There is nothing wrong with the bullpen that can't be fixed by what is right with the bullpen

Despite bullpen woes, the league is not hitting Pirates relievers hard. Now, if they can only throw strikes...
Milwaukee Brewers v Pittsburgh Pirates
Milwaukee Brewers v Pittsburgh Pirates / Justin K. Aller/GettyImages
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In 2010, the Altoona Curve, the AA affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, won the Eastern League AA championship.  They did so largely on the backs of their starting rotation.  The Altoona starting rotation that year consisted of Rudy Owens (2.46 ERA), Justin Wilson (2.67), Jeff Locke (3.59), Tony Watson (2.67), and Jared Hughes (4.42).

Although these five pitchers had outstanding seasons, the Pirates kept them at AA that year, rather than promoting them, so that they could get experience pitching in the playoffs.  For fans of the Altoona Curve, the payoff for the non-promotions came when the Curve won the Eastern League championship.  And seeing that championship play out, Pirates fans looking in from afar could dream of better days for the franchise when some or all of these pitchers ascended into the Pirates starting rotation.

Fast-forward a few years later, and it is interesting to note that only one of those pitchers, Jeff Locke, actually became a starting pitcher in the major leagues.  Three of the other starters—Watson, Hughes, and Wilson—instead became effective relievers. 

Say what you want about the Neal Huntington era, but one thing is certain. Under the Huntington regime, the Pirates could develop relief pitchers and trade or find effective relievers from other organizations.  An outstanding bullpen was a strength of the 2013-2015 Pirates playoff teams.

And so with that history, it is difficult to watch the current Pirates bullpen struggle so much.  Since 2011, the Pirates have generally had a strong bullpen.  Even in the lean years of 2016-2023, the Pirates bullpen could usually be relied upon to protect a lead.

In the case of the Huntington era, the Pirates turned successful minor-league starting pitchers into effective major-league relievers. Cherington has likewise attempted to do the same. However, the results thus far are mixed.

Both Carmen Mlodzinski and Kyle Nicolas were starters in the minor leagues and were converted to relievers late in their minor-league careers. But both are having their troubles this year. In the case of Mlodzinski, it is surprising, as Mlodzinski turned in a very effective 2023 campaign for the Pirates. In the case of Nicolas, his numbers are skewed by one horrible outing against the Cubs in which he pitched two-thirds of an inning and gave up four runs without allowing a hit. Nonetheless, seeing how hard these two relievers throw, it is hard to give up on them this early in their careers. At the same time, it is hard to trust them with a small lead late in a game.

Coming off the two losses to San Francisco, in which the bullpen blew four-run leads in consecutive days, the confidence level in the bullpen from Pirates fans is quite low.  In the two victories against the Braves, Pirates fans had one eye on the scoreboard, and one eye on Bailey Falter and Mitch Keller’s pitch counts.  The further those starters could go in the game, the fewer outs the bullpen would need to get. 

In fact, on Saturday, there was a bit of a crisis as the game had to be halted after five innings due to a rain delay.  The Pirates had only a two-run lead at that point. “Oh, no,” fans were probably thinking, fresh with those San Francisco losses still planted in their brains. “Two runs is not enough of a lead for this bullpen.  And the 12 more outs needed to secure a victory is way too many to expect this bullpen to get if Keller doesn’t return after the rain delay.” 

Thankfully, Keller did return and was able to go another inning and two-thirds.  Then Colin Holderman and David Bednar were able to close it out.  In the case of Bednar, though, it was not without some drama.  Before getting the final out, Bednar gave up two hits to bring the potential tying run to the plate.  “Oh no,” some fans must have been thinking, including this writer.  “Not again.”  But Bednar induced Ronald Acuna Jr. into grounding into a 6-4 force out to end the game.

When one looks at the batting averages against for the current crop of Pirates relievers, one would wonder why the bullpen is struggling.  Here are the current batting averages against for current Pirates relievers:

Name

Batting Average Against

Aroldis Chapman

.206

Colin Holderman

.136

Luis Ortiz

.176

Kyle Nicolas

.200

Jose Hernandez

.238

Hunter Stratton

.242

David Bednar

.250

Carmen Mlodzinski

.370

Except for Mlodzinski, the relievers all have respectable batting averages against, though arguably Bednar and Stratton's are a bit high. Bednar’s .253 batting average against is very uncharacteristic for him. From 2022-2023, hitters batted just .213 against him.

And when one looks at the strikeouts being generated by the bullpen, there also doesn’t seem to be a problem. Pirates relievers this season have pitched 178 innings and struck out 196.

Bases on balls have been a problem for this bullpen, especially for Ortiz, Chapman, and Nicolas.  The bullpen collectively has given up 89 free passes in those 178 innings.  But Chapman has issued 20 of those walks, and Ortiz has allowed 16.  Kyle Nicolas had issued six walks but in only 9.1 innings of work.  That explains how a pitcher, with the league batting only .200 against him, can still manage to have an ERA of 6.75.

But looking at those batting averages against for Pirates relievers should give Pirates fans hope.  As bad as the bullpen has been, somehow, the league is not hitting those relievers hard.  All of the relievers are averaging over a strikeout per inning.  In the case of Chapman, Ortiz, and Nicolas, if they can find the strike zone more consistently, improvement should follow.

In the case of Stratton and Bednar, control has not been an issue - missing bats has been, but not in every outing.  In some outings, Bednar and Stratton have looked very good. In some outings, they have given up multiple hits and multiple runs, which costs the Pirates games.  The getting hit part is new for Bednar.  Throughout his career, he has been one of the most reliable relievers in baseball.  So, to see save opportunities no longer be automatic with Bednar has been disconcerting.

But one would hope and expect Bednar to return to his norm.  And if he does so, the Pirates should be in fine shape with Holderman and Bednar closing out games. 

And if Chapman can limit free passes, he, too, should be in fine shape.  Chapman has been awful this year, perhaps the worst that he has ever pitched in his career. But it is interesting to note that even at his worst, the league still only bats .206 against him.   

The bullpen has been awful this year.  There is no denying this.  And one wonders where the Pirates might be in the standings if the relievers hadn’t blown so many leads. 

But it is still early enough in the season to turn things around.  Plenty of baseball still to be played. 

In his inaugural speech in 1992, President Bill Clinton said, "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what is right with America." And with the Pirates' bullpen, one can similarly pronounce that there is nothing wrong with the Pirates' bullpen that can’t be fixed by what is right with the Pirates' bullpen.

And if the bullpen can turn it around, the Pirates could find themselves in a pennant race this year.

But if it cannot, then 2024 might continue to be a very frustrating year for Pirates fans.