The Pirates and reliever workloads
So I just tweeted a little bit about this. It’s something I stumbled across in writing a piece about the Pirates and Indians, which will run on MLB.com on Friday. So, y’know, get ready, Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.
Anyway. I’ve been thinking about the Pirates a lot, for a variety of reasons. They’re interesting, of course, as a team trying to make a surprising run for the second straight year. They’re unusual in how few runs they score and allow. And they play in a city starved for a good baseball team, a city that is absolutely desperate to come out and believe in them and follow them. I really want to see the Pirates succeed, so I am watching them closely.
And I had a notion a couple of days ago, that one of their biggest problems from last year wouldn’t be a problem this year. I wrote this over the winter, but one of the truly critical issues that plagued the ’11 Buccos was reliever fatigue. They had four very good relievers, and they rode them hard. As a result, all four — Joel Hanrahan, Daniel McCutchen, Chris Resop, and Jose Veras — experienced significant fades in the second half.
That’s part of why I really liked the A.J. Burnett trade for them, as I outlined here when the deal was made. Burnett brought a high likelihood of a high innings total, and that’s something Pittsburgh needed badly.
So when I took a look at the Bucs, and saw Burnett, James McDonald (who I’m also really high on, and have been for a while), and Erik Bedard all putting up very strong years, I just kind of assumed that the relievers would be working less. And then I looked up the numbers, and what do you know, it’s the opposite.
Through 60 games, Pirates starters have pitched 340 innings, fourth-fewest in the Majors. Their relievers have pitched 188, ninth-most in the Majors. That’s a bit disconcerting, since once again a big part of the Bucs’ success is riding that excellent bullpen to success in close games.
However, I’m not at all convinced they’re doomed to a similar fate, for a few reasons.
One is that the innings and the success have been spread across more guys. Pittsburgh has six relievers who have pitched in at least 20 games, and all of them have been somewhere between decent and very good.
The second, and this I think is the real key, is that the heaviest workload on the Bucs’ relievers didn’t happen in the early part of last season. Over the first 60 games, Pirates relievers tossed 179 1/3 innings, or just the slightest smidge less than 3.0 per game. It was over the NEXT several weeks that they were really used up. From game 61 through game 101 (the infamous extra-inning loss in Atlanta), they pitched 134 1/3 innings in 41 games, or nearly 3 1/3 innings per game. One extra out per game may not seem like much, but when it’s every single night, you start paying a price.
From July 27 through the end of the season, Pittsburgh relievers posted a composite 4.96 ERA. You want to know how a team stops outperforming its pythagorean projection? That’s how.
So the question is whether they can avoid putting that kind of stress on those guys between now and the stretch run. I think they can. McDonald has emerged as one of the league’s better pitchers. Burnett is averaging nearly 6 1/3 per start, and it’s 6 2/3 per start over his last seven. Erik Bedard is always a health question, but as long as he is healthy, he should continue to go deep into games.
The Bucs need to find a way to score more runs. They need to stay healthy. They need a lot to go right. I’m not writing them into the playoffs by any means just yet. But I think there’s reason to believe that one key cog in their fall last year won’t necessarily be repeated this year.