Pittsburgh Pirates | Shark Tank relief corps ready to repeat dominance of 2013

jlembo@bradenton.comMarch 21, 2014 

BRADENTON -- It began as a tweet Mark Melancon sent out to more than 23,000 of his followers.

Pretty soon, it was in the middle of the Pittsburgh Pirates clubhouse and splashed across the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The Shark Tank.

That's the name Melancon, who established himself as one of baseball's best setup men last season and a one-time shark dive, gave to the Pirates' bullpen one day on a whim.

It exploded, much like the bullpen it characterized.

Bereft of any big-time names and put together with an assortment of journeymen and rookies, the Pirates' relief corps wasn't just the team's steadiest unit, but one of the best bullpens in the game.

Check the numbers: The Pirates led the National League in saves (53) and was second among the league's bullpens in holds (53), earned-run average (2.89), innings pitched (545 2/3) and wins (30) while blowing 15 saves, fewer than any team except the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres (13 each).

"Just throwing strikes and getting ahead of hitters," said Melancon, whose WAR (wins above replacement) of 2.5 led all NL relievers, when asked to explain the bullpen's success. "We have a lot of good arms obviously, so that helps. And (catcher) Russell Martin was a huge key."

Unlike others in baseball, the Pirates bullpen wasn't home to many big-armed guys with blow-it-by-you fastballs. Pittsburgh relievers struck out 452 hitters, good enough for sixth in the 14-team N.L. Yet they still managed to limit hitters to a .215 batting average while stranding more than 78 percent of base runners.

It didn't hurt that the Pirates employed 423 different defensive shifts, second in the league and fourth in all of baseball.

"That's just our organization. They preach pitching aggressive, pitching inside," said lefty Tony Watson, a Lakewood Ranch resident who posted a 2.39 ERA in 67 appearances, "throwing the fastball and being efficient, trying to get outs in three pitches or less. And the defense was great behind us ... and we have some of the best guys in baseball working for us, with the shifts and all that."

Watson and rookie Justin Wilson (2.08 ERA in 58 appearances) gave the Pirates two solid lefties to call on, while Vin Mazzaro (2.81, 57 games) and Bryan Morris (3.46, 55 games) gave manager Clint Hurdle plenty of choices whenever he had to remove a starter.

"We can attack you a bunch of different ways, depending on how long our starter goes," Hurdle said. "We don't feel like we're out of a game if our starter gets knocked out early, by any means, with the depth and the length we have available."

Anchoring the back end were Melancon and closer Jason Grilli. Melancon's 1.39 ERA was the lowest in Pirates' history among pitchers who threw at least 50 innings in a season, and he recorded 16 saves while Grilli missed roughly three months with a forearm injury.

And Grilli, a veteran who had never closed for an entire year, converted 33 of 35 saves and made his first All-Star team.

Melancon, who made his pro debut for the New York Yankees in 2006, was on his third team in three years; the 37-year-old Grilli was on his sixth team.

Together, however, they were nearly unbeatable.

"Melancon and Grilli, for long periods of time last year," Hurdle said, "were as good as anybody had in the game."

And in the middle of the clubhouse was a shark tank donated by a local aquarium, a unique item that helped galvanize the Pirates' pen.

"It was really neat," Melancon said. "It's a huge key for us, just given the fact that we sit out there for nine innings. We hang out together and talk, and it's kind of nice to have something to kind of unify us."

While Hurdle praised his relievers earlier this spring, he pointed out the success was in the past. "That was 2013; this is 2014," he said, reaffirming his message of "Now," which is the unofficial slogan of the Pirates' camp.

And now it's time to see if the Pirates relievers can duplicate their run from a year ago.

"It's over. It's in the past," Watson said. "Obviously, we built up the confidence because we did well. We're seasoned, we have a little more experience under our belt. ... It's over now, and we have to attack each day one game at a time, go out there and do our business."

Bradenton Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service