Pittsburgh Pirates Analysis: A Look at Sean Poppen and his Pitch Arsenal

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Pirates recently claimed a 26 year old reliever off of waivers from the Minnesota Twins.  What could he potentially add to the current bullpen group?

There were a lot of questions about the Pittsburgh Pirates entering the 2020 season.  One of those questions was whether or not the young bullpen arms would progress.  The team entered the 2020 season with a very young and intriguing bullpen, but one that lacked a whole lot of experience.  Still, there was a lot of optimism because of how many young, power arms the team had.

Things did not go exactly according to plan.  The team lost reliever Edgar Santana to a suspension.  Then Nick Burdi, the team’s presumed future closer, found himself on the season ending Injured-List again.  Meanwhile, former setup man Kyle Crick also spent a significant amount of time on the Injured List.  On top of that, the team’s top relief prospect, Blake Cederlind, found his start to the season delayed due to a positive Covid-19 test.  By the time he worked his way back, the team decided it be better to just hold off until September to promote him.  This is not to evening mentioning Keone Kela.

Although there were a lot of missing pieces, the bullpen still made progress.  Nick Tropeano finally got a chance to establish himself as a big league arm and Chris Stratton continued to progress as a quality reliever.  Even some of the younger more inexperienced arms like Geoff Hartlieb and Nik Turley took steps forward.

However, the team still seems to be looking for potential bullpen help in 2021.  This is a good thing as the 2020 season showed a team can never have too much bullpen depth.  A few weeks ago the Pittsburgh Pirates claimed for the second time this year former first round pick Carson Fulmer. Yesterday, the Bucs claimed Minnesota Twins reliever Sean Poppen.

Poppen is a very prototypical waiver wire pickup.  He is 26 years old, has a career ERA of 6.19, but has been limited to just 16 total innings in two seasons.  While his ERA is over 6.00, his FIP of 3.33 suggest he has pitched much better than his limited results show.  So what does Poppen bring that would interest the Bucs to put a claim in on him?

The right-handed reliever is a pretty generic reliever.  He stands at a projectable 6’3” and has a three pitch mix.  The three pitch mix is made up of a sinking fastball, a slider, and a traditional changeup.  While he has a general three pitch mix, Poppen has had success striking out batters so far in his big league career, posting a K/9 of 10.6.

Overall, Poppen mainly is a fastball-slider pitcher.  In his 16 innings of work he has thrown his fastball about 48 percent of the time while defaulting to the slider around 45 percent of the time.  He uses his changeup more as a change of pace pitch than an out pitch, throwing it only around six percent of the time.  Of his three pitches, his sinker is his best one, grading out as a slightly above-average offering.  He throws it on average at 93.7 milers per hour and it has a spin of about 2040 RPM.  His slider and changeup are right at league average.

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Overall, Poppen has a pretty limited upside.  He is not going to naturally blow people away or make them look silly.  Still, the team likes him enough they felt he was worth making him their first move of the offseason.  Poppen has the upside to be a middle inning reliever despite his poor numbers in his short big league career.  It will be interesting to see if he can remain on the Pittsburgh Pirates 40 man roster this upcoming offseason.

*All usage(%) and spin rates are courtesy of Baseball Savant