Wil Crowe steps into a high-leverage role

Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Wil Crowe started this year in the bullpen, but he’s showing promise with a high-leverage reliever.

When the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Wil Crowe in the Josh Bell trade, he had the prospects of a late-rotation starting pitcher. A second-round pick in 2017, Crowe’s 2019 season was a mixed one. He started the year on a high, posting a 3.87 ERA, 3.15 FIP and 1.12 WHIP in 95.1 innings of work. The underlying numbers agreed that he was a good pitcher as he posted a 3.05 xFIP, 48.1% ground ball rate and a 4.05 K/BB ratio.

Then, once he was promoted to Triple-A, things started to get worse. He only pitched 54 innings but had a poor 6.17 ERA, 5.46 FIP and 1.70 WHIP. Crowe’s ground ball rate nearly reduced by 10% to 39.8%. Meanwhile, his K/BB ratio, which stood at just over four at Double-A, dropped to just 1.58 when he received his promotion.

Crowe would pitch just 8.1 innings with the Nats in 2020 before being traded to the Bucs. Last season, Crowe took on the role of Major League starting pitcher, but with poor results. In 116.2 innings, the right-hander had a 5.48 ERA, 5.67 FIP and 1.57 WHIP. He only managed a 21.2 percent strikeout rate and 10.9 percent walk rate, but home runs gave him the most trouble. He gave up 25 for an HR/9 of 1.93.

But Crowe potentially gained a second life by moving to the bullpen. I’ve touched on this before, but said it could serve as a long relief guy. Think something akin to the role of Jeanmar Gomez in 2013 and 2014. But after his first innings out of the pen in 2022, could he take on a more critical, high-leverage role?

It’s a small sample of just seven innings, so take it with a grain of salt. But he is already showing massive improvements from last season. The first thing is his fast ball speed. Right now, he’s averaging 94.3 mph compared to 93.7 mph in 2021. In his second game of the season, Crowe averaged 95.5 mph, a 2.3 mph improvement over his first game this season.

Crowe also changed his use of the land. He has used his slider much more often, with a usage rate of 29.7%, compared to 24.7% in 2021. His change is his second pitch used so far in the young season with a mark of 28, 8%, more than 10% more than last year. His four-seam also has a usage rate of 26.3%, up from 34.9% in 2021, and his sinker has been used exclusively against right-handed hitters so far. He mostly used it against RHB in 2021 as well, but he also threw it at southpaws 32.7% of the time.

Crowe increased his pellet usage rate from 11.8% to 15.3%, mostly because he appears to have dropped his curveball. Last year, the right-hander threw five pitches, the fifth being a curveball which he used 10.4% of the time. However, this pitch was vastly inferior to his other breaking ball, the slider. In terms of run/100 value, his slider was only +1, while his curveball was +2.3.

So far, Crowe has received many more bat misses. He struck out 9 of the 25 batters he faced this season. His opponent’s swing rate went from 44.6% to 50%. When they swing, they make much less contact. Its odor rate went from 25.3% to 30.5%, which is well above average in the upper 64th percentile. One last thing to note is that Crowe doesn’t give hitters good pitches to hit. A “meatball” toss is described as a ball directly in the middle of the plate. Crowe has given up a meatball throw of 6.6% in 2021. Right now, he’s sitting at 4.2%.

Currently, Crowe serves as a multi-inning/low leverage reliever. However, the Pittsburgh Pirates should build him to be a high leverage reliever. If the stuff Crowe is throwing is partly down to his pen stint, then the Pirates should start letting him see innings later in games.

He could become David Bednar’s trainer if he keeps pitching that way. The Pittsburgh Pirates could use a decent bullpen arm right now, and Crowe could be. He would bring the option to put him in critical situations and get more than just one inning.