Makeover kept Pirates' bullpen top notch
Pittsburgh's late-inning effectiveness unchanged by offseason relief overhaul
PITTSBURGH -- In the 2012 season, the Pirates' contention was supported by a dynamite bullpen. When leading after six innings -- bullpen time -- those Bucs were 64-5.
The bullpen has likewise ridden shotgun in the 2013 Pirates' drive into the postseason. Through last weekend, the team was 62-4 when leading after the sixth.
So ... business as usual?
Hardly. On the contrary, highly unusual business, and that's even before taking into account that aquarium in the middle of the clubhouse, an actual shark tank for The Shark Tank, the bullpen's nom de plum.
One season to the next, the Bucs wholly transformed that bullpen without missing a beat, or many chances to protect leads.
Fifty-six percent of last season's relief appearances (269 of 483) were gone, including such major contributors as Joel Hanrahan (63), Chris Resop (61) and Juan Cruz (43).
Taking their places have been a squad of converted starting pitchers, a former closer and a 35-year-old first-time closer.
The only incumbent reliever performing the same role he had last season is left-hander Tony Watson. The other incumbent, Jason Grilli, graduated from setting up to closing.
How did the Pirates pull this off?
"We signed our contracts and showed up," Grilli said.
Not quite as simple as that droll knee-jerk response, but in a way, Grilli is right: Once general manager Neal Huntington and his talent advisors were through cherry-picking the available arms, all their choices had to do was show up and start firing.
The key to it all obviously was Grilli, who had been pitching for a decade, mostly in relief, and had the grand total of five saves to show for it. Manager Clint Hurdle spent 2012 watching Grilli cut through the heart of opposition lineups and had no doubts he could also cut it as a closer.
"His fastball plays. He's got a wipeout slider, and a very good change," Hurdle said. "I like what he does, so we made the decision [to have him close despite his lack of experience]."
"Age scares a lot of people," Hurdle said. "They were saying, 'He's never done it.' But he's always been motivated by opportunities to do new things."
First, however, there was the matter of re-signing the free agent. This is where Huntington hit the jackpot: He traded Hanrahan and his $7 million salary to Boston, which freed the $6.75 million for Grilli's two-year contract; and, oh yes, he also got Mark Melancon in that deal from the Red Sox.
There is no way to minimize the impact of that move. Grilli was leading the National League with 30 saves in late July when he walked off the Nationals Park mound, cradling the right forearm with the strained tendon. The Bucs had the ultimate fallback in Melancon, who two years ago had 20 saves with a rebuilding Houston club and who had been a setup marvel until Grilli went down.
With two weeks to go in the season, Melancon was already only the third closer in history with 16-plus saves in a bullpen that also had a 30-plus guy. It matched a precedent set by the 1970 Reds (Wayne Granger, 35; Clay Carroll, 16) and equalled by the 1991 Blue Jays (Tom Henke, 32; Duane Ward, 23).
Think about it: The Pirates lost an All-Star closer, and were able to replace him with another All-Star reliever. Stuff like that doesn't happen often -- or by accident.
"Going into Spring Training, we believed Jason could handle the job," Huntington said, "but we also knew Mark could handle it if something happened. When Boston made him available, we felt he was a very upside get for us. We felt he gave us a lockdown back end to the bullpen."
Otherwise, the makeover M.O. was basic, and pure Huntington: "Guys who had a lot of indicators, both subjective and objective, as bounce-back candidates. And guys who've had success in the past as starters," the GM said. "If you look at back-end bullpen pieces, they're usually former starters who, for whatever reason, weren't able to stay in a rotation."
Translating Huntington's metrics and projections: Vin Mazzaro, Jeanmar Gomez, Justin Wilson and Bryan Morris. The first two flopped at extensive shots to start in the Majors (83 starts and 27 wins between them). The latter two came through the Minor League system as starters.
"There's more value in the Minors on starting pitchers. Organizations will always have their best arms start in the Minors, to get them more work," said Morris, who entered pro ball with the pedigree to be a top-of-the-rotation guy.
The publication Baseball America rated Morris' fastball and curve as tied for the best in the 2006 Draft class with Clayton Kershaw -- both first-round selections by the Dodgers that year.
Morris came to Pittsburgh in the three-way July 31, 2008, deal that sent Jason Bay to Boston and Manny Ramirez to Los Angeles -- which is a lot more convoluted than his '13 role has been. He's the middle-innings guy when it appears multiple innings will be needed. Morris has worked more than an inning in a third of his appearances.
"Most of these guys were starters at some point along the way. It's just pitching in general, but it does take some getting used to," Wilson said. "The big thing for me has been staying really aggressive every minute I'm on the mound."
Morris and Wilson weren't complete wild cards. Their bullpen transition began last September, when they combined to allow two runs in 13 relief appearances, with 13 strikeouts in 9 2/3 innings.
"That was a big-time help to them," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "They got a leg up on knowing what it all entails, and how crazy it's out there."
Bullpens have always been known as baseball's fun house. Pittsburgh's bullpen saves the frivolity for before the first pitch or after the last out. Game-on, game faces also go on. It could be the weight of the pennant race.
"They always have an idea of when they can come into a game, and are always ready, mentally and physically, before the phone rings -- sometimes even before the game starts," said Euclides Rojas, the team's respected bullpen coach. "One thing we've worked on since Spring Training is the different routine for a reliever. The few with bullpen experience have helped the new guys.
"What stands out for me, more than anything," Rojas said, "is the chemistry and camaraderie. They look out for each other, and take care of each other."
Hurdle noticed that early. He has played and managed long enough to have been around teams on which key relievers did not pitch as asked, but asked when to pitch. There was none of this in this bullpen -- likely, a coincidental benefit to having a fresh group.
"They bonded really well," Hurdle said. "I've been with groups where it was always personal, and that can get you a little sideways. These guys took upon themselves that they don't want to give up anything. A sacrifice fly twists them. They're setting the bar extremely high."
Physically, relievers are apart from the rest of the team, spending games in their own faraway caves. Maybe that's why Rojas goes out of his way to emphasize that "bullpen guys are part of the team, we are all Pittsburgh Pirates."
"The bullpen is only one component," said Grilli, echoing Rojas' sentiment, "though everybody seems to lock in on the bullpen. After World Series runs, a lot of people talk about how good the bullpen was. But it takes a lot more. But the bullpen is a big part of it."
At times this season, the Pirates' bullpen has been the biggest part, no argument. In a three-day span in late May, the relievers combined for 9 2/3 shutout innings in a pair of 1-0 extra-inning wins over powerful Detroit. A month later, they combined for 12 two-hit shutout innings in a marathon win over Milwaukee.
"Everybody who goes out there, every day, competes -- that's been the big key," Morris said. "Every single person has come out in a big moment at some point to help us win a ballgame."
"The whole gang of them ... whenever they're called on, they get the job done," catcher Russell Martin said.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.