Our weekly in-depth look at major-league bullpens begins in The Steel City this week where the Pittsburgh Pirates are already five games behind in the division race, but you can't place the blame on the bullpen for that.
Walk the Plank
On the surface, the story in Pittsburgh may seem identical to years past. The Pirates are playing under .500 ball, but the bullpen has been anything but bad in 2011. Through Thursday, the relief crew in Pittsburgh has given up just four home runs in 81⅓ innings, and the .611 opponent OPS is 6th lowest in baseball. Relievers are also retiring batters via the strikeout at an impressive rate (8.5 strikeouts per nine innings, 4th-best in MLB).
Pirates Relievers Last 2 Seasons
What can explain the turnaround from last year?
Part of it is through the improved play of Daniel McCutchen, who had an ERA north of six last year with the team. This season, he’s been utilized on occasion as a long reliever, and he’s yet to give up a run in nine innings of work. The former starter’s fastball hasn’t averaged even 90 miles per hour this year, but he’s allowing just a .593 OPS against it. Compare that to last season, when his heater was about a mile per hour faster. In 2010, batters feasted on that pitch, posting an OPS of 1.090. He’s also striking out more batters with his fastball. Last season, his strikeout rate with his fastball was 11.2 percent. This year, it’s above 14.
Braves Staying Grounded
Atlanta relievers have a 3.04 ERA this year, and part of that is thanks to a 1.81 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio, best in baseball. Last year, the Braves bullpen also led MLB in that category, and considering Turner Field plays like a pitcher’s park (0.924 ESPN Park Factor in 2011), that’s a considerable advantage for the home team. Lefty Eric O'Flaherty is a big reason why that ratio is so high. He’s induced 22 ground balls this year compared to just nine batted balls in the air.
Bailing Himself Out
Jeff Samardzija has been busy since last Saturday. In three appearances between then and Thursday, the Cubs reliever logged 4⅓ innings while giving up one hit and striking out six. Samardzija twice went for longer than an inning and has found relative success this year despite walking a ton of batters (16 walks compared to 17 strikeouts in 2011). He’s still allowed only seven percent of batters faced to score, five percent better than the league average. He's often had to bail himself out, as Inside Edge shows that his swing-and-miss rate on strikes is at 19 percent, four percent better than the average pitcher.