COMMENTARY | The Pittsburgh Pirates indisputably had one of the best bullpens in baseball during the first month of the season, a good thing considering the starting pitchers' inability to go deep into games. In fact, the Buccos' starters are some of the worst in the league in eating innings, which in turn puts added stress on the limited arms in the bullpen.
It's no secret that overworked bullpens start crumbling in the mid-summer heat if used too much in the early parts of the season. That has to be manager Clint Hurdle's reasoning behind saving some members of his pen and using others at will. But what policies dictate which pitcher gets the ball when, and in what situation? So far, there seems to be little rhyme or reason in Hurdle's approach to using his relievers.
That's because he's on record as saying that he'll never use setup man Mark Melancon or closer Jason Grilli unless the team is winning in the eighth and ninth innings. That means Hurdle's pen automatically loses its two most effective and efficient relievers because of stubbornness.
Even if the game is tied in the late innings, the manager has shown he'll turn to young arms like Vin Mazzaro and Bryan Morris to pitch out of jams. So far, that philosophy has been disastrous and has directly contributed to several losses. Indeed, Mazzaro's earned run average currently sits at 5.19, while Morris's isn't much better at 5.14. Neither can be counted on in late-game situations to hold down the fort, yet Hurdle continually uses them over more reliable relievers.
Digest these statistics for a second. Melancon has pitched 16 innings this year and has given up only one run, a meaningless home run against the Cincinnati Reds in one of the earlier series of the season. That's good for a 0.56 earned run average, one of the best in baseball. It's a shame he only comes in the game under very specific circumstances. Grilli also has a paltry earned run average, giving up only one run in 13 innings pitched. That's good for a 0.69 earned run average, while the closer is also a perfect 12 for 12 in save situations.
It can be said that nearly every manager in the league only uses his closer in tight situations late in games. That's why they're a closer. But most other managers will also bring their closer in to pitch in key situations, like a tied ballgame in the eighth inning. Not once has Grilli appeared before the ninth inning.
Hurdle is non-apologetic when it comes to explaining his bullpen strategy. Is a win now worth losing five or six games down the road because of an injured reliever? A good question, for sure. But it's hard to overwork a reliever when he only comes in when the team is winning.
This isn't to say the bullpen is doomed. The relievers still have a collective 2.99 earned run average, good for ninth best in the majors. It's not like the pen blows every chance it has to hold leads late in games. But Hurdle's strategy of saving his best two arms will backfire if it continues.
It simply puts too much added stress on the five other relievers in the pen, who will inevitably get overworked and start blowing leads on a more consistent basis, which means we'll see even less of Melancon and Grilli. In theory, Hurdle's management style could have the exact opposite effect he intends.
Jared Stonesifer has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates for MLB.com on a freelance basis since 2010. He lives in Pittsburgh.
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