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How Concerned Should Pirates be About David Bednar’s Early Struggles?



David Bednar, Pittsburgh Pirates

Last season, David Bednar was about as automatic as a closing pitcher could be.

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ right-hander was tied for the National League lead with 39 saves and had a 92.9% conversion rate, failing to get the job done on three occasions.

To go along with his reliability in closing games, Bednar posted a sparkling 2.00 ERA with 80 strikeouts in 67.1 innings. It’s why he was named a National League All-Star for the second-consecutive season.

It’s also why his struggles to begin the 2024 season have been so surprising.

In Tuesday’s game against the Detroit Tigers, Bednar blew the save. In doing so, Bednar has already matched his blown-save total from last season. But instead of needing a full 162-game schedule and 42 opportunities to do so, his third blown save came in the Pirates’ 12th game and his fourth chance.

“Just no control in the zone right now,” Bednar said after taking his first loss of the season. “That’s my bread and butter. That’s what makes me good. Just need to get back to throwing strikes in the zone, competing in the zone. When I do that, good things happen.”

On Tuesday, Bednar threw 23 pitches, yet only nine went for strikes. He plunked a pair of batters and walked another.

Even with a lack of command in the zone during his other two blown saves — one against the Miami Marlins and one against the Baltimore Orioles — the complete lack of ability to throw strikes is something Bednar has not done since joining the Pirates.

Not to make any excuses on behalf of Bednar, because he certainly isn’t doing so, but his early struggles could be a ripple effect from missing much of spring training due to a lat injury.

During spring training, Bednar only made two appearances. Each of those relief outings lasted one inning apiece. His first time seeing game action didn’t come until Mar. 21.

It’s a theory his manager believes could be true.

“Well, I would say in this case, because of how sharp we’ve seen him previously, it looks like that’s the indicator,” said Derek Shelton.

Outside of Bednar’s struggles, the bullpen has still largely been a strength for the 9-3 Pirates.

Bednar is one of five Pirates’ relievers to record a save this season. The others are Aroldis Chapman, Josh Fleming, Jose Hernandez and Hunter Stratton.

While Bednar navigates through his rough patch, the Pirates can rely on Chapman, who is third on the active saves list with 322, to handle the ninth if they so choose. The Pirates are also expected to get another back-end option back in short order with Colin Holderman nearing a return.

The depth the Pirates have built has been a key reason for the team’s hot start, but getting Bednar back to what he has been take the bullpen to the next level.

“I think with anything we’ve talked about continuing to have depth and the fact that we do have depth there is important. But most importantly, I mean, this guy’s an elite closer,” said  Shelton. “We just got to get him back to the function of being right.”

It’s not quite time for the Pirates to hit the panic button. Five appearances to begin the season should not discredit what Bednar accomplished during three full seasons from 2021-23 to begin his tenure in his hometown.

He’s earned the chance to work through his struggles, especially as he looks to get his legs back under him from an abbreviated spring.

“Obviously it’s tough,” he said. “You never want to have these stretches, but I think everybody’s gone through these before. I’ve had some struggles before and overcome them. It’s still so early. Obviously very frustrating, but at the end of the year, hopefully we’ll be looking back and laughing at this.”

While there’s no reason to believe Bednar won’t get an opportunity to redeem himself, he will have to figure things out quicker than in previous years.

The Pirates want to compete for the postseason this year. Unlike in years past, they can’t afford to be as patient. And they have adequate alternatives if a change is needed.

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