At first glance, the Pirates bullpen seems fine. The unit's 2.84 ERA was the fifth-best mark in the majors entering the weekend. Sure, they have been without Jason Grilli since April 25, but Mark Melancon has five saves in his absence.
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Yet the relievers had blown 10 saves going into the weekend series against the New York Yankees, more than any other team in baseball, and saved only nine games. Why the disparity?
"Ten is an uncharacteristic number for us at this point in time compared to what we did last year," manager Clint Hurdle said. "There's no doubt about that."
In 2013, the Pirates blew only 15 saves, the fifth-best mark in baseball. Grilli saved 33 games, Melancon 16. They finished 29-23 in one-run games. When leading after eight innings last year, the Pirates went 80-3. This year, they are 12-4.
The latest issue surfaced Thursday when Melancon allowed the Milwaukee Brewers to score two runs on two hits and two walks without recording an out in the ninth inning.
"I just put myself in a bad spot," Melancon said. "I knew I could get back to throwing strikes."
The dissonance between the low staff ERA and the blown saves raises the profile of other indicators that, instead of portending better things to come, seem appropriate or even point toward regression. Pirates relievers have stranded 83.8 percent of runners on base, the second-highest percentage in the majors. That number is above their 78.3 percent rate last year as well as the major league average, which is roughly 70 to 72 percent, and indicates more runners could begin to find their way home.
Their batting average on balls in play has increased 20 points, from .272 last year to .295 this season, which is roughly in line with the major league average. That indicates that the Pirates aren't falling victim to a preponderance of bad bounces or well-placed ground balls.
Advanced metrics for the bullpen such as fielding-independent pitching, a stat scaled similar to ERA but is based on outcomes that pitchers can control (3.92), suggest the relievers' run prevention could decrease.
Despite that, the blown-save total is slightly misleading. Grilli has blown three of the saves. Melancon, Bryan Morris and Tony Watson have two apiece, Justin Wilson has one. Grilli blew saves in two consecutive games by allowing ninth-inning home runs to Brewers right fielder Ryan Braun, which is not likely to happen again.
Two of the blown saves came in the same game: Watson had one May 5 against the San Francisco Giants by allowing inherited runners to score, and Melancon, who followed him, was saddled with another.
Both of Morris' blown saves came earlier in the game, outside the traditional "save situation." He blew one while pitching the sixth and seventh May 1, allowing inherited runners to score, and another pitching the sixth April 14. He earned the win in that second game.
The blown saves are cause for concern, and some of the secondary statistics indicate that the bullpen cannot count on improved luck. But the blown-save scenarios are not likely to repeat as frequently, offering some hope going forward.
Watson K-razy good
Watson's strikeout rate took off this season. He had 25 strikeouts in 19 innings entering the weekend and has continued to pitch markedly better against right-handers than left-handers, a tough thing for left-handed pitchers to do. His next hurdle: controlling the running game. But that, Hurdle said, will come with time.
"That is something that he continues to work [on] on the side," Hurdle said. "But to implement in the game right now, we're not ready for that."
Watson threw to first base three times in the eighth inning Wednesday to keep Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy -- who despite stealing nine bases last season is not fleet of foot -- close to the bag. When Watson eventually went home, Lucroy took off for second and stole the base without a throw.
"More often than not it's just first move," Hurdle said. "You're just gambling as an offensive club and you're going to take the first move that left-handed pitcher makes and you're jail-breaking to second base. When that happens, all of them look exposed."
Watson's delivery is lengthy, allowing runners on first more time to make it to second before the ball reaches home. In his four-year major league career, runners have stolen 24 bases against him and been caught only three times.
But because he has a career 1.08 WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings, any issue with baserunners is minor by comparison.
"You don't want to lose focus on what he can do at the plate," Hurdle said. "He's been very effective this year. It's a fine line."
The Orioles come to town for a two-game series beginning Tuesday, led offensively by Nelson Cruz, who had 12 home runs entering the weekend. Cruz, who settled on a one-year, $8 million contract in Baltimore after the Texas Rangers saddled him with a qualifying offer, was suspended last summer for his involvement with the Biogenesis anti-aging clinic.
They will also see more of Manny Machado, who returned from offseason knee surgery for the second game of a rain-induced doubleheader with the Pirates earlier this month at Camden Yards. Machado led the American League in doubles last season and hit 14 home runs while playing stellar defense at third base.
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