Manny Bañuelos has been an underrated arm for the Pittsburgh Pirates this season, but could he become a long-term bullpen arm?
When the Pittsburgh Pirates added Manny Bañuelos after he was designated for assignment by the New York Yankees in early July, it was not seen as a big move for the Bucs. Bañuelos, a former top prospect for the Yankees and Braves in the early-2010s, had barely pitched in the majors heading into 2022. A mix of injuries and underperformance, along with a stint in foreign leagues, led to Banuelos having just 77 innings of work in total in 2015 and 2019.
However, since the Pittsburgh Pirates added the southpaw, he’s been a dominant force out of the bullpen. He’s had his bumps, but other than a few poor outings, Bañuelos has been reliable for the Pirates. With his hot start to his Pirates career through half of the season, should the Bucs consider him a potential long-term bullpen arm?
Bañuelos has basically played half of the 2022 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His first game was game 81. Since then, the lefty has had a 4.91 ERA, 3.23 FIP, and 1.31 WHIP in 18.1 innings of work. Banuelos has allowed just a single home run, leading to a 0.49 HR/9 rate. He also has a 28.6% strikeout rate. The only downside is he has a 13% walk rate.
A 4.91 ERA isn’t pretty. It’s actually pretty bad and 13% below the league average, per ERA+. But more context is needed to understand it. In his first Pirate appearance of the season, Bañuelos gave up five earned runs while recording a single out. Since then, he has had a 2.50 ERA. He’s been unscored upon in 15 of his 18 total appearances. That was also the only game he has given up a home run in for the Pirates.
Bañuelos simply avoids hard contact like the plague. He has limited opponents to just an 82.8 MPH exit velocity and 26.8% hard-hit rate for the Pittsburgh Pirates. For reference, the current qualified leader in pitcher exit velocity is Twins’ Caleb Thielbar at 83.7 MPH, and the current qualified leader in hard-hit rate is Yankee Lucas Luetge at 21.5%. In basic terms, Bañuelos has been the best pitcher to limit hard contact since the mid-point of 2022. It also helps he has a 53.8% ground ball rate.
Both xFIP and SIERA agree that he’s good. Bañuelos has a 3.19 xFIP and 3.15 SIERA since his second Pirates outing. Luck hasn’t been a massive factor for him, either. He has a .268 batting average on balls in play and a 70% left-on-base rate. This isn’t like Dillon Peters, who started the year off with 16.2 straight scoreless innings because Peters had a pretty average strikeout rate (23.6%), sub-par walk rate (10.9%), 3.92 SIERA, 3.88 xFIP, and .050 batting average on balls in play. Peters’ hot streak was about luck, while Banuelos’ hot streak is more about skill.
Bañuelos hasn’t hit arbitration yet, which is wild because he made his MLB debut back in 2015. But that also comes with the caveat that he is 31 years old. 2023 will be his age-32 campaign. On the plus side, Bañuelos isn’t a guy who relies on big velocity to get outs. He averages out around 92-94 MPH with his fastball and sinker. He’s mostly a sinker/curveball/slider kind of pitcher but does throw a four-seamer and a change-up (only to righties, though).
I think that Bañuelos has shown that he can be a reliable bullpen arm. It’s not often you find a good left-handed reliever from the waiver wire, but the Pirates may have with Banuelos. The lefty should see a higher leverage role as we head into the home stretch of the season. If he continues to perform, the Pirates could enter 2022 with a back-of-the-bullpen mix of David Bednar closing games out with Banuelos, Wil Crowe, Yerry De Los Santos, and Colin Holderman delivering Bednar the 9th inning.