Last summer, the Pirates decided that it was time to trade one of the best players in the organization. Mark Melancon was in the midst of the last year of his contract, and the Pirates were not going to make a deep playoff run. Melancon had bounced around the major leagues before finding a home in Pittsburgh back in 2013. During his time in Pittsburgh, he was a three-time all-star and was one of the most reliable closers in the game. At the time of the trade, the Pirates were not looking to make a World Series push, so Huntington decided that it was time to sell. It was disappointing to see Melancon leave, but the Nationals were willing to send the Pirates a very talented left-hander and more.
The Pirates received two players in return for Melancon. The main piece of that package was a hard throwing lefty named Felipe Rivero. Recently “promoted” to the closing role on the team along with Juan Nicasio, Rivero has been a lights out pitcher all year long. However, before being acquired by the Pirates, he had some control issues. After posting a 6.75 BB/9 rate in 2015, the Nationals recognized the inconsistency and were willing to part ways with the young lefty. As I have mentioned in a few of my articles before, the Pirates really know how to rejuvenate a pitchers career. With Rivero being a hard throwing lefty, the ceiling was sky high and Huntington recognized the potential.
Anytime a player throws over 100 mph, heads will turn. However, more often than not, these high velocity pitchers have lackluster control and only have a few pitches in their arsenals. Rivero is a pitcher who can throw 100+ mph, but also has above average control. He relies heavily on his fastball, but also mixes in a great slider. To compliment his high-powered fastball, the spin rate on his four seamer is significantly above league average. Additionally, Rivero sports a fantastic ground ball percentage that is a result of his slider. He uses his changeup to get strikeouts, and the deception of the pitch keeps batters off balance. With pitches ranging from a 100+mph four seamer, a nasty slider and a deceiving changeup, he has the arsenal to be an elite pitcher regardless of the role he plays out of the bullpen. That three-pitch arsenal has resulted in a 0.72 ERA with a 9.9 K/9 and just 19 hits allowed in 37.1 innings. And his control problems from a year ago? A distant memory after handing out just eight walks in 2017.
There is much debate around Pittsburgh about whether Rivero should be a closer or a leverage-dependent pitcher. He surely has the make-up to be an elite closer, but putting him into a closing role may be minimizing his value to the team. Just days after Rivero was moved to the closing role, we saw a one-run game slip out of the Pirates hands. On Friday night, the Pirates squandered a one-run lead, while Rivero sat in the dugout. He went unused because by the time the 9th inning came around, the game was out of reach for the Pirates.
For years, the closing role has been a role that teams look to fill with elite talent. Closers earn bigger paydays than regular relievers do, but by no means does that mean they should. Even the major league arbitration system gives advantages to closers, regardless of whether or not they are as good as non-closers. For an example of this, look no further than the Dellin Betances situation from this past offseason. Betances is a fantastic pitcher, who most definitely deserves more money than he is making. However, due to his role on the Yankees, his paychecks are significantly smaller than some other closers in the league who faced arbitration this season.
There is a perspective around the baseball world that it takes a “certain type” of pitcher to close out games and earn those last three outs. Additionally, people argue that players need to know their roles before the game so that they can mentally prepare for that situation. However, studies show that since the closer role has become more prominent, teams are no more successful when holding leads after eight innings than they were 10 or even 30 years ago. Meaning that since teams have incorporated a closer on their teams, the winning percentage after eight innings has essentially remained the same.
If a team is winning by one run in the eighth inning and Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts are due up, it would be better to send the best available arm out of the bullpen to face these hitters. Following the eighth inning, a less capable reliever could come out of the bullpen to face either Mitch Moreland, Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez and/or Chris Young and hope to have success. This combination of batters proves much less lethal than that of Betts, Benintendi and Bogaerts. Therefore, having your best reliever pitch to the best batters from the opposing team and a less capable option pitch to the lower half of the lineup will maximize win probability/potential.
I am not against Rivero closing out games, but I want him to be used effectively in other situations as well. Sometimes situations arise where outs are very valuable and he should be available in those situations. It was great to see Rivero come out of the bullpen in the eighth inning on Friday night. He faced the top of the Cubs lineup with a one-run lead and took care of business. He had not been used since Tuesday, so he also could have been available to come back out for the ninth inning. Obviously, no game is predictable and Rivero could have given up hits as well. However, if Rivero had been used throughout the ninth inning, would he have minimized the damage and given us a chance to win? No one can answer that question midgame, but Rivero has been dominant all year and I cannot see him giving up more than one or two runs in that situation. There is not a perfect manager in all of baseball, and the future cannot be predicted. Nonetheless, Rivero has been smoking hot of late and could have possibly dampened the Cubs parade, therefore giving us a chance to win in the ninth or even extra innings if necessary.
A player with Rivero’s talent level should not have been sitting in the dugout watching his teammates blow the lead. I am not against Tony Watson or Nicasio taking duties in the seventh, eighth, or even ninth innings. If you use your best reliever in high leverage situations, it is necessary to trust the other relievers and their ability to take care of the other innings. Closers are not completely overrated, but the best reliever on the team should be used in high leverage situations rather than strictly the ninth inning. Especially on a team that cannot maintain a .500 winning percentage and has minimal run scoring ability. Why stash Rivero into a role where he is going to be used less than half of the time? He is a 25-year-old stud, and should be used in situations that help maximize the win probability of the team.