It's a given in the Clint Hurdle era; the set-up man and closer do not appear unless the team has the lead or they've gone for a few days without any work. They're very rarely used to keep a tie game tied or a one run game close.
We know that's how most managers operate; the closer is the closer, and Hurdle has always liked to have a designated set up guy; he's not one to go to a bullpen by committee. And we get the implications of overworking your key shutdown guys. "Baseball isn't a week or a month but a season, and a season is a long time" as Chuck Tanner liked to point out.
Hurdle is most comfortable when the rotation guy has a lead to hand over after seven innings, so he protects his setup man and closer to the max. And what we ultimately understand is that his thinking is shaped because his starters just don't give him innings.
The Pirate rotation has given him 156-2/3 frames in 31 games; that's five innings per start and pretty close to the MLB bottom. Teams in the middle of the pack get six innings per outing. Three outs may not seem like much, but the median teams can get by one with one less bullpen appearance per nine innings than the Pirates. That's a big difference for a seven man relief corp, especially with the setup and closer arms reserved for leads.
The Buc bullpen has logged 114-1/3 innings, second only to the sad sack Astros. Mark Melancon leads the Pirates with 16 appearances, and with about 20% of the season done, he's on track for 80 outings. His busiest year was with Houston in 2011, when he took the bump 71 times and worked 74-1/3 innings. MM right now looks manageable at 80 outings/80 IP.
Jason Grilli is next with 14 outings, and he's projecting to get the most appearances of his career. He has worked 70 innings a couple of time in the past, and he's on the road to 65 now, which isn't a big bump over his 58-2/3 IP of 2012.
We did some quick back-of-the envelope calculations. Last year, Hurdle used Hanny for a save 63% of the time, the same as the Reds used Aroldis Chapman, so the skipper is pretty much in line with his Central Division bench compadres. Only Jason Motte, at 68%, was used in save situations more in the division. The closers used less - John Axford and Carlos Marmol - were guys that couldn't hang on to their closer jobs.
This year, Grilli has made 12 of his 14 appearances in save situations; that's a huge 86% of his outings. And while he's had quite a few two run leads to protect, 21 of the 51 batters he's faced have been in high leverage situations, and he's used 224 pitches, nearly 18 an inning, to close out the games. That's why he gets a day off after back-to-back outings unless he's unusually efficient.
So using those two as a tag team, without added frames to keep the team
in games that they're not winning, has them on line for workloads that
are personal upper ends but not outlandish.
The heavy lifting under Hurdle is left to the bridge guys. Tony Watson has 14 outings for 15 innings, on his way to a 70 appearance, 75 IP season, with his MLB high in frames being 58-1/3, tossed in 2012. Justin Wilson has worked 20 innings already, on his way to 100, and he's never been a full-time reliever before, so recovery and availability could become issues for him. Vin Mazzaro has been called on nine times in three weeks, and Jared Hughes had 13 outings before he was sent to Indy.
The bigger problem, of course, is having middle inning guys hold the fort late day in and day out. And the names will change; expect fresh guys to be run back and forth from Indy, because the inning pace is borderline unsustainable.
The Buc starters have gotten an out in the seventh six times; they haven't gotten into the fourth six times (although in justice three of those starts belonged to the dearly departed Jonathan Sanchez). AJ is the only starter to at least work five frames every outing.
Reinforcements are on the way. Francisco Liriano is due to pitch this for Pittsburgh this weekend, but he hasn't reached the 100 pitch mark during his rehab yet. Charlie Morton should be back toward the end of the month, but except for his 2011 campaign, he hasn't proven durable or an inning eater. They may improve the quality of work on the bump, but probably not take much load of the pen, at least early on.
So next time you're frustrated watching bridge pitchers working the late innings, don't automatically curse Clint Hurdle. He is conservative, but he's trying to protect his back end the old school way. A couple more seven inning starts would go a long way in helping him manage his bullpen; we suspect he'll look a whole lot smarter if that happens.