We somehow should have known that it wouldn’t come easy for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Sitting at 61-41 after Sunday afternoon’s games, the Pirates are poised to not only get their first winning season since 1992, but get into the playoffs and maybe even steal the NL Central from the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds. Naturally, it’s now that the Pirates get hit with a big injury to closer Jason Grilli.
Grilli has been nothing short of outstanding all year, closing 30/31 save chances, with a 2.34 ERA. His success, and the importance of the Pirate bullpen to the team’s success has led TheSportsNotebook to anoint him the MVP frontrunner, first in May and then again at the All-Star break.
The injury is a right forearm strain. The Pirates did get some good news with the report that it won’t require surgery. Nor do we have a hard and fast timetable for Grilli’s return. All we know for sure is that in 10-14 days, the forearm will be evaluated.
It seems prudent therefore, to examine whether the Pittsburgh relief corps can keep it up. And by keeping it up, we’re talking about a team that has the second-best bullpen ERA in the National League.
The numbers of the healthy pitchers are positive, although you won’t be dazzled by the names. Here’s the rundown of those who have pitched enough for their ERAs to be credible indicators…
Mark Melancon: 0.91 for the new closer, he’s also closed 4/5 chances.
Tony Watson: 3.19
Justin Wilson: 2.11
Bryan Morris: 2.84
Jeanmar Gomez: 2.21—this is the ERA in his relief appearances, not his eight starts.
Vin Mazzaro: 3.11
That looks pretty good to me. While you can express concern that there’s not a lot of proven arms there, the same can be said of Grilli. Relief pitching is a fickle racket, and a lot of times hot runs (or cold) do last an entire year. Even if you want to be skeptical of this group’s long-term possibilities, you have to respect the fact they can keep pitching lockdown baseball for a couple months.
It’s not just the quality, but the quantity. The Pirates start a big five-game series on Monday with the Cardinals, and even with Gomez forced into a start for Tuesday’s doubleheader, there’s still plenty of arms.
Throughout this week’s MLB coverage, whenever we focus on a specific area of a team—like the Pittsburgh bullpen, we’ve run comparison numbers vis-à-vis the rest of their division to give everything some context. So it will be for the NL Central. Below is each team’s rank within the National League in bullpen ERA, as well as the percentage of saves they’ve closed.
Pittsburgh: 2nd (80.8%)
St. Louis: 8th (72.7%)
Cincinnati: 6th (73.7%)
Chicago: 14th (57.4%)
Milwaukee: 3rd (63.9%)
The numbers illustrate two things—the most important is that the pitching of the NL Central’s Big Three is just really, really good, and they also rank 1-2-3 in starters’ ERAs. An average baseball team closes about two-thirds of its save chances, and the Pirates, Cards and Reds are all above the league norm.
But for our purposes here, it’s important to understand just how high a bar exists for the Pittsburgh bullpen. Their offense isn’t very good. While the starting pitching is, it doesn’t provide a comparative advantage over St. Louis or Cincinnati. Relief pitching is what separates them from their two rivals.
Thus, we ask ourselves if, without Grilli, the Pirates can continue to close saves at an 80 percent rate and have a #2 bullpen ERA. I think they can do it for a few weeks, and I think they can do well enough to at least ensure there’s no September meltdown, as happened in 2012. But they need Grilli to either win the NL Central or even finish second and host the wild-card game. That evaluation in a couple weeks needs to come back clean.
THE STATE OF THE RACE
This post is going online as St. Louis plays the finale of their three-game series in Atlanta on Sunday night baseball, and the Cards lead the Pirates by two games as the game begins. Cincinnati is dealing with some urgency, at least as far as the division crown goes. The Reds are 5 ½ back, and their eight games behind in the loss column. Johnny Cueto is supposed to begin a throwing program and while he should be back, I doubt it will be soon enough to push them past St. Louis.
It was a good week for the Chicago Cubs. They got a great package for Matt Garza when they traded him to the Texas Rangers, a deal we’ll look more closely at next week as part of an overall MLB Trade Deadline evaluation. And they saw their rivals to the north, the Milwaukee Brewers, humiliated by the whole Ryan Braun display. This is the best week for the Cubs in…well, maybe ever.