Pittsburgh Pirates: The Bullpen Has Been Sneaky Good

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 14: Geoff Hartlieb #32 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the Cincinnati Reds during game two of a doubleheader at Great American Ball Park on September 14, 2020 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 14: Geoff Hartlieb #32 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches against the Cincinnati Reds during game two of a doubleheader at Great American Ball Park on September 14, 2020 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images) /

After a poor start to the season, including many blown leads, the bullpen has been a strength for the Pittsburgh Pirates of the course of the last month

Through the first few weeks of the season the bullpen was in absolute shambles for the Pittsburgh Pirates. From the first game of the year up through August 19th, the Pirates’ bullpen had a 5.96 ERA, 4.27 FIP and an astoundingly high 1.61 WHIP. Walks were a massive issue as they surrendered a free pass 13% of the time. ERA predictors weren’t much kinder as xFIP pinned them at 4.77 and SIERA had them at 4.41.

But since the 25th of August, the bullpen has actually been surprisingly good. They’ve seen their walk rate decrease to just 9.4%. Since then 25th, the ‘pen holds a 3.19 ERA, 3.84 FIP and 1.21 WHIP. ERA estimators have gotten much better as well with a 4.04 xFIP and 3.83 SIERA.

They’ve been on par with the LA Dodgers’ bullpen, the best in MLB this season, outdoing them in ERA, FIP, xFIP, WHIP, and strikeout rate (26.7% to 21.9%). So what happened in the last month or so that has caused their bullpen to do a complete 180 to the first few weeks of the 2020 season?

Well, first, the Pittsburgh Pirates have seen many diamond-in-the-rough candidates have great starts to the 2020 campaign. Nick Tropeano is probably the most notable. A waiver claim by the Pittsburgh Pirates on August 11th, Tropean has turned in 13.1 excellent innings of work. In that time, he’s allowed just 2 earned runs, a single home run, has walked 4 batters, and has struck out 18.

Since being moved to the bullpen, Derek Holland has become a solid left-handed long relief man. In the 13.1 innings he has pitched out of the bullpen, he has given up 5 earned runs, but has struck out 16 of the 54 batters he has faced, and issued just two free passes. His FIP in a relief role is sitting at a great 2.18 mark.

Another lefty who’s given them pretty solid production out of the bullpen is waiver claim Sam Howard. Originally a Colorado Rockie farmhand, the Pittsburgh Pirates claimed Howard from the team in October 2019. Though he currently has a 4.44 FIP, Howard has a great 2.95 ERA, 30.7% strikeout rate, and 3.63 SIERA through 18.1 innings of work. He has struggled a bit with walk and home runs, but for a waiver claim, he’s done more than you can ask for.

Geoff Hartlieb did struggle in his most recent outing, but it’s been one of the very few times he’s given up runs this year. In 19.1 innings of work, Hartlieb has a 2.79 ERA, but 4.75 FIP. Though ERA predictors haven’t been kind to him, Hartlieb has been much better as of recently. In his last 14 innings of work, the young right hander has a 2.57 ERA, but has struggled with walks, surrendering 12 to combat 16 strikeouts. Still, batters have an average of .048 against him with runners in scoring position, and .077 in high leverage situations. So he’s been excellent when it’s mattered the most.

Richard Rodriguez is still struggling from preventing the long ball with a 1.4 HR/9, but aside from that, he’s been excellent out of the ‘pen. In the 19.1 innings he’s tossed, Rich Rod has a 3.26 ERA, 3.31 FIP and 0.82 WHIP. He’s issued just three walks, and has combated that with 26 strikeouts. Currently, he sits with a 2.59 SIERA and 3.20 xFIP.

So far, the only relief pitcher who’s struggled who has gotten a decent amount of playing time is Dovydas Neverauskas. The Pirates have gotten good production from some of their most underrated arms this year, they’ve also improved their bullpen by subtracting pieces. Robbie Erlin, Miguel Del Pozo and Yacksel Rios have been responsible for 13% of the bullpen’s total earned run count. None of the three are currently on the team’s 28-man roster.

The most impressive part about the bullpen’s turn around is that they’ve done it without some of their best, young pen arms. Clay Holmes has missed nearly the entire season, and has only pitched one game, that being the very first game of the year. Nick Mears, their highest ranking relief pitching prospect, has contributed just 5 innings of work and has struggled in them. Their second highest ranking relief prospect, Blake Cederlind, was pulled from their alternative site and has only pitched a single inning. Keone Kela has pitched all of two innings this year, starting the year out on the COVID injured list, and now currently on the 10-day IL.

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While this season has been rough, and the Pittsburgh Pirates really entered the season hunting for the #1 overall pick in next year’s draft, this sets up the pen for a bright future. If the pen is already showing signs of improvement before the arrival of prospects such as Cederlind, Mears, Yerry De Los Santos, Michael Burrows, and so on, this could be the start of setting the foundation for the Shark Tank 2.0.