Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Bailey Falter has found his niche as the bulk man who follows the opener, but the team should leave him in this role, and find who the opener should be
The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Bailey Falter at the 2023 trade deadline in exchange for infielder Rodolfo Castro. It was somewhat of a surprising trade at the time, though Falter has been pretty solid since arriving in Pittsburgh. In 31.1 innings, Falter owns a 4.02 ERA, 4.86 FIP, and 1.21 WHIP.
Falter’s peripherals also have some solid numbers backing them. Although his 20.2% strikeout rate is below average, he has only walked 6.2% of opponents. On average, he’s striking out just over three batters per walk with a 3.25 K:BB ratio. While his 1.72 HR/9 rate is a tad high, he also has a 15% HR/FB ratio. That’s led to his FIP being higher than it should be. If you adjust by using xFIP, he’s closer to the league average at 4.49.
But Falter has found a way to succeed, and that’s by being the bulk man out of the bullpen who follows the opener. Falter has allowed just two earned runs in 17.2 innings coming out of the bullpen this season. He’s struck out 15 batters while only allowing three to reach via free pass. Opponents are also hitting just below the Mendoza line at .197 with an OPS below .700 (.653).
His numbers as a starter compare like night and day. In 54 innings coming out of the rotation, Falter owns a 5.83 ERA, 4.95 FIP, and 1.48 WHIP. The lefty still has a quality 5.6% walk rate, but opponents are hitting over .300 at .303 with a .831 OPS. It’s not as if this is solely a one-year thing either, as his career ERA as a starter (4.75) is nearly a whole run greater than his ERA as a reliever (3.81), while his opponent OPS as a starter (.804) is also nearly one-hundred points higher compared to when he works out of the bullpen (.711).
The Pirates need to keep Falter in his role as a bulk-man post-opener. But the question now becomes, who is the best option for the opener role for Falter? So far during his Pirates tenure, the Pirates have used two guys as Falter’s opener, both of which with varying degrees of success.
Thomas Hatch has been used as Falter’s opener twice. Hatch went three scoreless the first time, then conceded to Falter, who allowed just one ER through six more innings. In his next outing, he went 2.1 innings but allowed three earned runs. Falter followed that up by allowing just one earned run through 3.1 innings.
The other opener was used in his last outing, and that was Colin Selby. Selby got demolished in his use as an opener. He allowed three earned runs in just one inning of work, all of which came on a three-run homer. It’s not wholly surprising to see Selby struggle as an opener, as he’s mostly been used as a higher-leverage reliever in the minor leagues the last two years. Falter then came in and gave the Pirates some quality innings, going 3.2 frames and allowing just a single hit.
I think there are a couple of decent options for Falter’s opener. The first is Hatch, who’s already worked in this role twice. Hatch has been pretty solid for the Pirates since his arrival. He’s pitched to a 3.44 ERA, 3.75 FIP, and 1.20 WHIP in 18.1 innings. The righty has allowed just one home run while inducing ground balls at a 54.6% rate and keeping opponents to an 88.6 MPH exit velocity. He’s also been great at limiting walks with a 6.8% walk rate but has a poor 14.9% strikeout rate.
The second option has been used in a more traditional starting pitcher role since getting to Pittsburgh, and that’s Andre Jackson. He’s been a low-key acquisition and has really only had one bad outing with the Bucs, that being his most recent game. Jackson has a 4.34 ERA, 3.95 FIP, and 1.10 WHIP as a Pirates pitcher. He does have a 10.3% walk rate but a 24.8% K-rate, and 0.93 HR/9. Aside from the walk rate, all his other numbers are league-average or better.
Using Jackson as an opener might seem inefficient. You have a guy with league-average or better numbers nearly all the way around, and putting him in an opener role sort of diminishes his ability, especially considering these numbers are after one bad outing. But keep in mind of Jackon’s splits. After going through the order once, Jackson has a 2.00 ERA, 1.70 FIP, and 1.11 WHIP as a starter. In the second and third time through the order, he’s allowed ten earned runs on three home runs, just seven K’s, and eight walks.
Another option to consider as an opener is Ryan Borcuki. In the two times Borucki has been used as an opener, he’s combined for 3.2 innings, and has allowed zero earned runs while striking out six. Aside from one HBP, Borucki has not allowed any other base runners as an opener. Granted, this would take a pretty solid left-handed reliever out of the bullpen for the Pirates. With Angel Perdomo now out for the rest of the year, he and Jose Hernandez are the Pirates’ only left-handed relief pitchers on the active roster. If the Pirates weren't so light on left-handed relief pitching options, then I'd say Borucki might be the go-to opener for the rest of the year.
I think Jackson would be a very prime candidate to open games for Falter, especially considering that he could go more than just one inning. It might be a little inefficient, especially given that the Pirates are just barely scraping by with the starting rotation, but it would put both Falter and Jackson in the best position to succeed.
In any regard, I think the Pirates need to keep Falter in his role, potentially even long term. They need to put guys in the best possible position to do good. Even if Jackson isn’t the answer, keep Falter in the bulk role after the opener. He’s proven himself, now on more than one occasion, that he should be kept in this role.