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Will The Pirates Bullpen Fold Down The Stretch?

The Pirates are off today and will play a weekend series against the Reds in Cincinnati. Pittsburgh will enter the series either 2.5 or 3.5 games behind the Reds in the National League Central, depending on the outcome of the Reds game this afternoon against the Padres. At 60-44, the Pirates lead the race for the first wild card with the Braves, Cardinals, and the three NL West contenders — Dodgers, Giants and Diamondbacks — all within 5.5 games.

The Pirates upgraded at several positions at the trade deadline, adding Wandy Rodriguez to the starting rotation and Travis Snider to the outfield. Gaby Sanchez, obtained from the Marlins, took over first base from Casey McGehee, who was exchanged for reliever Chad Qualls.

But the trade for Snider sent pitcher Brad Lincoln to the Blue Jays, a move that may significantly weaken the Pirates’ bullpen for the last two months of the season, particularly against left-handed batters. With a large portion of the Pirates’ remaining games against the Reds, Cardinals and Cubs — all of which have very good lefty power bats — bullpen ineffectiveness against lefties may hurt the Pirates down the stretch.

Overall, the Pirates’ bullpen has been fairly steady this season. The relievers have tossed 310.1 innings, 6th most in the National League. Replacing Kevin Correia in the rotation with Rodriguez should take some of the burden off the bullpen going forward, although manager Clint Hurdle comes from the “Tony LaRussa School of Bullpen Management,” meaning a heavy workload and lot of matchups.  The pen has posted the 7th best K/9 (8.53) and BB/9 (3.60), and 6th best HR/9 (.87).

Even with mediocre peripherals, Pirates relievers collectively sport the 2nd lowest ERA in the National League (2.81) and the 4th lowest FIP (3.72). The difference between their ERA and their FIP (-0.91) is the largest in the league, suggesting regression is coming as the team fights for a spot in the postseason. Indeed, the bullpen has the 2nd lowest BABIP (.274)  and the 2nd highest left on-base percentage (81.0) in the National League. If the pen can’t sustain those numbers, the Pirates will be in trouble in close games down the stretch.

Early in the season, Lincoln was used for spot starts and in long relief, but was moved to bullpen exclusively from the end of June until his trade to the Blue Jays. After that move, Lincoln pitched more frequently in the higher leverage situations in the later innings, to great effect. In 35.2 innings in relief, Lincoln posted a 5.00 K/BB and a .176 batting average against, resulting in a .84 WHIP.  Runners who reached were stranded 99.3% of the time.

Even as a right-hander, Lincoln was one of the Pirates’ most effective pitchers against left-handed batters. As a starter and reliever, he faced 114 lefties and allowed .208/.263/.302 and a .254 wOBA. Set-up man Jason Grilli and closer Joel Hanrahan, both right-handers, have also been quite effective against lefties this season. Grilli’s allowed only a .211 wOBA to the 81 lefty batters faced. Hanrahan allowed a .246 wOBA to the 96 he’s faced. But manager Clint Hurdle uses Grilli and Hanrahan in defined roles, so it’s unlikely you’d see either of them in the 6th or 7th inning with the game on the line and a lefty masher at the plate.

Replacing Lincoln in the bullpen with Qualls certainly won’t solve the lefty match-up problem. Qualls has faced 71 left-handed batters this season, and given up a .452 wOBA, including five doubles, five home runs, and seven walks. Tony Watson is the one left-handed reliever in the Bucs’ bullpen but he hasn’t been particularly effective — whether against left or right-handed batters. He’s walked 3.24 batters per nine innings, leading to a 1.26 WHIP. And unlike his reliever-mates, Watson has not been good at stranding runners. His LOB percentage is only 68.7. His line against lefty batters is .267/.302/.458 with a .334 wOBA.

Why all the concern about left-handed batters? The Pirates have three series remaining against the first-place Reds, who feature lefty mashers Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. They face the Cardinals in two series, and will have to deal with lefties Matt Carpenter, Daniel Descalso, Skip Schumaker, and switch-hitters Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran. Even the Astros and Cubs, who the Pirates will play twice more, can cause problems with young power bats Brett Wallace and Anthony Rizzo, respectively.

The Pirates bullpen has been good enough so far. The team is 23-16 in one-run games and 3-0 in extras. But replacing Brad Lincoln with Chad Qualls will diminish the ‘pen’s effectiveness, and at a time when the relievers collectively are due for some regression. Hold on for a bumpy ride the next two months.