The Pirates are far from a perfect club. They have quite a way to go in order to truly cut into some of the biggest issues the team possesses. Starting pitching is going to be a theme most of the year, and if you’re honest, it always is, good and bad.
This season though, the Pirates know its a problem and the way they plan to mask that issue is to lean heavily on what could be a strength this year, the pen.
It’s truly a tale of two cities. One unit, the starters, aren’t really stretched out all that much. They as a unit don’t really have the stuff that the bullpen does either. Chad Kuhl looked ready to get yanked in the first and Derek Shelton didn’t appear to have a trusting long leash. Instead he looked ready to pull the trigger even that early in order to not allow a poor start to take the chance to win off the table.
It’s a different philosophy, even from as recently as last season, where pitchers like Trevor Williams would be left to dangle for seemingly 3 innings longer than he should have, but maybe that’s not even a fair statement, because Derek Shelton never had the solid stable of arms in the pen at his disposal he does now.
You often hear Ben Cherington refer to all pitchers as arms. Regardless of where they’re deployed or are projected to be deployed, he simply calls them arms. Seeing how Shelton operated yesterday in game one bookended by days off on either side it’s clear to see why. Equal footing makes sense when the entire unit was almost put to use in one game.
Now, let’s be honest with ourselves, this philosophy isn’t going to work as we get later into the season. At some point starting pitchers are going to need to routinely get at least 4 or 5 innings knocked out or the pen won’t remain the formidable unit it looks like it could be.
They have fresh options in the minors of course and they’ll need some if not all of them, but simply put, that doesn’t mean you can burn through the current pen to get there. In other words if a member of the pen gets hurt it certainly is great they have that backing, but they’ll still have to pull back a bit on usage.
It may be fine early on in the season for the bullpen to carry the mail, but the pendulum needs to swing back the other direction before too long. Two or three rotations through we should start to see this play out, and if we don’t, that’s when this team will truly turn back into a pumpkin.
If you watched yesterday’s contest it’s clear the Cubs feel that way as well. Problem for them is simple, they don’t have one strong unit to lean on.
Listen, I’m not here to tell you the Pirates are going to crush the league by using their bullpen more and starters less, but I am saying they’re going to use it to not let games get out of hand. Simply staying in games isn’t a sexy goal, but when it comes to winning games with less methods at your disposal it just might be the best possible strategy at least early on, and for a young team that might not fully understand they’re supposed to suck, a good start sure can keep the blinders on a bit longer.
At the same time the Pirates offensive attack is targeting the opposition with a strategy of their own to take full advantage of the pitching problem that is sure to be just about league wide. Patience at the plat and a contact first approach led to 11 walks for Pirates hitters and almost constant traffic on the bases. Sure, we can talk about their inefficiency with runners in scoring position or the baserunning mistakes but if we simply focus on the at bats taken by just about everyone it’s pretty clear to see they are shaping up to be a staff killer.
Imagine coming into Pittsburgh in the middle of a 20 game in 21 day stretch and having the Pirates burn through your entire staff in a three game set by forcing relievers to throw 35-40 pitches in an inning.
That adds up. Doesn’t mean they’ll win more than they lose, but it could make them a team you don’t want to play.
It’s going to be incredibly interesting to watch this element of the team develop, and evolve as the season progresses. For right now though, it’s an advantage if they play this right.