Pittsburgh Pirates: Breaking Down Geoff Hartlieb’s 2020 Season

2020 season was the first full MLB season for Geoff Hartlieb, and today we will delve into what did and did not work for the Pittsburgh Pirates righty

The 2020 season was a roller coaster ride for the bullpen of the Pittsburgh Pirates. One player who seemed to emerge in the Pirate bullpen in 2002 was righyt Geoff Hartlieb. However, his season may not have been as strong as it appeared to be on the surface.

Hartlieb made his MLB debut in 2019 and struggled to the tune of a 9.00 ERA, 5.56 FIP and a 5.11 DRA. In 35 innings pitched across 29 games, Hartlieb allowed eight home runs (2.06 HR/9), while walking 10.5% of batters faced and striking out batters at a 22.2% rate.

After being one of the worst relief pitchers in the National League in 2019, Hartlieb started the 2020 season at the alternate training site in Altoona. However, it did not take long for Hartlieb to find himself on the active roster with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

On the surface, Hartlieb had some strong looking numbers in 2020. He posted a 3.63 ERA and allowed just one home (0.40 HR/9) in 22.1 innings pitched. Hartlieb also excelled at stranding inherited runners, become a go to fireman for Pirate manager Derek Shelton.

The problem with Hartlieb’s 2020 season is that when you dig beneath the surface, the numbers are not as pretty. This, without a doubt, is a concern for the Pittsburgh Pirates as they start to look ahead to 2021.

While Hartlieb’s ERA was strong, his ERA indicators were not. While his FIP improved over last season, it was still over five at 5.03. As for his DRA, it actually rose to 5.65. In short, both of these indicates that Hartlieb’s ERA should have been 5+, and if he pitches in 2021 the way he did in 2020 it likely will be.

A major issue for Hartlieb was control. His walk rate was too high in 2019, and it rose checking in at an alarmingly high 18.8%. In addition to his spike in walk rate, his strikeout rate dropped to 18.8%. It is never good to see a pitcher have a matching walk and strikeout rate. If they do then they are either walking too many batters, not striking out enough batters, or, as was the case with Hartlieb, you’re in a weird spot in the middle where you’re walking too many batters and not striking out enough.

There are some encouraging signs for Hartlieb, though, that he can keep his ERA in check moving forward. One of these signs was that opposing batters had an average exit velocity off of Hartlieb of just 88.7 MPH, this is a 1.1 MPH below the league average.

Two other positives were Hartlieb allowing hard contact just 31.7% of the time and owning a barrel rate of just 3.3%.  Both of these results were huge improvements over 2019, and better than league average. In fact, Hartlieb ranked in the 92nd percentile in baseball in barrel rate and in the 82nd percentile in hard hit rate.

There are more positives to be found in Hartlieb’s season. None of his pitches, control aside, were pitches that performed poorly. The only problem with his pitches is that he did not throw enough of them for strikes.

Opposing batters slugged just .220 off of his sinker. The pitch did, however, produce just a 16.8% whiff rate. While the slugging percentage off his slider (.353) and four-seamed fastball (.333) were higher than off his slider, they were still better than league average. His slider (36.2%) and four-seamer (20.0%) were both better whiff rate pitches than his sinker, too.

Hartlieb certainly flashed some positives in 2020. He kept the ball in the park, he limited hard contact, opposing batters struggled to barrel him up, and he did a great job of stranding inherited runners for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He also threw multiple pitches that have plus potential. However, he had horrendous control and did not strikeout enough batters.

Entering 2021, Hartlieb will be looking to improve his control and his strikeout numbers. If he does this, while continuing to do all the things he did well in 2020, he could be a great asset out of the bullpen for the Pittsburgh Pirates.