While the Pittsburgh Pirates had a strong bullpen in 2014, poor decisions and mismanagement led to the overall downfall of the team that season
The 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates arguably had the best chance of winning the National League Central among all three of the team's Wild Card berths. They entered game 162 just one game out of the Central. A win by them and a loss from the St. Louis Cardinals meant they would have pushed a game 163. But what was the downfall of this team? It was bullpen mismanagement.
Let's first start at the beginning of the year. The Pirates opened the year with Stolmy Pimentel in the Opening Day bullpen over Vin Mazzaro. Now, Pimentel did look solid in 2013 for the Pirates' Double-A and Triple-A affiliates. Plus, he received a 9.1-inning sample size at the end of 2013, in which he only allowed two earned runs and two walks. He was also ranked as the organization's17th-best prospect per MLB Pipeline, but take a look at what Mazzaro did the year prior.
Across 73.1 innings of work, Mazzaro had a 2.81 ERA, 3.31 FIP, and 1.21 WHIP. While he struck out just 15.1% of opponents, he had a strong 6.9% walk rate and 0.37 HR/9. Mazzaro was a ground ball machine with a 52.2% ground ball rate. While he opened the year in a more conventional long-relief role, he started to play more and more often in higher-leverage situations. Even though Mazzaro's xFIP and SIERA were not nearly as good as his ERA, they weren't awful at 4.00 and 3.76, respectively.
Pimentel ended up performing poorly for the Pirates in 2014. He pitched 32.2 innings, allowing 19 earned runs on 34 hits. Five of those hits were home runs, and he also allowed 16 to reach via free pass. The only silver lining was his 25.4% strikeout rate. We'll never know how good or bad Mazzaro would have been in 2014 if he was given a second year in a Pirates uniform, but I'd be willing to bet he could have outperformed Pimentel.
The next way the Pirates mismanaged the bullpen was with Ernesto Frieri. Acquired in the trade that sent Jason Grilli to the Los Angeles Angels, Freri pitched terribly for the Pirates. In fact, Marty once argued that Frieri singly handily cost the team a division championship in 2014.
The right-hander allowed 12 earned runs in just 10.1 innings for the Pirates. One of those runs came against the St. Louis Cardinals, which ended up being the winning run. The Pirates also had yet to use Mark Melancon that day, despite three days' rest and just a few days before the All-Star Break. Frieri's poor control also led to the Arizona Diamondbacks throwing at, and in turn injuring Andrew McCutchen.
It hurts even more, given that Grilli ended the season on a high note and rebounded after a rough start to the year. After getting traded to the LA Angels, Grilli finished out the year with a 3.48 ERA, 2.91 FIP, and 1.16 WHIP. While you have to make win-now moves, and you can't just keep giving a guy who is clearly struggling continuously high-leverage innings, that also doesn't mean you trade him for a guy who was struggling even more with a less steady resume. Frieri had allowed twice as many earned runs as Grilli did before the trade despite only pitching 10.1 more innings. He also had a mediocre 3.80 ERA with a 10.3% walk rate the year prior in 2013.
Speaking of acquisitions involving the bullpen, Freri wasn't the only move that didn't move the needle or moved it in the opposite direction. The Pirates had acquired John Axford from Cleveland at the waiver deadline. While Axford wasn't a terrible pitcher, adding him to a bullpen that needed major reinforcement was like trying to patch the Titanic with duct tape. The Pirates didn't take much initiative at the deadline to add another major bullpen arm, despite multiple higher-end RPs like Huston Street, Andrew Miller, and Joakim Soria (whom the Pirates would acquire at the 2015 deadline) available in trade talks.
In the end, it's all hypothetical. What if this happened instead of this? What if the Pirates put this player in instead of him? But it certainly creates a rabbit hole that's interesting to. The Pirates lost the division in the last two days of the year. They officially had zero chance after the last game was played. While the Pirates' 2014 bullpen was arguably a big strength of the team, there were a handful of instances where poor decision-making regarding the pen, both from the front office and coaching management, caused more immense consequences down the line.