Pittsburgh Pirates: Examining Geoff Hartlieb’s Early Season Success

While Geoff Hartlieb is off to a strong for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2020, his success may not be sustainable without some improvements.

When the 2020 season began, Geoff Hartlieb was not on the active roster for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Instead, he was working out at the team’s alternative training site in Altoona. However, it would not take long for Hartlieb to join the active roster.

When relievers Kyle Crick and Michael Feliz were placed on the injured list on July 28th, Hartlieb was one of the pitchers the Pittsburgh Pirates added to their active roster. Since joining the Pirates, manager Derek Shelton has given Hartlieb plenty of opportunities, and, thus far, he has succeed.

In 7.1 innings pitched this season, Hartlieb owns a 2.45 ERA and a 3.24 FIP. He has not allowed a home run, he’s allowed just seven hits, he has walked four, and struck out five. Hartlieb has also done a nice job as a fire man for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and, according to FanGraphs, Hartlieb has limited opposing batters to a .111/.273/.111 slash line in high leverage situations this season.

All of this comes as a pleasant surprise after Hartlieb’s struggles in 2019. Despite possessing a power fastball with turbo sink and a filthy slider, Hartlieb struggled to the tune of a 9.00 ERA and a 5.56 FIP in 35 innings pitched last season.

A big reason for his success as a fire man has been an increase in ground ball rate. Using his turbo sink, Hartlieb’s ground ball rate has rise form 46.5% in 2019 to 69.1% in 2020.

So far in 2020, however, Hartlieb has looked like a completely different pitcher. That said, there are some red flags around his success.

While Hartlieb’s overall numbers are strong, control remains an issue. After posting a poor 10.5% walk rate last season, that number has climbed to 12.9% through his first 7.1 innings of work in 2020. In fact, the lone inherited runner he has allowed to score this season came when he issued a bases loaded walk.

What is more concerning than Hartlieb’s walk numbers is the contact he has been allowing. Through 7.1 innings of work this season, opposing batters own a 50.0% hard contact rate and an average exit velocity of 93.6 MPH off of Hartlieb’s pitches. Both of these numbers are worse than league average.

In order for Hartlieb to continue his success throughout the remainder of the 2020 season, he will need to do a better job at limiting hard contact. So, how can he do that?

Hartlieb has thrown 54 sliders this season, that is more than any other pitch. Opposing batters own just a 83.4 MPH exit velocity off of the pitch. However, his sinker and four-seam fastball own a 92.5 and 95.9 MPH exit velocity, respectively.

To go with his 54 sliders, Hartlieb has combined to throw 57 sinkers and four-seamers. Of these 57 pitches, 50 have been his sinker. By throwing his slider more, Hartlieb should be able to cut down on the hard contact allowed.

While there are some red flags around the early season success of Hartlieb, there are still plenty of reasons for optimism. The home run ball is no longer plaguing him, and his stuff remains as good as ever. Throw in the confidence Hartlieb should have built up due to his success thus far this season, and he is starting to look like a pitcher who will be a long term member of the bullpen for the Pittsburgh Pirates.