'We should be No. 1': Bucs' bullpen thriving after 2 wins

March 30th, 2024

MIAMI -- If there is a playbook for how the Pirates want to win games this year, Friday’s 7-2 victory over the Marlins at loanDepot park may be the perfect example. They were patient and created runs when opportunities presented themselves. They executed in the field by turning four double plays.

And for the second time in as many games, the bullpen thrived. Rookie Ryder Ryan inherited a pair of runners on and one out in the fifth, facing the heart of the Marlins’ lineup in Bryan De La Cruz and Jazz Chisholm Jr. Derek Shelton turned to him for one strikeout, but instead he got a pair of punchouts. After logging another scoreless frame in the sixth, he handed the ball over to Josh Fleming, who recorded a three-inning save.

The bullpen was always positioned to be the strength of this pitching staff. Given the uncertainty in the rotation, they almost need to excel for this team to compete. They have lived up to those lofty expectations early, recording nine strikeouts over 11 innings with only one run and four hits allowed.

Recently, MLB tweeted out an image ranking the top bullpens in the game, going by FanGraphs’ projections, and the Pirates ranked third. The players noticed the post.

"That’s a good bullpen,” Fleming said. “I think we were No. 3 in the top 10 [bullpens] that MLB ranked. You’re No. 3 for a reason. I think we should be No. 1."

What’s perhaps even more impressive is that this group is far from full strength right now. Colin Holderman and Carmen Mlodzinski both experienced setbacks in the middle of Spring Training, and while both should be fine and return to action before too long, they started the season on the IL. David Bednar has been nursing a right lat injury, too, and has yet to pitch in a game, though he did start to get loose in the bullpen in the ninth inning Friday.

But even without three of their top five leverage arms, they haven’t missed a beat.

“They got some guys in the offseason for when stuff like that happens, they have guys who can fill into those roles and get the job done,” Fleming said. “I think you’re seeing it the last couple games.”

“We’ve definitely got some depth,” said right-hander Hunter Stratton. “Everybody out there, they’re giving it everything they’ve got. We’ve got incredible talent here.”

Bullpen depth is a luxury the Pirates haven’t really had the past few years, where many of their relievers were either out of Minor League options or just passing through. This year, they took a different approach to bullpen construction, not just by adding a premier setup man like Aroldis Chapman, but making sure there were more guys who could play different roles.

“We've built the bullpen a little different than we have in the past just because of the depth where we have guys that can get punchouts and there's guys we feel can effectively get the ball on the ground and get double plays,” manager Derek Shelton said.

Case in point: The two guys who got the ball after Martín Pérez. Ryan was a Minor League free agent signing who got the Opening Day nod because the team wanted another sinkerballer with Holderman on the injured list. Fleming signed early in camp and has embraced moving to more of a bullpen role after splitting duties the last few years with the Rays. After pitching to a 61.6% ground ball rate in 2023, he could be that type of specialist.

There’s still some learning on the job that needs to be done. Fleming had never pitched in back-to-back games before Friday, though it wasn’t too rough because he only threw one pitch Thursday. For Ryan, it was just his second Major League appearance after making his debut last season with Seattle. It didn’t look like he was at all shaken by the lights of a bigger stage.

"My heart rate in the first one was a little bit higher,” Ryan said. “This one was a little better."

There’s an expectation this bullpen is going to keep getting better as the year progresses. From a results standpoint early on, it’s hard to see how.

“We have a great bullpen,” Pérez said. “If we continue to do that, it’s gonna be a good season for us. We’re on the same page. We come here for one goal. That’s to win. Keep doing what we’ve been doing, and we’ll be fine.”