Grilli Out, Melancon In: What's next for the Pittsburgh Pirates?
At this time a year ago, Pirates’ closer Jason Grilli was comfortably leading the league with 25 saves, and was well on his way to earning his first All-Star Game selection.
At 37 years old and in his 14th season in the Majors, things haven’t unfolded quite as nicely as they did during his triumphant 2013 campaign. After allowing a game-tying home run on Thursday to blow his fourth save of the season, fire alarms sounded in Pittsburgh as the Grilled Cheese had finally been overcooked.
Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle announced Friday afternoon that Grilli had been demoted from the closer role. Former setup man, Mark Melancon, will slide in as the new closer, and Tony Watson will supplement him with some occasional ninth-inning work.
The move came as no surprise though, given that the Pirates still sit nine games back of the first-place Brewers in the NL Central. Thus, the Buccos have little room for error at this point in the season. Their bullpen has already blown 14 saves on the year, only one shy of their 2013 total, with three months of baseball left to be played. The Bucs can no longer afford to give up late-game leads if they hope to remain in the race for the division title.
From Grilled Cheese to Burnt Toast
As the Pirates' designated closer to start the 2013 season, Grilli got off on a torrid pace, nailing down 29 of 30 save opportunities before the All-Star break. He battled late-season injuries down the stretch, but came back just in time to help carry the Pirates to their first postseason appearance in 21 years.
From 2013 to 2014, the storyline went from a glorified Disney tale to a Nightmare on Elm Street. Before his demotion, Grilli had given up home runs in each of his last two outings. He is 11 of 15 in save opportunities in 20 appearances this season. Through 18.2 innings of work, Grilli has served up the same number of bombs he gave up last season in almost three times as many innings worked. He’s pitched to a 4.34 ERA this year, well above what Yinzers – the people of Pittsburgh – grew accustomed to seeing in previous years.
So where did his dreadful 2014 performance come from?
Well, his strikeout rate is down nearly 16% from last season, and his walk rate has practically doubled. In addition to the decline in his peripherals, his ground-ball rate has set a new career-low by more than 5%, and his home run to fly ball ratio hasn’t reached these heights since his 2004 season in Chicago. He hasn’t lost much velocity on his fastball (-0.6 mph) or slider (-0.4 mph), but his command has been horrific as of late.
Again, Grilli was nothing short of phenomenal last season, converting 33 of 35 save opportunities. In 50 innings, he allowed 15 runs to the tune of a 2.70 ERA, which makes his sudden decline an even tougher pill to swallow.
Here’s a look at how his stellar 2013 performance stacks up against this year’s numbers:
So is there anything left in store for Grilli as a Pirate? Or is it only a matter of time until they make him walk the plank in Pittsburgh?
Given what we’ve seen this season, I think it’s safe to say his age has finally caught up with him. I’d be shocked to see any substantial improvements from the ex-closer. His ERA estimators actually show he has been pitching worse than his numbers would indicate. As a Pirates fan who flinches every time he falters, I find it tough to imagine that he is somehow pitching worse than it appears. But the numbers never lie. His BABIP comparison essentially proves that he’s gotten luckier this season on balls hit into play than he did last year.
Unfortunately for Grilli and the Pirates, all good things must eventually come to an end. He’ll remain in the pen for the time being, but opportunities will be slim to none, and will only come in low-leverage situations. Despite Hurdle saying the move was only temporary, little evidence points to Grilli reclaiming his coveted closer role in the Steel City.
The Fantasy Implications
Melancon has now worked his way into position to grab the majority of the save opportunities in Pittsburgh. When Grilli has been sidelined in the past, Melancon was always the first to fill in as the closer, and did so with success.
As good as Grilli was last season, Melancon managed to outperform him in almost every statistical category. Take a look for yourself:
His metrics do the talking. But let’s not waste any more time comparing his exceptional 2013 season to Grilli’s because those numbers prove that Melancon was one of the best relief pitchers in all of baseball last year.
Of all qualified pitchers last year: He gave out free passes at the second-best clip in the league. His ground-ball rate and home run to fly ball ratio landed him sixth. His earned run average also came in sixth. Unlike most pitchers who boast a solid ERA, his estimators fully backed it up. His fielding independent pitching and his expected fielding independent pitching both finished third among relievers. And last but not least, his wins above replacement was second in the Majors. The rankings speak for themselves.
This dude’s got closer written all over him.
He's currently owned in 63% of ESPN leagues and 64% of Yahoo leagues. If he's still available in your league, scoop him now before it’s too late.
Watson is now expected to roll as the setup man in Pittsburgh, but he will draw occasional save opportunities from time to time. He will fill in when Melancon needs a night off or if the matchups warrant the southpaw.
He has thrived in all facets of his game since debuting for the Pirates in 2011. The majority of his numbers have made drastic improvements every year he’s taken the mound in Pittsburgh:
Watson’s fantasy value will be heavily dependent on how Melancon handles his initial opportunity as the teams’ closer. Watson brings the most heat out of the Pirates pen, relying heavily on his four-seam fastball, sinker and change. Who knows, in due time he could work his way into the closer role, especially if Melancon fumbles his duties early.
If you play in a league that values holds, Watson is definitely worth owning. In deeper leagues, he may be worth stashing for the long haul, with the hopes that he’ll eventually get a shot to preserve wins for the Pirates.
The Impact in Pittsburgh
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Pirates bullpen – known as the Shark Tank – was absolutely dominant last season. They were second only to the Orioles in converted save chances with 55, and blew only 15 saves as a unit, the fifth least in the Majors.
This season though, both the rotation and the pen have been a disaster. They’ve combined for the league’s lowest number of wins above replacement (fWAR) at 2.0 and runs above replacement (RAR) at 15.5.
I’d expect the dominance of the pen to be reestablished in the Burgh, as Melancon and Watson settle into their new and expanded roles. Grilli should have some newfound motivation to earn his closer title back as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns it around a little, but even with Melancon and Watson finding themselves throwing in more critical situations, I don’t see either of them letting their opportunity slip through the cracks.
Watson will take the hill in more high-leverage situations for the remainder of 2014, which bodes well for the Pirates because he’s been money in the past and his stuff appears to be getting better with each opportunity. Justin Wilson will also feature a more crucial role, as he is now the lone middle-inning lefty coming out of the Pirates pen.
The Pirates offense has been one of the hottest in baseball since the start of June. The addition of some new faces and a shake up of the lineup has really turned things around. I don’t expect anything blockbuster to happen before the July trade deadline, but the Pirates front office will most likely try to add a few missing pieces to this puzzle. If the rotation can return to full-strength, and possibly see the addition of a new arm, hold and save opportunities should be plentiful in Pittsburgh as the Bucs attempt to work their way back into the playoff mix.