Pittsburgh Pirates: Wil Crowe v. Chris Stratton in High-Leverage Situations

ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 07: Wil Crowe #29 of the Pittsburgh Pirates delivers a pitch in the fourth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals on Opening Day at Busch Stadium on April 7, 2022 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 07: Wil Crowe #29 of the Pittsburgh Pirates delivers a pitch in the fourth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals on Opening Day at Busch Stadium on April 7, 2022 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images) /
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Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Wil Crowe looks like a new pitcher in 2022, but is he a better high-leverage option than stalwart reliever Chris Stratton?

Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Wil Crowe is having a great start to his 2022 campaign but fellow right-handed reliever Chris Stratton, not so much. While Crowe has excelled, Stratton has struggled. Although it’s early on and a small sample size, should Crowe take Stratton’s role as one of the team’s highest leverage relievers behind David Bednar?

Who would’ve guessed that Crowe would have been one of the most dominant relievers in baseball out of the gates? Crowe has transitioned to the bullpen after posting a 5.48 ERA, 5.67 FIP, and 1.57 WHIP in 2021, mostly as a starting pitcher. But the numbers to start 2022 have looked entirely different.

It’s only 15.2 innings, but he has allowed just two earned runs, while he has struck out 17 batters and walked out five. When opponents have made contact, it’s rarely been quality contact. Crowe has limited opponents to just an 85.7 MPH exit velocity and 22.2% hard-hit rate. His both are elite as he is in the 83rd percentile and his hard-hit rate is one of the best in baseball, ranking in the 98th percentile.

Although Crowe is throwing slightly harder, he’s not become a flamethrower. He went from throwing 92-94 as a starter to 93-95 as a reliever. He hasn’t gained a ton of spin either. Most of his success has come from a change in arsenal usage, with his changeup being his most used pitch and pitch location, using his high-spin fastball up in the zone more often.

On the other hand, Stratton is coming off a very solid season. In 2021, he tossed 79.1 innings, which is one of the highest innings totals from 2021 among relievers who didn’t start a game. In those 79.1 innings, Strat had a 3.63 ERA, 3.76 FIP, and 1.30 WHIP. That came with solid peripherals, including a 25.5% strikeout rate, 9.6% walk rate, and 1.02 HR/9 rate.

But the start of the 2022 season hasn’t been too kind to Stratton. He has pitched 9.1 innings, surrendering 14 hits and six earned runs. Although he only has one walk and eight strikeouts, he has been good at limiting hard contact, being in the 75th percentile of exit velocity and 85th percentile of hard-hit rate. He has lost some pitch velocity on the downside, though his typical high spin rate hasn’t taken that much of a hit.

In Stratton’s defense, his underlying metrics are much kinder to him. He’s in the 78th percentile or higher in all of Baseball Savant’s expected stats. He has a 3.10 SIERA and 3.23 xFIP. Again, it’s a small sample size, but a promising one underneath the hood.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have been slowly increasing his workload in high leverage situations. Derek Shelton has interchangeably used him and David Bednar in the team’s highest-leverage situations. But is he the right man for the job? Well, based on just 2021’s numbers, giving Stratton the second most high-leverage moments  and using him in the last inning makes sense. He had a 2.44 ERA and opponent .576 OPS in the ninth inning.

But this season? He’s given up six earned runs in the 5.2 innings he has pitched in the 9th. Opponents have been 13-for-29 against the right-hander when he has come into the final inning to close it out. But he’s allowed just a single hit through 11 plate appearances in the seventh and eighth innings.

He was also better in the seventh and eighth innings in 2021 as well. Through 37 innings, he had given up just ten earned runs, compared to five earned runs in 17.2 innings in the 9th. He held opponents to a sub-.500 OPS in the eighth during ‘21 as well. The seventh and eighth innings seem to be a sweet spot for Stratton as he struggled in the fifth and sixth innings and was better in these two innings compared to the ninth.

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While I believe in putting your best relievers in the highest leverage situations, I also believe that you should put your players in the best possible chance to succeed. Those things aren’t always mutually exclusive. Outside of his last game, David Bednar has been used very wisely and effectively. Stratton is a phenomenal seventh and eighth inning man, much better than he is at manning the ninth. Although Crowe isn’t as proven as Stratton, he’s likely better off in 9th inning situations than Stratton is.

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