It’s no secret that the Pirates’ pitching has been instrumental to their success so far in this 2012 season, with the third-lowest team ERA in the National League, at 3.28. But how much of the pitching success has been owed to the starters and how much should be credited to the bullpen?
The starting pitching for the Pirates has been spectacular this season, allowing only 3.56 runs per game, which is second-lowest in the National League, behind just the Washington National. However, the Pirates’ starters have not been going very deep into games, going through 5 2/3 innings before relinquishing control of the game to the bullpen. Perhaps this has been due to the success of James McDonald and A.J. Burnett, who have ERAs of 2.14 and 3.60 through 71.1 and 50 innings, respectively.
The bullpen, however, has been absolutely incredible in 2012. The relief pitchers have only lost one game for the starting pitchers, whereas the next lowest amount is three and the NL average bullpen has lost five games for their starters. The bullpen has also been able to save ten losses for the Pirates, second most in the National League behind the New York Mets’ 12, meaning that the pitchers have been able to hold the opposition to one or fewer runs for four or more innings, considering the offense scores 3.25 runs per game. The bullpen has inherited 53 runners, but have only allowed 11 of those runners score (20.8%). The average NL bullpen will inherit 65 runners and allow 19 to score (29.2%).
The individual players have pitched well, too. Closer Joel Hanrahan has an ERA of 2.57 in 22 games, collecting 15 saves while having a WHIP of 1.14. Hanrahan has improved his ability to fool hitters, striking out 27 batters with a K/9 of 11.6, which is over three strikeouts higher than his 2011 K/9 of 8.0. Sadly, this has come at a price for Hanrahan. While attempting to strike out more hitters, Hanrahan has missed the strike zone a ton, walking 12 batters so far this season, only four bases on balls lower than his 2011 season total. His 5.1 BB/9 is highest on the team, tied with Jason Grilli.
Chris Resop has set up for Joel Hanrahan in 16 of his 22 appearances. Resop has an ERA of 3.62 , which translates to an ERA+ of 105, which is the lowest in the Pirates’ bullpen. Resop has somehow found success this season despite raising his walk rate and lowering his strikeout rate from 3.9 to 4.3 and from 10.2 to 6.9, respectively. His BABIP of .289 this season is lower than his career average .320, so the Pirates are in for a real surprise when he regresses towards the mean.
The best reliever in the bullpen for the Pirates has been righty Jason Grilli. After signing with the Pirates in late July last season, Jason Grilli has been impressive this season. His ERA of 1.71 is enough to have an ERA+ north of 200, at 224. Grilli’s FIP of 2.65 and xFIP of 2.70 shows that he’s been helped out a bit by the team’s defense. The most incredible thing is that his BABIP of .263 isn’t so far away from his career average of .299.
The only southpaw in the bullpen is Tony Watson. Watson has been perhaps the worst pitcher currently on the Pirates roster this season. In 17.1 innings, Watson has an ERA of 3.63, but his FIP and xFIP of 4.41 and 4.56 show that Watson hasn’t been playing as well as his ERA would tell. Watson has struck out less hitters, 6.75 per nine innings as opposed to 8.12 last season, but has walked about the same, 4.15 per nine innings this season, 4.39 last. One reason for this sudden decline in value is perhaps due to his strand rate lowering. Typically, a high strand rate will result in a low ERA, and vice versa. Watson’s 67.9% strand rate this season is a whopping 11.5% lower than his 79.4% last season.
Juan Cruz has been a decent surprise for the Pirates this season, having a 2.18 ERA in 20.2 innings so far. His xFIP of 3.85 shows that he has been saved by fielders many times. His strand rate is most likely contributing to his success, too, having the highest LOB% of his career at 85.9% this season. Batters have been incredibly lucky facing Cruz, as Cruz’s BABIP of .393 is an entire .100 points higher than his career average, which means he’ll be a hell of a pitcher to watch when that figure can reverts to the mean.