Wil Crowe vs. Chris Stratton in high leverage situations

Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Wil Crowe looks like a new pitcher in 2022, but is he a better high-leverage option than stalwart reliever Chris Stratton?

Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Wil Crowe is having a strong start to the 2022 campaign, but fellow right-hander Chris Stratton isn’t so much. While Crowe excelled, Stratton struggled. Although it’s early and a small sample, should Crowe take on Stratton’s role as one of the team’s top lever takers behind David Bednar?

Who would have guessed that Crowe would have been one of baseball’s most dominant relievers on the outside? Crowe moved to the bullpen after posting a 5.48 ERA, 5.67 FIP and 1.57 WHIP in 2021, primarily as a starting pitcher. But the numbers to start 2022 looked completely different.

It’s only 15.2 innings, but he’s only allowed two earned runs, while he’s struck out 17 batters and struck out five. When opponents have made contact, it’s rarely a quality contact. Crowe limited opponents to an exit speed of just 85.7 mph and a 22.2 percent hard hit rate. His two are elite as he is in the 83rd percentile and his hitting rate is one of the best in baseball, ranking in the 98th percentile.

Although Crowe throws a little harder, he hasn’t become a flamethrower. He went from 92-94 as a starter to 93-95 as a reliever. It didn’t gain a ton of spin either. Most of his success came from a change in the use of the Arsenal, with his change being his most-used pitch and pitch, using his high-spinning fastball more often in the area.

On the other hand, Stratton is coming off a very solid season. In 2021, he pitched 79.1 innings, which is one of the highest inning totals of 2021 among relievers who haven’t started a game. Over those 79.1 innings, Strat had an ERA of 3.63, FIP of 3.76, and WHIP of 1.30. This came with solid peripherals, including a 25.5% strike rate, 9.6% walk rate, and 1.02 HR/9 rate.

But the start of the 2022 season hasn’t been too kind to Stratton. He pitched 9.1 innings, allowing 14 hits and six earned runs. Although he has just one walk and eight strikeouts, he has been good at limiting hard contacts, being in the 75th percentile for speed-out and 85th percentile for hard-hit rate. It lost some pitch velocity on the downside, although its typical high spin rate didn’t take as much of a hit.

In Stratton’s defense, his underlying settings are much kinder to him. He is in the 78th percentile or higher in all of Baseball Savant’s expected stats. He has a SIERA 3.10 and an xFIP 3.23. Again, it’s a small sample size, but promising under the hood.

The Pittsburgh Pirates slowly increased his workload in high leverage situations. Derek Shelton has used it interchangeably with David Bednar in the team’s most demanding situations. But is he the right person for the job? Well, based on 2021 numbers alone, giving Stratton the second most important moments and using him in the final inning makes sense. He had a 2.44 ERA and a 0.576 OPS opponent in the ninth inning.

But this season? He allowed six earned runs in 5.2 innings he pitched in the 9th. Opponents were 13 to 29 against the right-hander when he entered the final set to close it out. But he allowed just one hit in 11 plate appearances in the seventh and eighth innings.

He was also better in rounds seven and eight in 2021 as well. In 37 innings, he had allowed only ten earned runs, compared to five earned runs in 17.2 innings in the 9th. He also held his opponents to sub-.500 OPS in the eighth in 21. The seventh and eighth innings seem like a sweet spot for Stratton as he struggled in the fifth and sixth innings and was better in those two innings from the ninth.

While I believe in placing your best relievers in the highest leverage situations, I also believe in giving your players the best chance of success. These things are not always mutually exclusive. Apart from his last game, David Bednar was used with great wisdom and efficiency. Stratton is a phenomenal man in the seventh and eighth innings, much better than he is in the ninth. While Crowe isn’t as proven as Stratton, he’s probably better in 9th-inning situations than Stratton.

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