PITTSBURGH -- Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, as is often pointed out, majors in pitching. That is his area of expertise, the part of the game he knows inside-out and where he feels most comfortable following his own instincts.
For instance, Huntington's leading mantra concerns the upside of pitchers with "swing-and-miss" stuff. How has the GM fared following that guideline? And how are the Bucs faring as a result?
Pretty well, to say the least.
Three years after they ranked last in the National League in strikeouts, the Pirates (330 entering Friday) are on the verge of overtaking the Reds (334) for the league lead. In the first quarter of this season, the staff has already had nearly as many games with strikeouts in double-figures (15) as it had in all of 2010 (16). In Friday's 5-4 win over Houston, four Pirates pitchers tallied seven strikeouts, including six by the bullpen.
The progression in that department has been as steady -- to 20 in 2011 and 31 last season. This is a valuable tool because, as manager Clint Hurdle likes to point out, it means the Bucs' batterymen get to do nothing more than play catch every game.
A major component of the strikeouts haul has been a bullpen that has done amazing work, leading the Majors in relievers strikeouts (141) while holding opponents to a .212 average.
The only thing more amazing than those results is the overhauled bullpen responsible for them. The only reliever back in the same capacity from a 2012 crew, that in its own right was largely responsible for the Bucs remaining in contention, is left-hander Tony Watson.
Jason Grilli is also a holdover, but of course has gone from setup man to closer, a dramatic shift. All the others -- Bryan Morris, Vin Mazzaro, Mark Melancon, Justin Wilson and Jose Contreras -- are new faces.
In assembling that cast, "we looked for skills that could dominate late," Hurdle said, "and guys who can put it on the ground to get quick outs for length. We mixed and matched very well. The numbers right now scream."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. Steven Petrella is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less