The Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen combined for the third best bullpen ERA last year, which is especially impressive given they finished 27th in strikeout percentage. That their relief corps finished with a sub-3.00 ERA was largely due to their 78.3% left on-base percentage — which ranked in the top five in baseball. The pen of the Bucs managed to post a second best .272 BABIP which of course helped keep the LOB% high and the ERA down. Curiously the Pirates relief corps maintained a low BABIP while also posting the highest ground ball rate in the league last year, 52.0%. The fantasy talent dries up quickly after the closer and setup men, though there are holds to be had if one can find strikeouts elsewhere.
No surprise here as Grilli has been spectacular for the past several seasons. Rather than fitting in with the rest of the bullpen by getting ground outs and a few strikeouts, Grilli is the opposite. He 14.5% swinging strike rate last year led to a 36.6% strikeout rate, nearly a career high mark. Grilli does a superb job of keeping the ball in the yard, especially considering his tendency to record plenty of fly outs. His 33.0% GB% was tied for fourth lowest of any reliever with at least 10 saves, getting more grounders than only Ernesto Frieri, Huston Street, and Joe Nathan. On top of his home run prevention, last year Grilli’s 6.4% walk rate was the lowest single season mark of his career. Despite this being his age-37 season, Grilli still has plenty of zip on his fastball — it averaged over 93 mph last year — and he effectively mixes off-speed pitches to induce whiffs. While he did miss time last season due to a forearm strain, Grilli managed to come back in September and even finish the season as the closer.
Last year Melancon quietly had an elite fantasy season. He averaged almost a strikeout per inning while putting up an 8.75:1 strikeout to walk ratio over 71 innings. Melancon did this while burning worms at over a 60% clip and allowed a single home run all year, a solo blast to Joey Votto on April 14. The easy math says Melancon appeared in 64 games after giving up that dinger and didn’t allow another. Should Grilli falter, Melancon should be the next in line to gather any save opportunities. When Grilli was out with various injuries last year, Melancon managed to grab 16 saves. Should one decide to draft Grilli, handcuffing Melancon with him would be a wise decision.
If Melancon was quietly elite last season then Watson was silently admirable. Watson finished the season with a sub-2.50 ERA, however both his 3.20 FIP and 3.72 xFIP weren’t quite as shiny. He found himself as the number one left-handed option in Pittsburgh, though Watson found himself pitching in many more situations than just an average LOOGY. Watson’s 71.2 innings was the third most by a left-handed reliever last year with only Drew Smyly and T.J. McFarland finishing with more innings. Watson can be penciled for around 20 holds, however his non-elite strikeout rate, — just 19.3% last year and a better rate of 21.3% for his career — make for a very “meh” holds guy.
Though the back of the bullpen is mostly secure, the middle relievers for the Bucs aren’t out of a job just yet. It’s true the club does have plenty of talent in the rotation, but last year the Pirates pen threw 545.2 innings last year, fourth most in baseball. What the Pirates rotation shakes out to be this year has been left in the capable hands of the brilliant and handsome Mike Podhorzer. To bridge the gap between the starters and the late inning guys is a group of hurlers that are effective, albeit not particularly enticing from a fantasy perspective.
Here is Exhibit A. as to why the Bucs managed to have a great ground ball rate and a low strikeout rate. Morris finished the season with an even 65 innings pitched and 37 strikeouts. His 57.5% GB% was certainly useful but his 13.7% K-rate and 10.3% walk rate last year should make any enterprising fantasy manager to look to the next reliever for holds and ratios. When factoring in his .251 BABIP, there is probably a good amount of regression heading Morris’ way.
Here is Exhibit B. in the Pirates bullpen. Wilson gathered a few more strikeouts than Morris, however the theme remains the same: tons of grounders and a mysteriously low BABIP. Wilson’s .229 BABIP allowed him to strand 84.9% of runners, the 20th best mark among qualified relievers. His 9.0% SwStr% was below the10.4% league average for a reliever and he seems to have mostly gotten by on the good positioning of his infield defense. One can reasonably expect a step back in Wilson’s ERA this season.
Pimentel has been a starter for most of his career, last year the club called him up for the stretch run and placed him in the bullpen. Outside of the three late inning guys, Pimentel has the best strikeout upside of anyone in the bullpen. Given his lack of options already at age-23, expect Pimentel to break camp with the big league club. His control and walk rate is the most suspect thing, and his role as a seventh inning type or mop up man is dependent on it. Our very own Marc Hulet has thoughts on Pimentel’s stuff prior to last season.
Tangent: Once upon a time Mazzaro was the first letter in the acronym MAC that certain Oakland A’s fans gave to the trio of Mazzaro, Brett Anderson, and Trevor Cahill. Things didn’t quite pan out as hoped (as if can be a surprise for pitching prospects to not work out) and there isn’t one of the original MAC’s still with Oakland. Mazzaro never found himself as a starter, he has proven to be useful in a relief role. He still doesn’t get many strikeouts but his ground ball rate and home run suppression make him a useful real life reliever. As far as fantasy help goes, Mazzaro isn’t one to be drafted.
Welker has a decent enough minor league strikeout rate, however during both of his stints in Triple-A he has shown poor control. In 2012 he posted a 5.12 BB/9 in 31.2 innings and last season he managed to cut it down some, though 4.43 BB/9 in 63 innings isn’t something to brag about. If Welker happens to be on your fantasy radar, then congratulations for playing in the first 32-team, 30-man roster league that the present author has ever heard of.