9-22-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
Derek Shelton has made mistakes, just like the bullpen being bad, that too deserves a sarcastic news flash headline, but how he’s currently using the bullpen, man, that’s simply not on him. Now how it got to this point, hmm, we might have something there.
As we sit here today, the Pirates have 2 bullpen options that have actually performed well. Chase DeJong, and waiver claim Manny Bañuelos, if you’re feeling generous you might toss Robert Stephenson into that mix.
Wil Crowe was really good early this year, exceptional even, but he’s completely been used up at this point.
The rest are just journeyman, in fact, everyone I gave credit to for being “good” are journeymen really.
Let’s really talk about how we got here, first, I think it’s always good to look back and learn from the path, and second I believe the state of this bullpen is a direct reflection of decisions this team made early on.
Protect Those Arms
All season long we’ve seen this crop up time and again. In fact, we’ve seen it ever since 2020. Starters going 5 innings and the bullpen asked to do the heavy lifting for months.
There’s always an excuse. Oh, 2020 they had no Spring Training, and that messed up the schedule for pitchers to ramp up into the season. On top of that, 2020 had arguably the worst mix of pitchers in Pittsburgh since the early 2000’s.
Even in a short season, this team was overly sensitive to pitch counts and innings load.
Onto 2021, semi normal Spring. Semi Normal season. Still, pitchers that didn’t throw a single pitch in anger for over a year were being asked to step into an MLB season and pitch. Nobody seemed ready to carry a really heavy load, in fact, Wil Crowe threw more innings as a starter than any other pitcher. Duane Underwood Jr. threw more in the Bullpen than anyone else.
Here we are in 2022, shortened Spring courtesy of a labor dispute, and the Pirates showed up to camp seemingly prepared to act as though pitching was just as delicate.
From the beginning of the season, nobody was allowed to really go, save Jose Quintana. Everyone else was pulled after 4 or 5, 70-80 pitches. Bullpen arms were asked to give 2 or 3 innings, no matter who they were, no matter how good they were.
All of this caused pitchers like Crowe to again carry a heavy load. Caused David Bednar to be asked to do way too much. Underwood again, asked to pitch way too many innings.
Every team in the league has all the same excuses. Each and every one of them. I don’t expect you to watch all these other teams or pay attention to their problems, but I’ll tell you right now, they haven’t struggled nearly as much as the Pirates by in large.
This bullpen suffers from underwhelming talent, let’s not discount that, but they also suffer from an irrational fear to allow starters to actually start. What you create when you manage like that is a bullpen asked to carry half the weight of innings, while 5 guys are asked to throw no more than 25-30 innings a week collectively. Do the simple math, that leaves 30-35 innings a week that your bullpen has to eat.
So when you decide someone like Roansy Contreras is going to be limited severely way back in April, that might be a fine plan for that player, but it also guarantees your bullpen is going to have to be ready to eat 4-5 innings every time he starts.
Zach Thompson was held back all year too. JT Brubaker had dead arm at the end of 2021 and they babied him this season for quite some time, only to wind up having him go down late.
You know what you’ve watched, and quite frankly bitched about to me all year. Well, the bullpen paid the price. Their 3 best relievers are injured, and the holdovers like Crowe are beat to hell.
The point of all of this is pretty simple. If you swing the pendulum of protecting arms too far to one side, you protect none of them. To the point Roansy against the Yankees yesterday was asked to blow right past the team’s stated target of 60 pitches, simply because the bullpen is so beaten to death the team had to have it.
So, has the bullpen been mismanaged, oh hell yeah. Up to and including asking them to handle entire games multiple times this year while they pissed with Contreras’ service time. We may very well end up loving the Quintana trade as Johan Oviedo and Malcom Nunez could turn into important pieces, but trading someone who was consistently eating 6 innings every 5 days when you’re in this self inflicted situation is not wise either. Especially if you have nobody else you actually want to see ready to come up.
Let’s Talk About Self Inflicted
Here’s the thing. Starting the season the Pirates didn’t have enough pitching. They had Jose Quintana, Bryse Wilson, Zach Thompson, Mitch Keller and JT Brubaker as starters. At the time, backed by Wil Crowe, Roansy Contreras, Max Kranick and Jerad Eickhoff. Crowe was moved to the pen, fine. Roansy was going to get manipulated, ok. Max got injured. Jerad stunk and always did.
If you enter a season like that, you better not have injuries to the starters right? So what does that cause you as a management group to do? Right, really overcorrect and hide them from anything that even smells like asking too much.
They forced themselves into this situation by not supplying enough options, and I mean that word literally, starters with options. You have to have that, preferably multiple guys who you can jump back and forth to account for injury or even just simple arm fatigue.
Again, I’m not here to tell you Derek Shelton has done some masterful job, but every problem I’ve pointed out so far is a direct reflection of a decision made by Ben Cherington and his group.
The picture looks better next year, just through attrition, but they’ve created this issue all on their own.
You ask me regularly what is Derek doing? First, what he’s told. Second, man he just doesn’t have anyone to trust right now. If you already have to cover 4 innings at least a night with your pen, and one or two guys you feel ok about, well, to use them you better be leading or close. Even then, you just feel OK about them, so it’s not like they’re a guaranteed lock down.
As I said up top, Shelton has made mistakes, but the state of this pen isn’t on him, look higher. Bluntly, it’s not on Marin either, his bullpen is made up of primarily waiver claims and DFA’d players. It’s not like they like what they have to choose from either and as far as coaching them up, well, Manny, Stephenson, DeJong, even what he got out of Crowe for 3/4 of the season, folks, they’ve gotten more out of these 4 than they had any business hoping for if we’re honest.
If you want to get on Shelton, well, the next section is for you.
Shelton Isn’t Snow White Here
I’m not going to guess as to his motivations. It could be fear of going to other options, perhaps desperation, but Shelton has put far too much weight on the shoulders of some guys all season.
This goes back to the LA series but David Bednar for instance was allowed to throw 50 pitches in one outing, and he never was the same since. Now, the result was nice, we all loved that sweep, but if you look back you’ll see this outing raised alarm bells for me. For one thing, it screamed lack of trust in everyone else they had back there, for another it showed a complete lack of awareness as to what you can and can’t expect from certain pitchers.
All season long we’ve seen Shelton try to navigate the required workload of the bullpen, and he’s done it by asking guys like Banuelos to give him multiple innings, or a clearly dead armed Wil Crowe to close games.
They might as well have printed posters in the locker room that say Bednar isn’t as important as Roansy. You can think that’s hyperbole but when every player on this team sees the lengths this team will go to in order to protect that one player’s health, then see it be at the expense of theirs, well, it hardly matters if said player begged for the ball or not. A coach is supposed to know what’s best for them, just like years ago when the Pirates wouldn’t condone Cervelli catching another game because of his concussion history.
Nobody can definitively say that the Pirates got David hurt, but nobody can deny he wasn’t the same pitcher after that singular moment. They’ve overused Duane Underwood 2 years in a row, asking him repeatedly to give them 2 or even 3 innings. I don’t blame them for Underwood being below the line, that’s just what he is, but let me ask this, if we don’t think Zach Thompson should be facing a lineup more than 1 or 1.5 times, why would we want the clearly inferior Underwood to do it?
He’s managed with handcuffs and at some point you’re going to do something stupid, especially if it works from time to time.
They Suck, Why Does This Matter?
It matters because the team is 90% kids.
You have them all supposedly up here “furthering their development” yet repeatedly beating into their heads that no matter what they do, no matter how many runs they put up, no matter what starter they force out of the game, the likelihood of their bullpen making it count is very low.
They went out and put up 8 runs on the Yankees through 8 innings and this bullpen let it slip away in a literal blink of an eye. The saddest part, you all saw it coming.
Blame Wil Crowe if you like, blame Derek Shelton too I guess, but there wasn’t a single option in that bullpen you’d have felt good about. Just wasn’t.
To me, we have to look all the way back to the beginning of the season and the setup of the pitching staff. That’s where this story started, and the way they managed it collectively wrote the ending before it even got hot on the field.
If Ben Cherington is going to continue to repeat that they have to get better, let’s hope he at least is murmuring it to himself in the mirror when he shaves, because his improvement above all is where that might actually be achieved.