First Pitch: It’s Time For a Modern Bullpen Approach in Pittsburgh

Who is the closer for the Rays?

More importantly, does it matter?

We’re in the part of the season recaps where I break down the bullpen for the Pittsburgh Pirates. I looked at the 2020 bullpen yesterday, noting the guys who will likely be part of the 2021 group. The one thing the group is missing is a closer.

In the past, I’d move on to an article looking at the closer candidates for the Pirates. But I feel like that is an outdated concept, and the Pirates are in great position for some modernization at the position.

Back to the question about the Rays: Nick Anderson led the team with six saves this year. Diego Castillo followed with four. Three other pitchers had two saves each. Anderson pitched over half of his innings in the seventh and eighth this year. Castillo pitched anywhere from the third inning to every single inning from 5-9, with only six innings on the season in the ninth.

By the time the playoffs rolled around, the Rays were using both pitchers in their highest leverage situations, regardless of the inning. That’s not much different from the rest of the season.

While Castillo only pitched six innings in the ninth, and pitched all over the game, he was used most during the season in high leverage situations. The usage breakdown is 46 plate appearances in high leverage, 25 in medium, and 18 in low. Anderson’s breakdown on the same scale was 32, 15, and 11, respectively.

I want to go back to the 2018 season for a second, which is the last season where the Pirates had an established closer for the entire year. The closer was Felipe Vazquez, who pitched 59.1 of his 67 innings on the year in the ninth inning. The remaining innings came in the eighth. The breakdown on leverage situations for Vazquez showed that he had almost the same percentage of high leverage plate appearances as Anderson and Castillo, but an increase in low leverage situations.

Anderson saw a low leverage plate appearance 20% of the time this year. Castillo saw it 19% of the time. Vazquez in 2018 saw a low leverage situation 27% of the time.

In 2017, Vazquez split the season as closer with Tony Watson. As we’ve seen with the Rays, you can manage to have your top two relievers mostly in high and medium leverage situations. In that season, Vazquez saw a low leverage plate appearance a third of the time, while only seeing high leverage plate appearances 42% of the time. Watson, meanwhile, saw a low leverage situation 30% of the time.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. When you chain your best relievers to specific innings, you don’t always get the highest leverage situations. You can make an attempt to have your top two relievers pitch in the highest leverage situations of every game, but if the attempt boils down to sticking those relievers in the final innings, you will fail at your attempt. A team is better off ignoring the innings, and focusing entirely on the situations.

Fortunately, for the Pirates, they’re in a prime situation to try to maximize the usage of their best relievers going forward, without having to be locked down to the traditional closer roles. I’ll break down the players who could play a role in today’s relief pitcher article.

Today’s discussion question: Would you rather see the Pirates go with a traditional or modern approach in the bullpen?

The 2020 Prospect Guide returns to print for our tenth¬† we are releasing two variant covers, featuring Mitch Keller and Ke’Bryan Hayes. Visit our shop page to order these extremely limited items!


First Pitch