Player Profiles 2020: Pittsburgh Pirates Bullpen

Adam Lawler breaks down the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen for the 2020 season.

It’s hard to fathom a more proverbial sideshow circus north of the Mason-Dixon line than the clowns housed in the right field of Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. Kyle Crick fought his bullpen coach and later suffered a season-ending injury, breaking his finger while fighting a teammate over the music being played in the locker room. Keone Kela was hurt and bad before being suspended twice related to physical altercations with Pirates staff and the Reds. Closer Felipe Vazquez was arrested during the season and is facing three felony charges for allegedly sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. So, ya know, super normal, totally functional human beings creeping in that clubhouse.
Those are just the highlights! The Richard Rodriguez Regression (dibs on that band name) presented itself in the most painful ways. Francisco Liriano was so bad as a starter, they thought it might be a good idea to try him as a reliever. Narrator voice: It wasn’t. Another fun fact! Of the eight relievers on the Roster Resource page for Pirates, I had to Google half of them!
Silver lining? Well, there’s room for improvement!

Pirates’ Projected Bullpen


CloserKeone Kela

On talent alone, I’m assuming Kela is the leading candidate to close games for the Bucs next year. However, that drum has been beating since his time with Texas a couple of years ago. Kela’s a headcase and a cotton-headed ninny muggin, which doesn’t bode well for stability in the role. Last season crystallized Kela’s entire career. While battling injuries and teammates alike, Kela’s start to the season was—in a word—bad. Before his extended absence in May and June, he appeared in 15 games, only pitching in back-to-back games once and sporting a 4.63 ERA with an even worse 5.00 xFIP and a career low in K/9.

After an extended absence to give his achy shoulder a break, Kela returned to form and, in the second half, was the best non-alleged-felon reliever in the Pirates pen. The four-seam fastball was the main pitch in his arsenal and one of the fastest in the league, averaging 96.6 mph. However, none of his offerings (4FB, CU, CH) were particularly effective and nothing that gets me excited. If he lost the job at some point or shared it with one of the names below, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least.


Setup Kyle Crick

Crick, another amateur clubhouse boxing champion, came to the Pirates after a subpar 2017 campaign with the Giants and fought his way into the back-end of the Bucs bullpen in 2018. He was a name to keep an eye on heading into 2019. A name I wasn’t convinced would be as good as his previous season implied, but one that I was genuinely interested in snapping up for my holds leagues. Sadly, it is the best-laid plans of mice and men that often go awry. Crick’s underlying metrics actually point to a worse 4.96 ERA.

To be fair, Crick was unfairly bitten by the long-ball bug (20% HR/FB). This issue, however, should largely be viewed through the lens that shows he was erratic both emotionally and athletically.

It’s clear as day that the four-seam fastball was the culprit. In comparison to 2018, Crick cut the four seamer’s usage while maintaining similar average velocity. Unfortunately, the offering was smacked around, resulting in a wOBA .100 points higher and a slugging percentage .200 points higher than in 2018. The slider, however, improved exponentially. If he continues to lean on the pitch more than he did in 2019 (throwing it 37.5% of the time), Crick could become a force to be reckoned with in 2020. If not, he’ll be one of the hardest-hit pitchers in the league yet again.


Setup – Richard Rodriguez

Rodriguez should get a long look when the closer position opens up. Much like Crick, he had an intriguing enough 2018 that had me hedging bets in deeper leagues where I was seeking ratio edges. Much like Crick, his 2019 season imploded.

Unlike Crick, I believe in Rodriguez a bit more to rebound and have a stronger 2020 campaign. Rodriguez’s pitches—a four-seam fastball and slider—are particularly effective. It’s pretty clear he lived in the zone too much with his fastball. When you let a ball as volatile as the one in 2019 live in the zone 80.2% of the time (up from 74.6% in 2018), especially when there is next to no tangible horizontal movement, you’re gonna have a bad time. Fixable issues. Look for RichRod to bounce back in 2020 and be a dark-horse closer candidate if/when Kela falters.


Middle Michael Feliz

Michael Feliz played a bit of yo-yo to start the year, dropping here and there between Triple-A and Pittsburgh. The 26-year-old Dominican, in comparison to his bullpen friends, had a relatively successful year. For starters, he wasn’t suspended or arrested. More importantly, however, his performance was stable and productive. Feliz, like Crick and Rodriguez, relies on a mix of a four-seam fastball paired with a slider. Notably, though, his breaker has a bit more bite and/or tailing action that the other two. This is underscored by the 48.6% whiff rate and 26.4% O-contact rate. For those of you at home ask what that really means? It’s good. Really good.


MiddleNick Burdi

The prince who was promised! Despite having thrown all of eight innings in the major leagues, Burd-man has the nastiest stuff on the roster. Upper-90s fastball that can gas up into the century mark, and a filthy slider. Nick Burdi could ascend to become the next great Pirates closer…if he can stay healthy. After being drafted, he missed 2016 with an elbow that barked, and followed with Tommy John in 2017. In 2018 and ’19, he continued to deal with rehab and minor setbacks. He and his brother, Zack, just need to not walk under any ladders in the foreseeable future.

Sadly, this could go sideways pretty fast. The injuries haven’t allowed him to pitch more than 20 innings in the past four seasons. Being a Rule 5 pick, he’ll have to learn on the fly and—from what I gather—major league hitters will enjoy letting him go through his growing pains.


Middle Chris Stratton

No. Just…no. People get pinkeye for allowing fecal matter particles like this into their system. It’s contagious, and I won’t have any part in it.

Oh…you’re still reading. Fine. A 5.57 ERA with an 8 K/9. For all intents and purposes, this was an improved season for Stratton.

Medically speaking, you now have conjunctivitis. According to the CDC, you’re just going to need to live with it for the next week. This is on you and nobody else but you.


The Other Guys

Williams Jerez, Clay Holmes, Chad Kuhl, Luis Escobar, Geoff Hartlieb, Yacksel Rios

Quick Hits:

  • Luis Escobar: Here’s your knight in shining armor, Bucs fans. He throws three plus pitches (FB, CB, CH) but doesn’t have the stamina to be a starter or consistently throw strikes. He had a 4.00 ERA at Triple-A and averaged one strikeout per nine. I don’t know. He seems fine.
  • Williams Jerez: Designated by the Giants at the end of the season and added to the Pirates roster. The San Francisco Giants. A team so bad it was throwing Wandy Peralata, Trevor Gott, and Burch Smith out there. Burch Smith! Better than Williams Jerez!
  • Clay Holmes: Mmmm…50 IP, 5.58 ERA. Mmmmm…
  • Chad Kuhl: He could be a starter but is bad at that too! The most redeeming thing about him are the jokes on his name.
  • Yacksel Rios: He might be cut before this article is published. If he’s not, it might be shortly thereafter.
  • Geoff Hartlieb: According to fellow PitcherList content man Myles Nelson, “I had Hartlieb’s GIFs! He’s totally forgettable.” The most notable thing about him is that he “was all-state in basketball his junior and senior years of high school, and originally quit baseball at the end high school,” per Wikipedia. So there’s that. He didn’t like baseball enough to play it in high school but is somehow OK to pitch for Pittsburgh. As fellow writer Nate Watt said, “Imagine coming back to baseball just to end up on the Pirates.”

Featured image by Justin Paradis (@FreshMeatComm on Twitter)

Adam Lawler

Fun dad. Generally tired. Follow me @TheStatcastEra.

3 responses to “Player Profiles 2020: Pittsburgh Pirates Bullpen”

  1. Aaron says:

    Pittsburgh is clearly NORTH of Baltimore

    • Adam Lawler says:

      This is a travesty. As a person who lives in the south, please accept my sincerest apologies. Perhaps I should revise to say north of the Mason-Dixon line.

  2. Nick says:

    as a Giants fan….Trevor Gott might actually be our closer next year. But he’s not bad, I swear! 3.12 FIP!

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