Here is the bullpen usage of the Pirates’ primary relievers over the last 14 games:
Last night Clint Hurdle needed his pen to protect a 2-1 lead against the Marlins in the 8th inning. Despite having the previous day off, primary setup man Tony Watson was deemed unavailable. Watson did throw three consecutive games over the weekend and has been leaned on heavily all season long. I can understand the decision to give him another maintenance day. Hurdle turned to Jared Hughes who has pitched well this season. Hughes is an extreme ground ball pitcher. He is sporting a stellar 63.3% ground ball rate this season. Hughes got a pair of ground balls surrounded by a walk to Giancarlo Stanton. Unfortunately, Josh Harrison muffed the second of those ground balls. With runners on first and second and one out Hurdle decided to lift Hughes in favor of Justin Wilson to face the left-handed hitting Garrett Jones. Wilson is having a train wreck of a season. His ERA stands at 5.10 with a 5.3 BB/9. This is not a guy that should be trusted to hold a late inning lead. As expected the Marlins pinch hit for Jones. Wilson gave up a single and then walked in two runs to give away a game the Pirates desperately needed.
To me this was a very poor job of managing by Clint Hurdle. He took out a trusted reliever that is outstanding at getting ground balls when he needed a double play. Instead he went with the guy that just hasn’t been able to do the job this season. The only pitching change that would have made sense in that situation would have been to bring in closer Mark Melancon to get 5 outs. Sure, 5 out saves are unconventional. But with Andrew McCutchen out of the lineup with a broken rib this Pirates team needs to bank wins when it can. Melancon is the Pirates best relief pitcher. It is absurd how little he has been used. Hurdle has a tough job on his hands. This is not a great bullpen. GM Neal Huntington has failed to give him enough quality options. But that doesn’t absolve Hurdle from not appropriately deploying his best arms in winnable games. Hurdle needs to adjust. He needs to shorten his pen and bank wins when the Pirates are ahead. If that means Mark Melancon needs to go more than 1 inning then so be it. Conversely, Hurdle can’t go chasing wins. Perhaps Watson needs to not be used as often in tie games, at least until McCutchen comes back. Preserve Watson and Melancon to get as many outs as needed after the 6th inning in games the Pirates are leading. If the Pirates can bank enough wins in August perhaps they can be close enough in the standings where chasing wins in September can still make a difference. For now they have to weather the storm, and they means holding on to every late inning lead like the season depends on it.