Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Overworked Pen?

After last night's 14-inning game, Pirates relievers have pitched 238.1 innings, the 13th most in the majors and fourth most in the National League. That's a bit of a surprise, given the quality of the starting rotation. Pirates starters have combined for 3.17 ERA, fourth in the majors and second in the National League. Normally, you'd think that good starters give you a lot of innings. And they do: Pirates starters are averaging 6.09 innings pitched per game, seventh most in the majors and third most in the National League. But the average Pirates game has lasted 9.23 innings this year, the most in the majors. (Pitchers for only the Tigers, Cardinals, Cubs, Diamondbacks, and Pirates are averaging over nine innings per game.) So manager Clint Hurdle's gone to the bullpen. A lot.

That's borne out in usage numbers. I'm going to focus on the Pirates' four most frequently used relievers: Arquimedes Caminero, Jared Hughes, Mark Melancon, and Tony Watson. All four appeared in last night's game. Entering play tonight, Hughes and Melancon have appeared in 38 games, tying them for the third most in the majors. Watson's right behind with 37 appearances, tied for 11th. Caminero's been in 35 games, tied for the 27th most. Put another way, of the 40 pitchers who've appeared in 35 or more games this year, four are Pirates. Only the Cardinals, Giants and Phillies have as many as three. 

Well, maybe they've been in a lot of games, but have they been used lightly? The Cardinals have Left-handed One Out guY (LOOGY) Randy Choate, who's appeared in 36 games but pitched only 16 innings. Ditto the Giants with Javier Lopez, 39 games and 22 innings. The Pirates, though? Watson's pitched 38.1 innings, tying him for 11th most in the majors. Melancon's pitched 37.2 innings, the 15th most. Caminero, with 35 innings, is tied for the 29th most. Hughes' 34 innings ties him for the 38th most. Of the 41 relievers who've pitched 34 or more innings, four are Pirates. The only other team with that many is the Phillies, and the Diamondbacks are the only other team with as many as three.

So to review so far, the top four Pirate relievers, as a unit, have been used more frequently, and pitched more innings, than any other bullpen. Isn't that a big red flag?

Well, maybe, but perhaps not as red as it seems. Let's consider not just workload but the strain on the pitchers' arms. You can tax a reliever by asking to throw a lot of pitches, or to work consecutive days without rest. Let's tackle the second one first: the number of times a reliever's been called upon to pitch on no rest.

Here, the story's a little better. The Cardinals' Choate has pitched in 16 games after having pitched the prior day as well. That's the most in the majors. (Staying fairly true to his LOOGY acronym, he's pitched only 7.1 innings in those 16 appearances.) Watson has pitched on no days rest eleven times, tying him for 18th most in the majors. Melancon's pitched on no days rest ten times, tying him for 32nd.  It's happened nine times for Hughes, tying him for 43rd. And Caminero's pitched on consecutive days only seven times, tying him for 78th in the majors. By contrast, the Giants have four pitchers who've pitched ten or more times on no days rest. The Cardinals have three. So do the Braves, Brewers, Cubs, and Rays. By this measure, the Pirates, with only two, have been more conservative with their bullpen arms.

Then there's pitch counts. You hear about them more with starters, but they're relevant for relievers as well. The Phillies' Jake Diekman (30 games, 27.1 innings pitched) is averaging 21.0 pitches per inning. The Twins' Blaine Boyer (37 games, 36.1 innings pitched), on the other hand. is averaging just 13.4 pitches per inning, more than a third fewer than Diekman. The Cardinals' Choate is averaging only 12.7 pitches per inning. By being more efficient, Choate and Boyer are putting a lot less strain on their arms than Diekman.

Overall, major league relievers are averaging 16.3 pitches per inning this season. Are the Pirates relievers efficient, thereby saving their arms despite heavy workloads in terms of innings pitched?

Yes, they are. Hughes averages 13.4 pitches per inning. Melancon's average is 13.5. Watson's at 15.0. Caminero's 15.1. All four throw a below-average number of pitches per inning. As a result, while Pirates pitchers have elevated innings pitched, their pitches thrown this season are much more reasonable. Watson's thrown 575 pitches, 20th most in the majors. Caminero, with 530, is tied for the 44th most. Melancon's thrown 509, 60th most. Hughes, at 456, is tied for 88th most. The Pirates have three pitchers in the top 60 for relief pitches thrown. The Phillies have five. The Brewers, Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Rangers, Rays, and Yankees have three like the Pirates. Again, by this measure, the team looks a lot less reckless.

Then there's the pitchers themselves. The four primary Pirates relievers aren't kids. Caminero, though he'd appeared in only 19 major league games before this season, is 28. Melancon turned 30 in March, Watson did the same in May, and Hughes will do so this Saturday. So their arms are presumably less likely to be broken by overuse than a younger pitcher's might be. 

Me, I'd maybe tap on the brakes a little bit with Watson in order to make sure he's still relatively fresh in September. He's also the fallback closer in case something happens to Melancon. But overall, I'd say the Pirates bullpen is a lot less overworked than their games and innings pitched would seem to indicate.

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