Crowe's shutdown relief boosts Bucs' bullpen

2 years ago

PITTSBURGH — Wil Crowe has been a starter his entire career. It’s all he really knows. That is, until this season. And with the way he’s pitched, he looks like he’s been coming out of the bullpen his entire career.

With another 2 2/3 scoreless innings of relief in the Pirates’ 5-3 win over the Nationals on Sunday afternoon at PNC Park, Crowe continued his phenomenal beginning to the season. He is up to 9 2/3 scoreless frames with 10 strikeouts to four walks. For someone who struggled to find his footing as a starter, Crowe is finding a comfortable role in the ‘pen.

“He did a good job today,” said manager Derek Shelton, whose team overcame a 3-0 deficit against the Nats to take three of four in the series and cap a 4-2 homestand. “I thought the slider was good. I thought the changeup was good. He continues to throw the ball well. He continues to attack and just have really good stuff. He’s done a nice job.”

Crowe got help from his defense to keep his scoreless streak alive. After Josh Bell beat the shift with a slap single, Crowe was removed from the game in favor of Heath Hembree. If Bell scored, Crowe would be on the hook for the run. His streak looked like it would come to an end when Maikel Franco roped a double to left field, but a perfect relay nabbed Bell at the plate.

“All around, it was a good baseball play,” Shelton said.

The performance shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. In two relief appearances during Spring Training, Crowe pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings with four strikeouts to no walks.

Crowe has been a Statcast darling. Entering the series finale against the Nationals, Crowe was 91st percentile in xwOBA and xERA, 95th percentile in xSLG, and 97th percentile in HardHit%.

The beginning of Crowe’s outing was different from his first three in that he inherited a runner on first base after starter José Quintana walked Juan Soto before being pulled from the game. Crowe handled the situation in short order, getting Nelson Cruz to ground into a double play to immediately erase the threat.

The one pitch that’s especially been working for Crowe is his changeup. The change has generated half of his 10 strikeouts and has induced a called strike plus whiff rate of 36.2%. Opposing batters don’t have a hit off the pitch in eight at-bats. No matter which way you slice it, the changeup is becoming a weapon.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Crowe is throwing the changeup a lot more. In 2021, he used his changeup 18.1 percent of the time. This season, Crowe is throwing the changeup 27.9 percent of the time.

“When you look at the numbers of it after last year, you get a full season of seeing my stuff and how it plays. Throwing the changeup more was definitely something that I wanted to do and I’m making a concerted effort to do this year,” Crowe said.

Crowe has been the face of how the Pirates are using their bullpen in an unconventional fashion. The relief corps features plenty of situational or late-inning specialists — Hembree, David Bednar, Chris Stratton, among others. But the ‘pen also features several bulk guys such as Crowe, Dillon Peters, Miguel Yajure and Roansy Contreras. Those four have traditionally been starters, but have been used in multi-innings relief roles. So far, the returns have been promising.

“We’ve talked about how we’re going to deploy our bullpen differently and I think [Crowe’s] the poster child for how good it’s been through the first nine games,” Shelton said.