If you were to ask a Pirates fan what the biggest issue with the team is this year, they would almost certainly say that it is the bullpen. This is an answer that you would never hear the past four years, as the Pirates would send out Joel Hanrahan, Mark Melancon or Tony Watson out and they would shut the door on a close game. Now, without Hanrahan or Melancon and with Watson struggling mightily, the Pirates are searching for answers to their ninth inning woes. Many fans and sports talk personalities in Pittsburgh believe that the answer is as simple as inserting reliever Felipe Rivero in the ninth inning. Contrary to popular opinion, however, naming Rivero closer would be a terrible for the Bucs.
Looking simply at Rivero’s stats, he has all the makeup of one of the best closers in the league. In fact, he is the third best reliever in the MLB behind Craig Kimbrel in Boston and Kenley Jansen, who is yet to allow a walk to a batter closing for the Dodgers. Since he can throw over 100 mph consistently as a lefty, Rivero generates a strikeout rate that rivals fellow lefty reliever Aroldis Chapman. The speed isn’t all that works for Felipe, however, as he tends to miss a ton of bats with his changeup, leading to the .145 batting average against and an ERA below one. So with stats like these, he should be pitching the ninth inning every time the Pirates hold a lead, right? Wrong.
To explain why Rivero doesn’t belong in the ninth inning every night, let me first ask you why you think your best pitcher needs to be in the ninth? Is it because they need a clutch gene? Because they need to get the save? These are two weak arguments. If you believe in a clutch gene, Mark Melancon must have had it, right? Well, after all those great years in Pittsburgh, Melancon has blown four saves in the same role in San Francisco. As for the save argument, what even is a save? It’s a stat that is completely made up. Nothing says that your best reliever needs to be the closer to get a save. Saves are only good for giving players another pointless stat to point to when they want a higher salary. It is the most pointless stat in sports today. So instead of saving Rivero to get that irrelevant stat, what is so wrong about using him against a team’s best hitters?
Doesn’t it make sense to have your best pitcher face the other team’s best hitters? This is what Andrew Miller does for the Cleveland Indians and it seems to be working pretty well for the World Series runner ups. Let’s just look back at the Cubs from last series where Rivero’s usage was criticized the most. He came in for the eighth inning to face Anthony Rizzo, Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell. Those are by far the best hitters that the Cubs have, especially when you consider Kris Bryant would have hit in Schwarber’s spot if he had started the game. Rivero dispatched of them and preserved a one-run lead for the Pirates. We all know the result, however, as Juan Nicasio, who is having a great year in his own right, got hit around, followed by Tony Watson getting blasted again. But look at who was up in that inning. Jason Heyward, Wilson Contreras and Tommy La Stella. Not nearly as threatening as the guys Rivero faced, right? So if you want to complain about what happened in that ninth inning, imagine what would have happened if Nicasio or Watson would have pitched in the eighth. It likely would have been a similar result, if not worse. And then Rivero wouldn’t even pitch at all, wasting an opportunity for a win.
Essentially what I’m trying to say is that the Pirates’ late inning woes are not because of a player usage problem. It’s a bullpen personnel problem. It isn’t Clint Hurdle’s fault that there are no consistent relievers in high leverage situations other than Rivero and Nicasio. Unless you want Rivero to pitch two to three innings every time he steps on a mound and burn out by August, the Pirates have to use him in the situations that will put them in the best position to win. And that could still be in the ninth inning. If the opposing team’s best hitters are due up for the ninth, I want to see Rivero in there. Basically, if I have a choice, I’d rather see Felipe throw his 100 mph heat to Kris Bryant than Tommy La Stella in whatever inning Bryant would happen to bat at the end of a game. So before you start screaming for Felipe Rivero to pitch strictly in the ninth inning, consider how well he is used currently and reevaluate what gives the Pirates the best chance to win games.