Pirates Add Patience to Their Lineup and Experience to Their Bullpen

© Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, the Pirates finally got in on the post-lockout frenzy, signing a pair of lower-cost free agents who both have interesting bits of upside. First baseman and designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach signed a one-year, $1 million deal that comes with the possibility for $400,000 more in performance incentives and a $1.5 million option for 2023. In the bullpen, the Pirates inked Heath Hembree to a one-year, $2.125 million deal. These might not be big-money moves, and Pittsburgh’s payroll still sits at a shockingly low $44 million, but it’s worth taking a closer look at Vogelbach and Hembree to see what inspired the team to finally open its wallet. We’ll start with Vogelbach.

After a few fits and starts, Vogelbach burst onto the scene in 2019 for the Mariners, slugging prolific home runs on his way to a 30 homer season and a 112 wRC+. Late in the season, though, he fell on hard times that carried over into 2020. The Mariners decided they’d seen enough and shipped him to the Blue Jays, who themselves cut him after just five plate appearances; Milwaukee became his third uniform of 2020. He ended the season strongly enough to be brought back in a platoon role in 2021, putting up near league average offensive numbers (101 wRC+ in 258 PA), while also losing two months in the middle of the season to a pretty bad hamstring injury. The Brewers chose to non-tender him this offseason.

Given his distinctive physique (6-foot-0, 270 pounds) and success in high-leverage spots (137 wRC+), he’s become something of a fan favorite everywhere he’s been. Take this walk-off grand slam he hit last September:

Vogelbach possesses a lot of the skills that modern front offices like, namely, a patient approach and great bat-to-ball skills. Calling him patient is underselling it a bit, as only Yasmani Grandal swung less often than Vogelbach last year (32.9% swing rate). He’s perfectly comfortable falling behind in the count and hunting for a mistake up in the zone. As you can imagine, this approach leads to plenty of walks and strikeouts but Vogelbach actually has the bat-to-ball skills to maintain a roughly league average strikeout rate. Take a closer look at how his plate discipline stacks up to both league average and Juan Soto – the gold standard of plate discipline:

Daniel Vogelbach’s Plate Discipline
Player BB% K% O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Contact% SwStr%
Daniel Vogelbach 16.7% 22.1% 20.7% 49.5% 32.9% 82.4% 5.8%
Juan Soto 22.2% 14.2% 15.1% 62.8% 35.0% 82.1% 6.3%
League Average 8.7% 23.2% 31.3% 68.9% 47.2% 76.1% 11.3%

It’s a very impressive skill set and that’s before you even get to the part where he hits the ball quite hard. Vogelbach had an 88th percentile exit velocity last year and his HardHit% was good for the 89th percentile. Interestingly, though, having those skills has only led to a 103 wRC+ and 1.2 career WAR in 1,098 plate appearances, and that’s because there are some pretty big holes in his game.

Vogelbach has really struggled against lefties, with a 46 wRC+ for his career (versus 117 against righties); last season, he put up a wRC+ of one against southpaws, albeit in just 34 plate appearances. His performance against lefties has prevented him from securing everyday playing time, and it can be hard to dig your way out of a platoon role once you stop getting regular exposure. Another big weakness has been Vogelbach’s production against breaking balls: He has a .196 wOBA on curveballs and sliders in his career compared to a robust .374 wOBA against fastballs. Interestingly, he actually sees a league average number of fastballs; I think his extreme patience has allowed him to force pitchers to come into the zone more than what their game plan may suggest. Finally, Vogelbach has proven to be a poor defender at first base, putting up -15 Defensive Runs Saved in a little less than a full season’s worth of opportunities.

Vogelbach’s lack of defensive skill is the easiest problem for the Pirates to mitigate. The Pirates’ current first baseman, Yoshi Tsutsugo, has shown a better feel for the position (-1 DRS / +1 OAA), albeit in an even smaller sample than Vogelbach. Tsutsugo also doesn’t have notable platoon splits, so all signs seem to point to him starting nearly every day at first while Vogelbach has the inside track on the DH role. Perhaps the Pirates will even give him some run against lefties to see if there is any improvement to be had with his splits, but it’s likely that he’ll be ceding at-bats to someone like a Michael Chavis. The good news for Vogelbach and the Pirates is that the NL Central lacks standout left-handed starters, with only Wade Miley, Eric Lauer, and Steven Matz looking like locks for a rotation spot in the division.

On to the bullpen, and the signing of Heath Hembree. The 33-year-old right-hander spent parts of seven seasons with Boston as a reliable workhorse reliever who never quite ascended to being a go-to high-leverage option. He started bouncing around in 2020; the Pirates will be his fifth big league team, after stints with the Phillies, Mets and Reds in the last couple of years. That bouncing around is due to a stark drop in performance from his early days in Boston, as he put up the two worst run prevention seasons of his career with a 9.00 ERA in 2020 and a 5.59 ERA in ’21. Looking forward, though, there’s some reason to believe he has more left in the tank than his last two years might suggest.

Heath Hembree’s Career
Years K% BB% ERA (ERA-) FIP (FIP-) FB Velo FB Usage
2016-17 23.70% 7.10% 3.19 (71) 3.88 (91) 94.7 56.50%
2018-20 27.20% 10.10% 4.85 (106) 5.13 (117) 94.1 60.90%
2021 34.20% 9.90% 5.59 (129) 4.34 (100) 95.3 52.20%

The most eye-popping change for Hembree last season was the increased zip on his fastball, which gained more than a tick from the previous year. Thanks to his 92nd percentile spin rate, his fastball drops very little and he also gets above average run, helping to turn it into a popup machine (37.0% popup rate). It’s worth noting that he was dealing with a recurring elbow issue in 2019 and ’20 that required three separate IL stints, so good health could be enough to explain the velocity increase.

To go along with more velocity, Hembree pretty drastically altered his breaking ball in 2021 and the results were promising. Where once his arsenal contained a distinct slider and curveball, he now throws one breaking ball, and while it’s officially logged as a slider, it’s quite different from the version he used to throw. Velocity-wise it comes in around 86 mph, nearly in the middle of his old slider (89 mph) and his old curveball (81 mph), though calling it a slurve doesn’t feel quite right as its movement is very horizontal. This new breaker allowed only a .283 wOBA and he started working it in quite a bit, even lowering his fastball usage to accommodate throwing it more.

That new slider doesn’t keep the ball on the ground and neither does his high-spin fastball, so cavernous PNC Park will be a welcome site for Hembree and his 53.7% fly ball rate. Hembree brings plenty of experience to a young and largely underwhelming Pittsburgh bullpen that finished 26th in ERA- and 24th in K-BB% last season. David Bednar and his 2.23 ERA is the standout performer in the ‘pen; Hembree will likely be getting plenty of high-leverage innings setting him up this season, alongside workhorse reliever Chris Stratton. This move gives the Pirates a pretty talented top three in their bullpen, especially if Hembree can carry forward some of those interesting developments from last season.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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6 months ago

Wow, the lack of lefty starters in the NLCentral is a really good point. Honestly, the pirates are a solid LF away from fielding a… dare i say it… decent?… lineup.

LF: Conforto? Pham?
CF: Reynolds
RF: Gamel (if you believe in some of his 2021 gains with PIT)
3b: Hayes
SS: Oneil Cruz
2b: Newman? Lots of semi interesting prospects in the mix too.
1b: Yoshi/Chavis?
DH: Vogey/Pujols 😛 ?
C: Roberto Perez

CC AFCmember
6 months ago
Reply to  JayGray007

Hmm, yeah, that looks still pretty not good to me. I think that would require Hayes to breakout (healthy plus hitting the ball in the air more?), Cruz to immediately be ready and be a good major league hitter, and Tsutsugo to play a whole year like he played for about 150 late season at bats last year. Those are plausible on their own, but all three at the same time are unlikely. Even then, RF, 2B, DH and C are pretty much black holes. I think you can cross Conforto right off as an option for them. Love the optimism, though.

6 months ago
Reply to  JayGray007

This is a joke right? Decent? They have one great player and one good player in that lineup. Every projected pickup is a hope and dream that will not happen.

6 months ago
Reply to  jlittleton42

Yeah, I had to squint to the point of nearly passing out to see a decent lineup.

6 months ago
Reply to  JayGray007

They are definitely not signing Conforto, Gamel is a fourth outfielder, and C is a black hole. 2B is a little iffy. Pham might happen if his market collapses, but I wouldn’t bank on it.

The way this lineup works out is if Diego Castillo turns out to be pretty good (or Hoy Park is better than expected), and Swaggerty or Smith-Njigba hit their way to the majors and are decent there. That would leave Gamel and Perez to be subpar at RF and C. That would be a respectable / decent lineup, and it is plausible.

6 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Well, the premise of my post is definitely that they DO add a LF. Alford certainly won’t cut it now. That’s why i’m talking about adding a LF. they probably wont do it. My point it to just plug one in and analyze what thatd give them.

I’m probably higher on Gamel than you but thats fine. I’m probably lower on Yoshi than i let on in my first post though.

I definitely want a Park/Rodolfo Castro/Tucupita/Castillo type to take the bull by the horns and force their way over newman.