Justin Wilson has used his high-90s fastball and sharp breaking ball to be a top rookie in 2013. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
SAN DIEGO — If you’re trying to pinpoint why the Pirates’ bullpen continues to be one of baseball’s best, Justin Wilson has shown you.
As the Pittsburgh reliever who has thrown the most innings, Wilson leads all National League rookies in ERA (1.97) and batting average against (.183). But one year ago today when Wilson made his Major League debut at Petco Park, he was merely at the start of his transition from minor league starting pitcher to high-leverage MLB reliever.
“It’s completely different,” Wilson said. “Clearly you’re gonna be more sore after your start, throwing more pitches compared to going in and throwing one or two innings out of the bullpen… trying to get fresh on a daily basis.”
The Pirates’ bullpen has an unusual setup for a contending team: in terms of innings pitched, four of the Bucs’ top six relievers are in their first full seasons as Major League relievers. Wilson and Bryan Morris are rookies while Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazzaro moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen.
Wilson will tell you his plan on the mound is different in relief than as a starter, but it still revolves around getting hitters to swing and generate quick outs.
“Usually when you go out there and start, you establish a fastball a little bit more, kind of dictate how you’re gonna pitch the game,” Wilson said. “As a reliever, you come in there and gotta be ready to go from pitch one.”
Gomez: “I feel a bit stronger than last year, maybe because I am throwing less innings as a reliever than starting.” (Photo Credit: David Hague)
The results are obvious: Pittsburgh’s bullpen has the National League’s second-best ERA (2.83), WHIP (1.14) and opponent’s OPS (.614), trailing only the Atlanta Braves.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle says the first-year relievers go through “completely different” programs than veteran relievers like Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli.
“They’ve pitched more innings in different scenarios,” Hurdle said. “It’s a different context of innings. The whole concept of being down four [days], getting ready — the preparation now is sometimes up, sit back down, get up and get in.
“We pay attention to the guys that are first-year guys out of the bullpen in a different context.”
The question becomes: can their success continue? Both Wilson and Gomez are now pitching back-to-back days for the first time in their careers, and Gomez said he has experienced “bad location” on some pitches when he throws a second straight day.
Hurdle and his coaching staff will monitor those relievers for fatigue, watching for indicators like decreased fastball velocity and worse pitch location. The expansion of the Major League roster on Sept. 1 would allow the Pirates to add pitchers who “very well could give us a hand,” Hurdle said.
Starling Marte slides in to third base on the play where his Prado stepped on his hand. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
LF Starling Marte (hand contusion) will miss his second-straight game. The injury occurred when Diamondbacks third baseman Martin Prado stepped on Marte’s hand in the 8th inning of Sunday’s game at PNC Park. Marte was tagged as he slid head-first into third base to end the frame. It’s (obviously) the opposite hand from his left, which was hit by a pitch in Colorado on the Pirates’ last road trip.
LHP Wandy Rodriguez (left forearm tightness) is still scheduled to throw a simulated game Thursday in San Francisco. Rodriguez told me that he is not feeling as much pain in the forearm as he did when he was shut down from throwing before the All-Star Break. His arm felt much worse in late June than it does now, Rodriguez said through translator Heberto Andrade.
RHP Jason Grilli (right forearm strain) ”is moving forward in a very good fashion,” Hurdle said. Grilli’s next throwing session may move the closer from flat ground to a slope, which allows pitchers to get a feel for establishing angle and pushing off from a higher level before moving to the bullpen mound.
The Pirates are still operating with an unusual 12 position players and 13 pitchers for now on the active roster. Hurdle said they may return to the usual setup of 12 pitchers soon, “depending on what tonight’s game brings” in terms of how many innings the relievers pitch.
RHP James McDonald (right shoulder discomfort) had a rough start in the Gulf Coast League, but it ”wasn’t a pain situation,” Hurdle said. “It was him continuing to work on things.”
OF Travis Snider (left big toe discomfort) played six innings each Monday and Tuesday in his first rehab starts for Double-A Altoona. Hurdle said “everything went very well” for Snider in baserunning, driving the baseball, and in the field.