Which Pirates Relievers Could Improve in 2022?

Last season, the Pirates’ bullpen ranked 23rd in ERA (4.55) and 27th in WAR (1.1). In his review of the bullpen, Wilbur accurately characterized it as needing “a near-complete remaking.” 

Much like when we looked at potential 2022 starters for the Pirates, we’ll take a gander at Expected Earned Run Average (xERA) to see if any current relievers could improve organically in 2022. 

As a refresher, think of xERA as Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) with Statcast’s quality of contact factored in. (The longer definition of xERA is here.) It gives you a better indication of how a pitcher should have performed, versus how they did perform (ERA). Unfortunately, xERA is only available in the majors, so we don’t have an apples-to-apples look at minor league pitching.

Here is a look at the 2022 bullpen candidates from the current 40-man roster who pitched in the majors last year (note the sample sizes and remember that reliever performance is highly volatile):

David Bednar 60.2 2.23 2.57 -0.34
Anthony Banda 33.2 4.28 3.63 0.65
Chris Stratton 79.1 3.63 3.73 -0.10
Sam Howard 45.0 5.60 4.15 1.45
Nick Mears 23.1 5.01 4.89 0.12
Duane Underwood Jr. 72.2 4.33 4.99 -0.66
Luis Oviedo 29.2 8.80 6.20 2.60
Eric Hanhold 10.1 6.97 6.24 0.73

Bednar is locked in as the closer, and rightfully so. By a significant margin, he had the best showing of any Pirates reliever in 2021. 

Banda is out of options and may stick in the bullpen. That could work out fine, based on his 3.63 xERA, but there is such a limited track record that he could just as easily self implode. 

Stratton and Howard appear to be MLB-quality relievers, though they would be low-leverage guys on a better team, as opposed to core bullpen pieces for the Pirates. Stratton had a 3.66 xERA in 2020 and a 4.14 mark in 2019, so what you see may be what you get. Howard’s xERA indicates that he threw the ball much better than his ERA indicates, so a jump in 2022 is possible. 

Mears is young enough and interesting enough to see if he can outproduce his 23-inning stint in 2021, especially given his strikeout numbers in the minors. 

Underwood will eat innings, but based on his xERA – which was 0.66 runs worse than his ERA – they won’t be good innings. 

Oviedo boasts the best ERA-xERA differential on the team, with advanced stats showing that he threw 2.60 runs better than his ERA depicted. But that’s not saying much, since there was nowhere to go but up (down?) from his 8.80 ERA. He will almost certainly head to the minors in 2022 to get better at pitching. 

Hanhold was claimed off waivers from Baltimore on November 3. He’s 28, has 12 innings in the majors, and served up a 6.24 xERA last year. This is a good time to quote Wilbur again:

It’s hard to blame the front office for trying to build a bullpen on the cheap, because that’s the sensible thing to do if you’re not the Dodgers.  The parade of Waiver Wonders, though, got old.  Excluding Yerry De Los Santos and Hunter Stratton, nearly everybody here arrived through some sort of bargain basement pickup.  But almost none of the bargain types had any success, especially if you don’t get carried away with reliever ERAs…. I’d way rather see the Pirates try to groom their own guys than keep dragging in so much waiver flotsam.

Overall, though, the news is not all bad. There are xERA indicators that the bullpen could improve a tad in 2022, especially if they limit Underwood’s innings. Adding several new arms wouldn’t hurt, of course. 

Other current 40-man candidates – including Blake Cederlind, Yerry De Los Santos and Hunter Stratton – don’t have MLB pitch data from 2021, so we don’t have a recent xERA to dissect. Cederlind had a 3.37 xERA in 2020, albeit in only 4 innings. 

Cherington and Co. dismissed a handful of relievers from the roster after the season finished. All are free agents, as of today:

Tanner Anderson 5.0 3.60 3.47 0.13
Chasen Shreve 56.1 3.20 3.87 -0.67
Enyel De Los Santos 35.1 6.37 4.73 1.64
Kyle Keller 33.1 6.48 4.99 1.49
Shea Spitzbarth 5.0 3.60 5.92 -2.32

Anderson’s 2021 xERA is exciting, but it’s misleading due to the sample size. In his previous two MLB seasons, he had xERAs of 5.86 and 5.26. 

Shreve’s xERA was respectable, and his xERA history when throwing 20 or more MLB innings in a season – 3.40, 4.60, 3.37, 4.49 and 3.58 – would make it seem as though he could make the Opening Day roster. But the Pirates saw it differently, outrighting him in November. As a veteran, Shreve elected to become a free agent. 

De Los Santos, Keller and Spitzbarth were and are all … fungible.