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Just How Bad Has The Pirates’ Bullpen Been?

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Nick Kingham was atrociously terrible for the Pirates bullpen before being DFA’ed. He wasn’t the only one.
Photo: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since 2015, the Pirates’ bullpen ERA has fallen out of the top-15 in the league. Since 2015, the Pirates’ bullpen has drastically changed. Players have rotated in and out of the pen, but there have been a few mainstays. For the past three years, Felipe Vazquez has been the closer for the Pirates. His fiery fastball and breaking balls have led him to post a career ERA of 2.33 with the Pirates. But other than Vazquez, the Pirates haven’t had much success this year from the pen.

Right now, the Pirates bullpen consists of the following pitchers: Felipe Vazquez, Francisco Liriano, Richard Rodriguez, Kyle Crick, and Michael Feliz. Those are the go-to pitchers once the Pirates have reached the seventh inning. But what if the starter doesn’t go seven innings? What if the Pirates need a pitcher to pitch more than one inning starting from the fifth or sixth inning? Well, the Pirates have a length list of relievers this season. From Nick Kingham to Clay Holmes, the Pirates “firemen” have not been good. It would be an understatement to say that when a Pirates starter can’t go 5 innings, the next reliever to follow will give up at least one run. They have been that bad. Let me show you how bad they have been:

Nick Kingham 9.87 5.41 7
Clay Holmes 4.26 5.16 2
Geoff Hartlieb 8.44 6.47 5
Richard Rodriguez 5.08 7.57 9
Michael Feliz 7.31 4.22 2
Alex McRae 8.76 9.00 6
Rookie Davis 6.75 7.19 3
Montana DuRapau 9.31 6.26 3
Dovydas Neverauskas 9.95 4.58 0

I haven’t included Felipe Vazquez, Kyle Crick, and Francisco Liriano because they’ve actually been good. Also, Steven Brault is listed as a relief pitcher, though he has started a few games. Due to injuries to the starting rotation, Brault has been promoted to the starting rotation. So he is also exempt from this list of shame.

Most of these relievers have pitched over 10 innings. Only DuRapau and Neverauskas have pitched under 10 innings. It is sad to see that these relievers haven’t been bad for a game or two, but for a month or two. How are they this bad, you might ask. Well, the answer is quite simple: they just aren’t developed enough to perform well in the major leagues.

Any advanced statistic will tell you that these recent call-ups in the Pirates bullpen are terrible. But the stats don’t tell you the in-depth story of how they were rushed to play in the major leagues. And each one of these players is up in the majors because of one reason: injuries.

At the beginning of the season, the Pirates wanted to trot out this starting rotation: Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer, Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove, and Jordan Lyles. Right now, Taillon is on the 60-day IL, Williams is on the 10-day IL, Lyles is on the 10-day IL, and Archer is struggling mightily. The initial response to the injuries came in Nick Kingham. He did not pan out, as he had an ERA+ of 43 and a WHIP of 2.05.

For those who do not know what ERA+ is, it is Adjusted Earned Run Average. It takes a players ERA and normalizes it across the league, taking park factors into account. This value is usually compared to 100, the average ERA+. The higher the ERA+, the better, since that pitcher is excellent across all parks. Nick Kingham, with an ERA+ of 43, was downright terrible.

The next wave of reinforcements came with bullpen call-ups. First it started with Tyler Lyons, then Montana DuRapau. Then the Pirates acquired Chris Stratton from the the Los Angeles Angels for cash considerations. Clay Holmes was the next to debut after a slew of injuries. Neverauskas and Davis were the next forced into action, followed by Alex McRae. Richard Rodriguez came back up after a “conditioning stint” in the minors. Finally, a starter was called up, in the form of Mitch Keller.

I’ll stop the painful history of the Pirates being forced to call up most of their AAA bullpen and their top pitching prospect because of injuries. As you read this article, the Pirates will still have at least 7 pitchers on the injured list. With their current pitching situation, we can see why the Pirates are floundering at a 32-39. Even the Reds, who haven’t had decent pitching for the good part of a decade, are half of a game ahead of the Pirates.

Before I stop the pessimism, I’d like to show just how many wins the Pirates have given up due to their call-ups. Let’s take a look at the WAR for each one of the Pirate’s pitchers who were called up or gone (Nick Kingham).

Name WAR
Nick Kingham -1.6
Clay Holmes 0.0
Geoff Hartlieb -0.4
Richard Rodriguez -0.2
Michael Feliz -0.4
Alex McRae -0.5
Rookie Davis -0.1
Montana DuRapau -0.5
Dovydas Neverauskas -0.2
Tyler Lyons -0.4
Mitch Keller -0.6

Simply put, it is ugly. Only one player, Clay Holmes, has a WAR that is non-negative. Each one of these players is playing at or below replacement level, by definition. The total number of wins lost by these players is an astounding 4.9 games. For the sake of argument, let me round that up to 5 wins. If we add 5 wins to the Pirates record and take away 5 losses, the Pirates would be 37-34. That record would put them tied for third with the St. Louis Cardinals and have them 2.5 games back from the division lead. The Pirates would be 2.0 games back from the wild card spot. The numbers do not lie: the Pirates have had a below replacement level bullpen.

Just based on bullpen ERA alone, the Pirates are ranked 25th with an abysmal 5.24 ERA. The Pirates bullpen has given up 48 homers, putting them at 6th highest in the league. The Pirates have the 4th highest earned runs from the bullpen of 160 earned runs. All the data points to the Pirates having a terrible bullpen, and there is no logical way to refute this claim. The Pirates simply do not have the pitching depth that was boasted about during spring training and the off-season.

At the end of the day, the Pirates are doing what they can to maintain a good farm system while supplementing their major league team. But rushing players like Geoff Hartlieb and Alex McRae into the majors is not a successful strategy. I truly believe that the Pirates will find a way to rebound from these past few injury filled months, but the rebound will not be enough. For the sake of all hopeful fans out there, the playoffs are not returning to PNC Park this season. The Pirates would be better off taking this season as a developing season, not a pushing season.

Sasank is a student at Carnegie Mellon University majoring in computer science and minoring in business. He is a huge hockey and baseball fan, but also enjoys following the Steelers and Spurs on the side. His passion lies in applying machine learning to sports analytics. As a mentor in the Carnegie Mellon Tartan Sports Analytics Club, Sasank does sports analytics research on hockey in order to bring more clarity to skater and goaltender performance. He can be reached on Twitter at @_svish.

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