Pittsburgh Pirates: Wil Crowe Pitching His Way to a High Leverage Role
By Noah Wright
Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Wil Crowe has started this year out in the bullpen, but he’s showing the promise of a high-leverage reliever.
When the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Wil Crowe in the Josh Bell trade, he had the outlook of a back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. A second-round pick in 2017, Crowe’s 2019 season was a mixed bag. He started the year off on a good note, posting a 3.87 ERA, 3.15 FIP, and 1.12 WHIP in 95.1 innings of work. The underlying numbers agreed that he was a good pitcher as he put up a 3.05 xFIP, 48.1% ground ball rate, and 4.05 K/BB ratio.
Then once he got promoted to Triple-A, things started to take a turn for the worst. He only tossed 54 innings but managed a poor 6.17 ERA, 5.46 FIP, and 1.70 WHIP. Crowe’s ground ball rate was nearly cut down by 10% to 39.8%. Meanwhile, his K/BB ratio, which sat at just over four at Double-A, dropped to just 1.58 when he received his promotion.
Crowe would only pitch 8.1 innings with the Nats in 2020 before being sent to the Bucs. Last season, Crowe took up the mantle of a Major League starting pitcher, albeit with poor results. In 116.2 innings, the right-hander had a 5.48 ERA, 5.67 FIP, and 1.57 WHIP. He only managed a 21.2% strikeout rate and 10.9% walk rate, but home runs gave him the most trouble. He surrendered 25 for an HR/9 of 1.93.
But Crowe has potentially earned a second life by moving to the bullpen. I previously touched on this but stated that he could serve as a long-relief guy. Think of something akin to Jeanmar Gomez’s role in 2013 and 2014. But after his first few innings out of the pen in 2022, could he take up a more critical, high-leverage role?
It’s a small sample size of just seven innings, so take it with a grain of salt. But he’s already showing massive improvements from last season. The first thing is his fastball velocity. Right now, he’s averaged out at 94.3 MPH compared to 93.7 MPH in 2021. During his second game of the season, Crowe averaged 95.5 MPH, which is a 2.3 MPH upgrade from his first game of this season.
Crowe has also changed up his pitch usage. He’s used his slider a lot more often, having a usage rate of 29.7%, compared to 24.7% in 2021. His change-up is his second used pitch so far in the young season with a 28.8% mark, over 10% more than last year. His four-seamer also has a 26.3% usage rate, compared to 34.9% in 2021, and his sinker has exclusively been used against right-handed batters so far. He mostly used it against RHB in 2021 as well, but he also threw it to lefties 32.7% of the time.
Crowe has upped his sinker usage rate from 11.8% to 15.3%, mainly because it looks like he’s dropped his curveball. Last year, the right-hander threw five pitches, with the fifth being a curveball he used 10.4% of the time. However, this pitch was greatly inferior to his other breaking ball, the slider. In terms of run value/100, his slider was at just +1, while his curveball came in at +2.3.
So far, Crowe has been getting a lot more missed bats. He has struck out 9 of the 25 batters he’s faced this season. His opponent’s swing rate has gone from 44.6% to 50%. When they are swinging, they are making a lot less contact. His whiff rate has spiked from 25.3% to 30.5%, which is well above average in the top 64th percentile. One last thing of note is that Crowe is not giving batters good pitches to hit. A ‘meatball’ pitch is described as a ball straight through the middle of the plate. Crowe gave up a meatball pitch by 6.6% in 2021. Right now, he’s sitting at 4.2%.
Right now, Crowe is serving as a multi-inning/low-leverage reliever. However, the Pittsburgh Pirates should build him up to be a high-leverage reliever. If the stuff Crowe is throwing is in part due to his move to the pen, then the Pirates should start letting him see innings later in games.
He could become the set-up man to David Bednar if he keeps pitching this way. The Pittsburgh Pirates could use a decent bullpen arm right now, and Crowe could be it. He’d bring the option of putting him in critical situations and getting more than just a single inning.