Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Improbably Putrid Pirates Pen

I know, I know, only eleven games into the season. The Pirates have scored 3.91 runs per game, tied with Arizona for the sixth fewest in the National League. The league average is 4.53. The pitchers have given up 4.82 per game, putting them right in the middle of the 15-team league, a little over the league average of 4.51. So the problem's been more one of run production than run prevention. But the way the pitchers have gotten there is unusual. Pirates starters have an ERA--again, I know, through just eleven games--of 3.77, the sixth lowest in the league. Their relievers have an ERA of 5.49, the fourth highest. That's unusual for two reasons. First, relievers generally put up better numbers than starters. Starting pitchers are trying to pace themselves over, on average so far this year, 90 pitches and 5.7 innings per start. Relievers come in and throw gas for, on average so far this year, 17 pitches during one inning. Last year, National League relievers had an ERA of 3.66, striking out 22.2% of the batters they faced. National League starters had an ERA of 4.05, striking out 19.9% of the batters they faced. So, as you might expect, most teams had lower reliever ERAs than starter ERAs. Here's the spread for the National League last season:

The only two teams whose relievers had significantly worse ERAs than their starters were Atlanta and Los Angeles, both of which had notably bad bullpens last year. And even for those two the difference in ERA was well under a run. The Pirates relievers have an ERA 1.72 higher than the starters, a gap more than 2.5 times as wide as that of the widest-in-the-league Dodgers last year. 

That 1.72 run difference is not likely to persist; it's too large. But that brings me to my second point: Nobody expected this. The bullpen has been a Pirates strength throughout the team's three-year Wild Card run. The team had the lowest bullpen ERA in the league in 2015, the fifth lowest in 2014, and the second lowest in 2013. This year, the only relievers with more than two innings pitched and an ERA below 5.00 are closer Mark Melancon (2.08 ERA and who, tellingly, is fourth in the club in games pitched--there just haven't been save opportunities) and Neftali Feliz (2.84). And the Pirates can't really blame luck, as they have the sixth lowest strikeout rate, the sixth highest walk rate, and the fourth highest home run rate among National League relievers. Inducing batters to hit ground balls is a Pirate strategy, but so far this year Pittsburgh relievers have a 36% ground ball rate, third lowest in the league. And they're not tricking anybody, with a 26% rate of swings on pitches outside the strike zone, the fourth lowest in the league. Last year they led the league in both of those latter categories.

Panic time? Not yet. After all, it was about this time last year that I wrote about how Mark Melancon's struggles were troubling, and he wound up leading the majors with 51 saves. But there is nothing--not strikeouts, not walks, not grounders, not home runs, not getting batters to chase--that suggests things could head in the right direction. Looks as if pitching coach Ray Searage may need to pull yet another rabbit out of his hat. 

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