Pittsburgh Pirates: 3 Questions Their Bullpen Faces After the Jason Grilli Injury


Jul 22, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Jason Grilli (39) is escorted off the field by a trainer after suffering an apparent arm injury during the ninth inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates are attempting to do something they haven’t done since way back in 1992: Make the playoffs.

Barry Bonds was authoring the team’s success back then. Nowadays, it’s Andrew McCutchen (and some others, of course), a solid starting staff and a dominant bullpen–a durable one, may I add–that’s veering the Pirates onto the postseason road.

At 60-39, the Pirates sit just 1.5 games back of the first-place St. Louis Cardinals. But the 60-39 mark is the second-best record in baseball to, you guessed it, the Cardinals. In other words, don’t be fooled by the “second place” labeling.

I’m not going to dig too deep into the potential of a “Collapse Part 3,” because, well, I just don’t think another tumble of such magnitude is in the cards this year. Pittsburgh’s pitching is better, their bullpen is better and McCutchen isn’t the only one contributing on offense. It just doesn’t seem as fluky.

But, as I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Jason Grilli suffered a strained right forearm injury. The All-Star closer left Monday night’s game in obvious pain, immediately grimacing following his final pitch of the evening. He walked around the mound before being replaced and went on the DL Tuesday.

So yeah, it was an ugly sight for Pirates fans, or really, baseball fans. Before being placed on the DL, he was 30-for-31 in save opportunities on the strength of a 2.34 ERA and .186 opponents’ average. His absence isn’t going to go unnoticed, even in a bullpen that has compiled the second-best ERA in baseball.

No one quite knows how long Grilli will be out for. Though it’s a mystery Pirates fans would like an answer to, well, now. All signs point to a lengthy absence, simply judged by his body language on Monday and some speculation among pundits. And I warn you that elbow injuries are nothing to fool around with.

The questions that follow Grilli’s injury? Look no further…

Jul 13, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Jason Grilli (39) delivers a pitch against the New York Mets during the ninth inning at PNC Park. The Pittsburgh Pirates won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Who Takes Over For Grilli?

Allow me to state the obvious: Mark Melancon. The All-Star reliever will indeed take the honor of filling Grilli’s shoes, and there was never even the slightest doubt as to who it would be.

And for good reason. Melancon boasts a 0.93 ERA in 48.1 innings this year, which leads NL relievers. He has also been economic in the walks department, issuing just 1.1 batters per nine innings against a 8.9 K/9 ratio.

I’m not a big fan of the theory that closers are closers and set-up men are set-up men. The roles aren’t interchangeable, per se, but both require a nose for high-leverage situations. Still, there’s something about the last three outs that sometimes turns an effective reliever into an ineffective closer.

Of course that doesn’t apply to all pitchers, and Melancon’s success in 2013 compounded with the fact that he has a 3.19 ERA in save situations (for his career), should make his transition to the ninth inning smooth sailing.

The conclusion here is that the Pirates won’t be losing much. It’s the dominos that fell next that could ignite some concern.

Jul 14, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Majestic jersey representative John Fahnestock (left) presents Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Mark Melancon (35) with his 2013 All Star jersey prior to the contest against the New York Mets at PNC Park. The New York Mets won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Who Takes Over As the Set-Up Man?

Let me get this out of the way: The Pirates don’t and won’t find someone that will be the next Mark Melancon. There aren’t guys with ERAs south of 1.00 (with at least 40 innings pitched) just lying around.

But Pittsburgh does have some viable internal options, all of which operate under the radar. Justin Wilson (2.18 ERA), Tony Watson (3.21), Vin Mazzaro (2.62), Jeanmar Gomez (2.37) and Bryan Morris (2.53) are among the notables.

Those ERAs are indeed sparkly, but FIP (Fielding Independent Percentage)–a stat that essentially measures what only the pitcher can control–suggests that a regression is on the way.

Specifically, Watson and Morris both sports FIPs north of 4.00, and Mazzaro and Wilson sport FIPs in the mid-3.00s. This isn’t to say that a collapse will indeed occur, but it’s merely to underscore the possibility that increased workloads (Pirates relievers already pitch a lot of innings but, we’ll get to that shortly) could thus lead to a decrease in productiveness.

For now, though, mixing-and-matching seems to be Clint Hurdle’s plan, and with a pair of lefties (Wilson, Watson) and a few righties, he has the weapons to pull it off. If someone emerges, then it would be a different story, but that’s a big “if.”

Jul 2, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Justin Wilson (37) pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies during the sixth inning at PNC Park. The Philadelphia Phillies won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Overuse Problems?

Clint Hurdle likes to use his bullpen a lot. And I mean a lot. Through Wednesday, Pirates relievers have logged 344.1 innings this year, which is the most in the NL and second-most in baseball.

So far so good, though. Pittsburgh’s ‘pen has shown few signs that the taxing workload will eventually sting them.

Filling Grilli’s roster spot is Vic Black. MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo nabs the right-hander as the Pirates’ 15th-best prospect, which sounds about right. He has had trouble staying healthy, but his 2.31 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 35 innings this year (at AAA) are some intriguing figures. Black supplies Hurdle with a fairly fresh arm if he needs to back off some of his regulars.

Jeanmar Gomez, who’s missed a total of 24 games this year due to injury, could also be used to ease the workloads of the regulars. He has logged just 19 innings and was once a starter for the Cleveland Indians, so he’s more than capable of eating up some innings.

So, the substantial workload that Pirates relievers have endured shouldn’t be a big problem. Sure, Grilli logged 42.1 innings, but the team has alternatives that can compensate—of course with a slight drop-off in the effectiveness department.

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference