When someone writes, as was the case the other day, that Neal Huntington has had success in building Pirates bullpens, it leaves me with two emotions: anger and happiness. I’m angry that so many still believe this bit of Pirates folklore, which definitely is not true, and happy that it gives me another opportunity to post the factual records of those so-called bullpen successes.
The chart below ranks the Pirates bullpens among the 16 National League teams during the five years of Huntington’s tenure in six different categories -- ERA (earned run average), WHIP (walks and hits per inning), BAA (batting average against), K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings), K/B (strikeout to walk ratio) and S Pct. (percentage of successful saves opportunities).
Year ERA WHIP BAA K/9 K/B S Pct/
2008 16 16 14 16 16 10
2009 15 15 13 14 15 14
2010 14 13 12 9 13 12
2011 11 14 13 14 11 9
2012 7 7 6 8 7 3
It is impossible to look at that chart and declare Huntington has done a good job of building Pirates bullpens. Until last year, he had done a terrible job. Last year he did an average job.
In fact, Huntington did no better and possibly worse than Dave Littlefield in cobbling together bullpens. Here’s Littlefield’s record over his final five seasons:
Year ERA WHIP BAA K/9 K/B S. pct
2003 16 10 9 16 15 11
2004 4 12 13 11 10 7
2005 8 8 8 13 16 2
2006 5 9 11 6 9 7
2007 15 12 15 11 8 11
The improvement shown in 2012 is in danger of being reversed this season. The top three relievers in terms of ERA from last year are gone -- Joel Hanrahan, Brad Lincoln, Juan Cruz. Additionally, Chris Resop was traded to Oakland.
Huntington faces a formidable challenge in getting the bullpen back to 2012 standards. Almost every pitcher returning from last year will be in a more challenging role and several rookies figure to be in the group.
The biggest change involves Jason Grilli replacing Joel Hanrahan as closer. Grilli was effective most of last season as the eighth-inning setup man to Hanrahan. He was fifth in the league with a 13.81 K/9, which is an impressive credential to bring to the closer’s role. But pitching the ninth inning is different. Most indications are that Grilli can handle the job, but that remains to be determined.
Mark Melancon is the early favorite to succeed Grilli as the eighth-inning guy. He showed some promise in 2011 in Houston with 20 saves (25 opportunities) and a 2.78 ERA. But he was a major flop in Boston last year with a 6.25 ERA. Left-handed batters had an .875 OPS against him.
He will be challenged for that role by Jared Hughes, who had a strong first four months as a rookie last year (1.96 ERA) and a poor final two (4.62 ERA).
By contrast, Tony Watson, the only lefty among those assured of a job in the bullpen, finished strong with a 1.71 ERA after July and he will be used in a variety of roles late in the game.
The final three spots in the bullpen are fairly wide open. Right-hander Bryan Morris and left-hander Justin Wilson, both who pitched with the team last September, might be at the front of this group, which also includes Jeanmar Gomez, Chris Leroux, Andrew Oliver, Vin Mazzaro and Duke Welker. Spring training performance could help determine the final spots in the bullpen.
Whether this group succeeds or not, in almost all certainty some people will continue to believe, against all evidence, that Huntington does a good job of building bullpens.