MLB bullpens have long adopted a structure where they’re expected to cover three innings of a game.
If you have five games in a week, you’re expecting at least 45 innings pitched.
That means you designate five players — commonly referred to as starting pitchers — to handle 30 or more of those innings.
You then have seven players — commonly referred to as relief pitchers — to handle the final 15 innings, give or take depending on whether the starters could average six innings each.
There are typically 12 pitchers in a pitching staff, and the starters are typically seen as the best arms. That’s mostly because they can be good for a long period of innings, with the ability to cover six or more innings in a start. That allows you to use 2-3 relievers to close out the game, ideally giving you the usage of your two best bullpen arms in three of those five games that week.
Not every starter will accomplish six innings, and that’s true of every starter in the rotation. There are going to be starts where even the best pitcher gets bounced early, and the bullpen is needed to pick up innings. Or, you’ve got a more common situation where the back of the rotation starters go 4-5 innings, leaving extra work for the bullpen.
There’s room for long relievers and expanded bullpen work in the above format, but it’s typically in emergency cases only, with the bullpen pitching while you’re losing, just to get you through the game without blowing up the traditional format for future games.
The traditional bullpen alignment leads to mostly single inning appearances, due to the structure that has innings 7-9 as bullpen innings, and the best relievers locked to individual innings during that frame.
What’s interesting about this is that most relievers come up through the minors pitching multiple inning appearances most of the time. When they reach the majors, it’s not a question of whether they can pitch multiple frames. It’s a question of whether the team will establish a system where they can pitch multiple frames.
There are some guys like Clay Holmes who you’d want pitching those blowout innings while they get established in the majors. But let’s say a prospect like Blake Cederlind comes up and establishes himself in the majors right away. The normal expectation would be to lock him to one of those three bullpen innings late in the game, with the occasional need for multiple inning work. A more modern approach would see him as the guy who bails out the struggling starter in the fifth inning, and then sticks around to pitch the sixth, or until another multi-inning reliever is needed to bail him out.
I’ll have more of an argument for why the Pirates should move to a modern bullpen in tomorrow’s First Pitch. Today we’re breaking down the relief prospects in the system, which will show that the Pirates are set up for a lot of hard throwing, multi-inning relievers as soon as the 2021 season.
Cederlind opened some eyes this year with his triple-digit velocity, and if we’re having a traditional closer of the future discussion, he’d be at the top of my list. He has experience pitching multiple innings, with 21 of 41 appearances last year that lasted more than an inning. That’s an increase from the previous year’s total of 14 out of 36 appearances going multiple innings. In the lower levels he made a few starts, and most of his outings were multiple innings.
Cederlind can go multiple innings, based on his history, but might not be a solid multi-inning guy. He seems more like a guy who can give you a solid full inning, and a few additional outs the next frame, or possibly come in for a four or five out save at the end of the game.
Mears was a breakout relief prospect for the Pirates in 2019, going from Low-A to Double-A in one season, while flashing upper 90s velocity and an ability for plenty of strikeouts. As we saw in his jump to the majors in 2020, he does have some control issues to work through. He normally wouldn’t have been in the majors in 2020, so I wouldn’t read too much into the extreme ratio he had in the small sample size. He’ll need to work on the control in the minors in 2021, but could be back in the majors by the end of the year, with traditional late inning potential.
Obviously Mears can go multiple innings, since two of his four appearances in the majors this year went beyond a single frame. Last year he had 16 of 34 appearances go beyond a single inning, with 13 appearances of two full frames. Like Cederlind, he’s a guy who can go beyond a single inning, and possibly more often than Cederlind can, while giving you a traditional hard throwing, late inning reliever.
Ponce made three starts for the Pirates this year, along with a three-inning relief appearance. This followed a season where he joined the Pirates in the Jordan Lyles trade, showing mid-90s velocity and strikeout potential across multiple frames. He’s obviously a candidate for multiple innings out of the bullpen. He’s worked almost exclusively as a starter in the minors, but spent a lot of the last two years in the bullpen with the Brewers and Pirates. He went multiple innings in 15 of 29 relief appearances in 2019, and 13 of his 18 relief appearances in 2018 went for multiple innings.
Ponce could start the 2021 season in the Triple-A rotation, giving the Pirates some rotation depth. He could also be a candidate to open the season in Pittsburgh’s bullpen. I think he’ll spend some time in 2021 in that role, and see his long-term role with this team as a long-reliever who can provide the occasional spot start or short-term injury replacement.
Brubaker is now getting into the territory of the guys who probably should be tried for the rotation first, even if it’s just for an opener role. He gets plenty of movement on his sinker, which sits 94 and touches upper 90s. He gets strikeouts with both his slider and curveball. He’s got the frame to be a starter who can pitch 180-200 innings a year. His four-seam fastball can get hit around a bit, which is a problem that can be hidden easier in the bullpen.
I think Brubaker should be given a shot in the rotation, with a fallback as a bullpen option if he doesn’t make it. That said, it wouldn’t be a bad approach to ease him into the majors as a multi-inning reliever who can be the first starter out of the bullpen when the team has a need.
Starting Pitching Prospects
Most of the best relievers were starting pitchers at one point in their pro careers. Teams put the best arms in the rotation in the minors, giving them the most innings for their development. Eventually, those starters either struggle in the minors and move to the bullpen, or they reach the majors where they aren’t one of the best five starting options. Typically a starter will see his stuff play up in relief, sometimes in surprising ways. The biggest change I’ve seen over the last decade was from Tony Watson, who went from a guy who was a fringe starting option in the majors to a reliever who could stick long-term, and then to the best reliever in the game.
The Pirates have some interesting starting pitching prospects, with young arms like Quinn Priester, Tahnaj Thomas, Brennan Malone, and some other younger guys who aren’t at the top of the system, like Braxton Ashcraft, Michael Burrows, and others. Not all of these guys will reach the majors or stick in the rotation. All of these guys in particular are guys you can still dream about in the bullpen as a fallback option to starting, since these are all tall, hard throwing pitchers.
The guys who stand out to me are the potential Watson’s — guys who don’t stand out as guaranteed MLB starters, but might see a boost in value in relief. Carmen Mlodzinski, Santiago Florez, Max Kranick, Aaron Shortridge, and Osvaldo Bido are a few examples across the system of potential back-of-the-rotation guys who could see a value increase in a move to the bullpen. That would especially be the case if the Pirates got creative and started using their bullpen for more innings, and/or to fill a starting role.
There are a few pitchers who have already made the transition to the bullpen in the lower levels, while still having a chance to reach the majors from that role. The standouts are Yerry De Los Santos and Shea Murray, who are both hard throwers that rate inside our top 50, with the chance to speed through the majors and be middle relievers in the Cederlind/Mears sense. James Marvel, Jack Hartman, Braeden Ogle, and Blake Weiman can also give the Pirates some middle relief options from the upper levels over the next few years.