End-game edge: Pirates, savvy MLB teams turn focus to bullpen
BRADENTON, Fla. — In a sixth floor suite at the Grand Opryland Hotel during baseball’s winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn., the Pirates’ plan for 2016 came into focus.
The mid-tier starting pitching market continued to melt away in early December. Chris Young and Hisashi Iwakuma reached agreements with clubs Dec. 7. The Pirates checked in on Scott Kazmir and found the years and dollars were beyond their budget, as was the case with J.A. Happ.
A day later, on Dec. 8, Zack Greinke agreed to a stunning six-year, $206 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“The starting-pitcher market absolutely blew up,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “It’s essentially a returning position-player club. … So you look at what you are anticipating doing. What you might do. What might not happen. We felt like we were the best off, given the money we had available, given what else we could do with it. We felt we were a better team holding Mark (Melancon).”
And attempting to build an elite bullpen around him.
On Dec. 9, Huntington called the Mets and proposed a trade: Jon Niese for Neil Walker. The trade meant the Pirates had pivoted toward keeping Melancon, who will be allotted 10 percent of payroll despite pitching 5 percent of the club’s innings last season.
On Dec. 10, the club signed Juan Nicasio, projected then as a multi-innings reliever, and less than a month later the Pirates signed Neftali Feliz. They were two of the club’s three biggest free-agent acquisitions.
The Pirates enter the season with 23.1 percent of their payroll allocated to the bullpen, an all-time high under Huntington, up from 15.4 percent last season and 13.8 percent in 2014.
The game always has become more specialized. But the growing role of the bullpen threatens to fundamentally change the way we think of starting pitchers and pitching staff configuration. Analytics suggest bullpens should be relied upon to an even greater degree. Power relievers continue to increase in velocity, reducing hitters’ reaction time. The amateur market is changing the types of arms available. Teams like the Kansas City Royals, with elite bullpens, have essentially shortened games to six-inning affairs. And the Pirates — and the New York Yankees and Houston Astros — are trying to follow in their path.
“It wasn’t by accident. It wasn’t by design,” Huntington said of the approach. “It was somewhere between.”
For teams on a budget, investing in the bullpen makes financial sense.
Because of the scarcity of quality starting pitchers (only 28 pitchers reached 200 innings last season, a low in the modern era), starting pitching is increasing in cost relative to relief pitching.
In 2009, based upon opening day payrolls, every inning pitched by a starting pitcher cost teams an average of $26,603.
The average cost of an inning thrown by a reliever? $26,855.
But last season teams spent $41,000 per inning on starting pitchers and $33,343 per inning on relievers.
That cost gap widened this offseason as teams spent $1.296 billion on the free-agent market for major-league starting pitchers. That compares to $289 million on relievers, despite the average reliever (3.71 ERA, 3.83 FIP) being more effective than the average starter (4.10 ERA, 4.03 FIP) last season.
Former Colorado Rockies general manager and MLB Network analyst Dan O’Dowd said the Pirates’ approach of focusing on the bullpen is “smart.”
“There is volatility and risk associated with the bullpen,” O’Dowd said. “But if you compare the risk associated with the bullpen to this year’s starting pitcher market, you can probably live with a mistake that can happen in a bullpen. But you could never absorb a blow if you lost David Price.”
Consider the average contract given to relief pitchers this offseason was for 1.37 years at $4.9 million per year.
The average contract for a starter was for 2.67 years at $15.6 million per season.
The other two teams to open the season with more than 20 percent of their payrolls committed to bullpens? The savvy and analytic Houston Astros and the Oakland A’s.
“The beauty of the bullpen is the probability of replacing (a bullpen arm) and getting impact from a guy making the minimum is of higher likelihood than trying to do that with (replacing) a starting pitcher,” O’Dowd said.
Moreover, wins above replacement, a standard many use to value players on the open market, does a poor job of valuing relief pitchers. It is an accumulative stat, and relievers are low-volume performers. But relievers often perform in the most critical points of game.
For instance, Melancon (5.2) trailed only Greinke (6.7) and Jake Arrieta (5.4) in a statstic called win probably added (WPA) last season in the NL. WPA reflects a player’s contribution to wins by measuring pivotal plays that alter the outcome of a game.
“We are not big believers that if a player is a 2-WAR player that means he’s worth X,” Huntington said. “Win probability added is part of the equation.”
The idea of distributing more innings to relievers is tied to performance trends.
Consider the first time through a batting order last season. Opposing hitters combined to post a .709 OPS (on-base plus slugging) against starting pitchers. The second time batters faced a starting pitcher, the OPS rose to .731. The third time through? .764.
The combined OPS in the first appearance against a relief pitcher? .699.
“From an analytical side, there is absolutely a movement to not let a pitcher face a lineup three times and to have 12 pitchers, four starters, four relievers, and three guys that fluctuate in and out,” Huntington said. “We have not sold out to the approach, but at the same time, we have recognized we might be better served with multiple, multi-inning relievers. If Ryan (Vogelsong) gives us six good innings, maybe it’s time to go get that starter.
“That’s why we are consciously putting together a bullpen with multiple guys that can go multiple innings to allow Clint (Hurdle) to go get that starting pitcher.”
Perhaps it is reducing innings from the back of a thin rotation that can help the Pirates find an edge.
For Vogelsong’s career, opponents have a .718 OPS against him in their first plate appearances. The third time through the order? .830.
For his career, Jeff Locke holds opponents to a .621 OPS in pitches 25 through 50. But from pitches 50-75, opponents have an .885 against OPS Locke.
“It’s not rocket science in how much a bullpen can impact a game,” O’Dowd said. “Hitting is about timing and rhythm. The more pitchers you’ve faced though a ballgame, the less timing and rhythm you are going to have.”
FEEDER SYSTEM OF FLAWED ARMS
The first thing you notice about a prep pitching prospect at PerfectGame.com, a showcase circuit for prep players, is a prospect’s fastball velocity.
Every scout owns a radar gun.
The incentive for amateur talent today is not necessarily to learn how to pitch, but to learn to throw, and throw hard, said O’Dowd.
“We are going to have an industry with a lot of guys that throw really hard for very short periods,” O’Dowd said. “I think the evolution of the bullpen is a direct byproduct of the direction of the game for the younger levels.”
No team in baseball is more committed to drafting high school pitchers than the Pirates (18 times in their 30 picks in the top 10 rounds from 2009-11) under Huntington.
“There is no question pro baseball is influenced by the trends in amateur baseball,” Huntington said. “It’s a double-edged sword, because we don’t want guys to go out and throw 175 pitches in a high school game. At the same time, do they learn how to get through a lineup multiple times? It is an interesting dilemma.
“Could there be something five, seven, 10 years from now, where instead of five starters trying to go seven innings, you have two trying to get to the seventh inning and (three) trying to get through five? That’s where the multiple multiple-inning relievers come in. That’s where that guy who has two pitches, that’s always been a gun guy (fits). … He can’t give you 100 good pitches, but he can give you 50.”.
Top Pirates prospect Tyler Glasnow came up through the California amateur baseball culture, a fifth-round pick in 2011. He saw so many pitchers maxing out for radar gun readings.
“It is (velocity) oriented,” Glasnow said. “I think people know the way to get signed is to show velocity. You learn to pitch later. I think it’s harder to learn how to throw later in your career than it is to pitch. You learn how to pitch when you see better hitters.”
THEORY VS. PRACTICE
In 1959, relievers pitched 21.3 percent of innings. In 1969, it increased to 26.4 percent of innings. By 1979, the last year the Pirates won a World Series, bullpen arms accounted for 28.9 percent of innings. Ten years later, relievers’ share rose to 31.2 percent.
But then the increase slowed.
Relievers last season (34.9 percent) accounted for nearly the same share of innings as they did in 1999 (33.7).
There is only so much specialization that can be done with a 12-man staff, and teams have hesitated to fully adopt an extreme stats-driven approach to constructing a pitching staff. Still, the Astros have experimented with four-man, piggy-back staffs in the minors. The Tampa Bay Rays have limited starters’ exposure. And O’Dowd once tried a radical experiment in Colorado. Pirates reliever Rob Scahill was part of.
“It was interesting, 75 pitches for the (four) starters, then the hybrid guy would come in for potentially two to three innings. That’s what I was,” Scahill said. “I know a lot of people weren’t huge fans of it. … It was a lot of throwing. You were throwing two to three innings every two or three days.”
There are other issues with the plan.
What happens when a starter struggles and the script is thrown off?
A major-league staff combines for 1,440 innings per season, meaning bullpens can have few one- or two-batter specialists.
And, noted, Huntington: “Those that fight tradition, if it doesn’t work right away, they tend to have a hard time.”
Still, O’Dowd believes the future of pitching staff configurations soon will look much different than it does today. And he doesn’t think that is necessarily a bad development.
“If I could do it all over again,” O’Dowd said. “If I knew what I knew now … If I could inspire to share this philosophy, I would pitch via bullpens.”
The Pirates have had excellent bullpens the last three years, and it might explain in part why they have exceeded their Fangraphs.com projections in three straight seasons by a combined 32 games.
Perhaps they can exceed expectations again with their greatest investment in the end game.