The Buccos Bullpen Shuffle

The Pirates completed a trade on Wednesday that sent Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt to the Red Sox for Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Stolmy Pimentel and Ivan De Jesus. The deal increases organizational depth for the Pirates and gives them a solid reliever in Melancon. The deal also effectively makes Jason Grilli the new Pirates closer. Grilli, who was recently re-signed to a very affordable two-year, $6.75 million contract was probably the better bet to close in Pittsburgh even with Hanrahan present.

The subsequent trade of Hanrahan only enhances the value of the contract he signed. Grilli certainly would have been paid more money had he entered free agency as a closer or a reliever seeking closing opportunities. Given his numbers over the last two seasons, it wouldn’t have been crazy to suggest him as a legitimate closer candidate somewhere. Instead, even with strong interest from about half of the league, Grilli stayed in Pittsburgh on a team-friendly contract fit for a 7th or 8th inning reliever.

While Holt, Sands, De Jesus and Pimentel all play a role in this deal, the trade really benefits the Pirates by increasing the cost-effectiveness of their bullpen and allowing them to reallocate their savings to other areas of need. The Pirates essentially replaced their closer with a better and cheaper alternative, brought back another cheap reliever whose peripherals closely match that traded closer and signed a starter with the savings.

I know the ‘Guess That Player’ game can be tiresome, but it has value in separating performance from perception. Consider the statistics of the three aforementioned relievers over the past two seasons:

Reliever A: 128.1 IP, 24.2% K, 9.9% BB, 46.5% GB, 3.28 SIERA
Reliever B: 119.1 IP, 21.3% K, 7.6% BB, 54.0% GB, 2.99 SIERA
Reliever C: 91.1 IP, 33.1% K, 9.6% BB, 36.4% GB, 2.41 SIERA

The first two relievers have very similar peripheral statistics. Reliever A has a slightly higher strikeout rate while Reliever B has him beat in walk rate and groundball rate. Reliever C, meanwhile, has a substantially higher strikeout rate than his peers and basically the same walk rate as Reliever A. His groundball rate is the lowest of the bunch but his SIERA is over a half-run better than Reliever B’s, and almost an entire run better than Reliever A’s.

Reliever A is Joel Hanrahan. Reliever B is Mark Melancon. Reliever C is Jason Grilli.

In looking at those numbers, and going on performance alone, it’s hard to argue with using Grilli as the closer over Hanrahan. After adding in their respective 2013 salaries — Grilli at $2.25 million and Hanrahan at an estimated $7 million — the rationale behind the swap becomes even clearer.

The more interesting comparison, as it relates to this trade, is between Hanrahan and Melancon. Their peripherals are very similar since 2011 but they have prevented runs at divergent rates. Melancon has a 4.07 ERA, 69.7% LOB and .285 BABIP over the past two seasons. Hanrahan has a 2.24 ERA, 83.7% LOB and .258 BABIP.

There may be legitimate non-DIPS reasons for the difference in their run-prevention over the last two seasons but, given the small sample, SIERA serves as a better portent of that sort of thing. Additionally, Melancon falls just short of Super-2 status at two years and 98 days of service, meaning he will likely make around $521,000 again next season.

While Hanrahan may have an advantage at inducing weaker contact or preventing runners from scoring, it probably isn’t worth a $6.5 million difference in salary, especially given their similar peripherals. Melancon could end up with a bloated ERA like he did with the 2012 Red Sox, but if you were going to bet on a reliever bouncing back, the guy with the ~3.0 K/BB ratio and 55% GB rate is a great choice.

After re-signing Grilli the Pirates had approximately $10 million being spent on their setup man and closer this season. By moving Hanrahan for Melancon and taking a flier on Francisco Liriano, they may well be able to replicate the Hanrahan-Grilli tandem’s production at 30% of the cost while improving the rotation.

It’s very possible that Melancon falters and Liriano, as a change of scenery candidate, stinks regardless of the change. However, the Pirates made better use of that $10 million by making this move after re-signing Grilli and bringing in Liriano.




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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.


24 Responses to “The Buccos Bullpen Shuffle”

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  1. Pirates Hurdles says:

    I can’t figure how “experts” view this as a good deal at all for Boston. Four years of Melancon alone is worth far more than one season at $7 million out of Joel. Good luck at Fenway with that flyball and BB rate and no HR suppression from PNC.

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    • Jason B says:

      This trade for Boston wasn’t about “getting” Hanrahan so much as it was about freeing 40 man spots. They traded some fungible assets for a very short term contract.

      Also, I don’t know if there’s a relationship between LI and K/BB/BABIP/whatever, but Melancon was basically a mop-up reliever for Boston last year.

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  2. asaw780 says:

    This was an interesting trade – on its face, the Red Sox won handily, getting rid of 40-man roster space wasters in return for a useful closer. However, the Pirates were definitely benefitted as well; as mentioned, they can put the money that would have gone to Hanranhan towards Liriano and perhaps even another free agent, Melancon is a useful piece, and the organizational depth is nice as well.

    Melancon might actually end up being the best part of this trade for the Pirates, looking back later. Grilli gets hit pretty hard – he’s had over a 22% line drive rate in three of the past four years, including 24.4% in ’12, and might see his control regress, in which case I would guess Melancon (or possibly lefty prospect Justin Wilson) will be given a shot at the closer’s chair.

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  3. CabreraDeath says:

    Great article, Eric. Huge fan of this deal from Bucs perspective.

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  4. kevinthecomic says:

    I remember a couple of years ago when Grilli washed out in Detroit. The Tigers were using him in middle relief and he got pounded. He is a terrible pitcher to bring in in middle relief because of this low groundball rate and, as mentioned by asaw780, he gets hit pretty hard. All of this is less of a problem if he comes into close with none on and none out — his high strikeout rate can compensate for his flyball/line drive tendencies if he doesn’t have to deal with inherited runners. Kind of curious, here’s a guy who isn’t good enough to be a middle reliever but might be pretty well suited to be a closer.

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    • rotowizard says:

      The difference between Grilli then and now is the fact that his fastball has become an effective pitch. Where as previously it was well below average.

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      • marlinswin12 says:

        That makes no sense. The reason why Grilli sucked in Detroit is because he was a different pitcher back then. By different, I mean not good at all. His ineffectiveness had nothing to do with his role, it seems.

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  5. Matthew Gaeta says:

    Think Victor Black comes into the picture some time over the next 18 months?

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  6. Yeah good move for the Pirates in this trade and Liriano is definately worth the gamble. I think Liriano and McDonald will be the keys to their staff this year, which is kind of frightening considering how awful they both were for long stretches last season.

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    • Pirates Hurdles says:

      They do have Cole and Taillon ready to step in along with the Locke/McPherson loser of the #5 spot. They won’t be stuck with either wildcard if things go poorly.

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      • Robert says:

        I think it’s a stretch to say that Taillon will feature this season. Cole, McPherson and especially Locke should be perfectly good replacements should JMac or Liriano struggle early on.

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  7. Piratesbreak500 says:

    Freeing roster space isn’t an argument. You can dfa someone off the 40 man at any time. I like the trade primarily for the 4 years of Melancon.

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    • NS says:

      Using the money saved to sign someone else isn’t an argument. You can just spend on both at any time.

      But of course the Pirates really didn’t want to spend that kind of money. And it’s equally obvious that the Red Sox didn’t want to just cut the players on their 40-man.

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      • marlinswin12 says:

        Why is that not an argument for a GM? They’re all given payrolls to work with. They probably can’t sign the guys they sign without trading Hanrahan.

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  8. marlinswin12 says:

    I wonder how much Bill James dislikes the people he works with.

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  9. matt says:

    sands=wildcard could be allstar could be a nevers was

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  10. RC says:

    I wouldn’t call 2+ K/9 a “slightly higher K rate”.

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  11. Kurt O says:

    Grilli was very ineffective when used in the closing role this past season. He is no Joel Hanrahan, no matter how Joel performs. The money savings will soon be a non-factor if Grilli gets hit hard. None of the other guys will pan out because, well, that is what happens when players come to Pittsburgh.

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