was able to throw the pitch with 31.1 inches of vertical movement (compared to deGrom’s 28.6) and 15.3 inches of horizontal movement (compared to deGrom’s 13.6).
The only pitch that Hartlieb has below average movement on is his fastball. It has only 17.3 inches of vertical movement (25% below average) and 6.6 inches of horizontal movement (12% below average). However, it has the potential to be his best pitch. In 2019, it sat right around 96.4 MPH. That placed him in the top 86th of velocity.
He also has tons of spin. The spin rate Hartlieb has on it places him in the top 88th percentile. Sitting at a spin rate of 2479, it has more spin than both Clayton Kershaw (2477) and Max Scherzer (2474). All Hartlieb needs to do is to learn to control his pitches better, especially his four-seamer and sinker which had walk percentages above 10%. If he can do that, you are looking at a very dangerous pitcher.
Both Holmes and Hartlieb have so much untapped potential. They might not be the flashiest of names, but when you look at them from a scouting perspective; how hard they throw, how much movement each of their pitches have, it really reveals that they could be the best relief pitchers in the Bucs’ bullpen, and possibly even some of the better relief pitchers in the game.