Originally posted on Pro Sports Daily  |  Last updated 3/19/14
Before a mid-March spring training game — the period of the exhibition season where opening day seems simultaneously around the corner and, after weeks of monotonous workouts, far away — Tony Watson voiced his optimism. “We’re just excited now,” he said. “Only two weeks.” Watson also was referring to the end of camp for a Pirates team featuring such a strong bullpen that the only uncertainty is which qualified pitcher will not make the unit. The relievers, who pitched exceptionally well in 2013 and joined the starting rotation in carrying an average offense to a 94-win season, are all back. “It’s been a real competitive camp,” Watson said. “But everybody in here, with the competition, everybody gets along, everybody pulls for each other. Real good team chemistry, real good group of guys.” The 2.89 ERA the unit posted last year, third in the league, looks somewhat odd when juxtaposed against other statistics. The relievers worked hard, throwing the fourth-most innings of any team in the majors. Their 7.46 strikeouts per nine innings ranked 28th in Major League Baseball. They compensated in other ways. When runners did reach base against the bullpen, they were stuck there 78.3 percent of the time, which tied for fifth in the majors. Opponents had a .272 batting average on balls in play against the Pirates, much lower than the .290 to .300 range that represents league average. Usually a BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) that low represents a bit of luck. In the Pirates’ case, it probably doesn’t. Aggressive defensive shifts and the exceptional range of Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte turned more balls in play into outs. The pitchers’ pure stuff — Mark Melancon’s cutter, Justin Wilson following a 98 mph fastball with a 72 mph curveball — often caused weak contact.
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