Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 6, 2002
BASEBALL: 2002 The Year Of The Bullpen
Originally posted on Projo.com
With the threat of Baseball Armageddon behind us, 2002 will not now be known as The Year Of The Third Strike. Instead, it should be known as The Year Of The Bullpen. Nearly every one of baseball's major stories this season, at a team level, have turned on the bullpen.
Some of the Major Leagues' best bullpens, of course, are no surprise: both the Yankees and Mariners entered the season stocked with well-known, well-paid relievers with extensive track records of success. Both have made good use of those resources. But around the majors, there are teams that have been better (or worse) than expected, and in nearly every case the bullpen has been a critical factor. Let's look at the teams that have been the biggest surprises of 2002:
1. The Braves
While many people (myself included) predicted the Braves to hang on to their NL East crown, you would have to have looked long and hard before this season to find anyone picking them to have the best record in baseball, cruise to 100+ victories, and run away with the division. Yet, there they are. With at bats being wasted on the likes of Vinny Castilla, Keith Lockhart, Wes Helms, and Henry Blanco, plus Rafael Furcal underachieving and Javy Lopez and Marcus Giles failing to hit, Atlanta is in the bottom half of the National League in scoring. Yes, their starting pitching has been more outstanding even than usual with the revival of Glavine and Millwood and the emergence of Damian Moss (the fifth slot has been unreliable but less so than most teams'), and their defense has been the best in the league at converting balls in play into outs , but neither of these is a big shock. What has transformed the Braves from an ordinary low-scoring pitching team into a juggernaut has been the emergence of a killer bullpen populated largely by guys with (1) no major league track record of success or (2) a long recent record of failure. Here are the combined numbers on the 7 Braves relievers with 40 or more relief appearances this season - John Smoltz, Mike Remlinger, Chris Hammond, Darren Holmes, Kerry Lightenberg, Kevin Gryboski and Tim Spooneybarger:
(All stats through Wednesday's action)
For perspective, the average NL reliever has a 3.83 ERA and has allowed 1.36 baserunners/IP; the average AL reliever has a 4.24 ERA and has allowed 1.41 baserunners/IP. In each league, relievers have thrown approximately a third of their team's innings (oddly, last season NL relievers had a higher ERA than AL, 4.10 to 4.09) . . . also, bear in mind that relievers issue a lot of intentional walks.
2. The Twins
Here we have a classic example of a team where the bullpen -- a perceived weakness of the team before the season -- has made a huge difference. The Twins' have exceeded their Pythagorean W-L record (i.e., the number of games they should mathematically be expected to have won given the number of runs they have scored and allowed) by more than 5 games this season, the second-largest margin in baseball (I'll get to the biggest one below), always a sure sign of a team winning a lot of close games and a lot of games in the late innings. The Twins don't have a terrifying offense; they are ninth in the AL in scoring, they don't have a single hitter who can compete with, say, Manny Ramirez or Nomar as far as season-to-season production, and they've been heavily dependent on unexpected development of outfielders Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones and Bobby Kielty. The team's strength was supposed to be the starting pitching, but beset by injuries, the big three of Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Joe Mays has won just 22 games with a 5.11 ERA. So, how have the Twinkies cruised to such a huge lead in the AL Central that even a recent slump leaves them 12 games ahead in the loss column?
Well, previously unknown J.C. Romero has been one of baseball's most devastatingly effective pitchers, Everyday Eddie Guardado has put a hammerlock on what has been a revolving door closer's job since the departure of Rick Aguilera, and even LaTroy "Line Drive" Hawkins has showcased pinpoint control in the best season he's ever had (although the Players Union's website went a mite far when it said he had "recapture[d] his dominating form"). Bob Wells has had a terrible year (5.66 ERA, 65 hits and 7 HR in 47.2 IP), but otherwise, here once again are the combined numbers on the other 5 Twins relievers to make at least 39 relief appearances this season - Romero, Guardado, Hawkins, Mike Jackson (if there were a Hall of Fame just for setup men . . . ) and Tony Fiore:
(and only 2 unearned runs!)
(It may be objected that I'm skewing the numbers here by picking different samples from different teams, but of course as the season goes on, bullpen roles change, and I'm looking at who has emerged as the key guys on each team).
3. The Angels
The Angels' success has been in the details: the way that four of the five starters (everyone but Aaron Sele) has pitched well; the best defense in the AL at turning balls in play into outs; a career year by Adam Kennedy, a revival by Tim Salmon, and production from several other lineup slots. But this is a team that was not expected to hang with a tough division, the team's putative ace (Sele) has struggled, and of the top 3 hitters on the team (Salmon, Troy Glaus and Darin Erstad), one (Glaus) has had a major off year and another (Erstad) has been very unproductive, with a .319 OBP and has had a complete power outage. But the bullpen, mostly consisting of steady journeymen plus a closer who has been off his game more often than on in recent years, has filled the breach. Here are the combined numbers on the 7 Angels relievers with 20 or more relief appearances this season without making a start (Scott Schoenweis has made 15 starts and 27 relief appearances, with a 5.00 ERA) - Ben Weber, Troy Percival, Al Levine, Dennis Cook, Brendan Donnelly, Lou Pote and Scot Shields (Mike Scioscia has spread out their workloads; none of the 7 has pitched more than 50 times, due also partly to Percival's and Cook's injuries):
4. The Dodgers
Eleventh in the NL in scoring; fourth even in their own division. Their ace starting pitcher reduced to 3-3 with a 4.53 ERA, having started just nine games. Some wonderful starting pitching, led by Odalis Perez, has been a big factor; so has the second-most-effective defense in the NL (see the Baseball Prospectus link above). But the big story has been Eric Gagne, a talented but underachieving starter (in his first two go-rounds) who has set the ninth inning ablaze, saving 47 games with an 8-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio and more than 12 whiffs per 9 innings; Gagne has struck out 98 batters and allowed just 55 baserunners. Combined with two other guys who overcame disaster as starting pitchers, one of them during the Carter Administration (Jesse Orosco and Paul Quantrill) and unheralded if gopher-prone Giovanni Carrara, the Dodgers have improved on what was already a strong bullpen in 2001 to have their best pen since Tommy Lasorda retired. Gagne, Orosco, Quantrill and Carrara have been the only Dodger relievers to appear in 40 or more games (although Guillermo Mota hasn't been terrible in 32 appearances, despite his ugly ERA, and Orosco has tossed just 25 innings in 49 games); here's the combined line for those four:
THEN, there are the underachievers:
1. The Red Sox
I think most of you know this story, which involves the second-biggest shortfall in baseball between the Bosox' Pythagorean expected record and their actual record - an underachievement of 7 games. Art hit on the bullpen's role in this back on August 9.
It's a little hard to separate Boston's main relievers because of the instability in the bullpen; only 4 pitchers have made as many as 25 relief appearances for the Sox this year, and 2 of them (Wakefield and Fossum) have pitched a substantial amount of their innings as starters (Castillo and Arrojo have also split time). That leaves just Ugueth Urbina, whose numbers aren't terrible (5 blown saves in 35 tries), although he's been a bit more hittable than you'd like, and Rich Garces, a mainstay of recent Sox bullpens who imploded this year under the force of his own gravitational pull, being charged with 20 runs in 21.1 innings.
Here are the combined relief numbers for the three relievers (Urbina, Wakefield and Fossum) with 30 appearances, excluding Wakefield's and Fossum's numbers as a starter, followed by the totals for the other 11 pitchers to grace the Boston pen (also as relievers):
As you can see, the good part of the bullpen has been OK - it just doesn't stack up to teams like Minnesota and Anaheim, not to mention Seattle, Oakland and the Yankees. One thing that sticks out here: the Red Sox bullpen has only won 13 games all year. Get ahead early, or it's over. And with guys in the back of the rotation who don't go deep into games (Burkett's averaging just 5.85 IP/start, Castillo 5.63, Wakefield 6.1, Fossum 5.47, Arrojo 4.92), it should come as no surprise that it's been Pedro and Lowe and pray for snow.
2. The Cubs
I said the Red Sox were the second-biggest underachievers this year relative to their runs scored and allowed; the Cubs are worse. The Cubs' offense has been bad, but not this bad - they HAVE managed to score more runs than the Braves, Reds or Dodgers. And despite the recent injuries to Jon Lieber and Mark Prior, they've gotten some surprisingly good starting pitching from those two, Kerry Wood, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano. But the key to last season's 88-win Great Leap Forward was the bullpen under the tutelage of pitching coach Oscar Acosta and anchored by Jeff Fassero, Kyle Farnsworth, Todd Van Poppel and Tom Gordon, who among other things combined to whiff an astounding 343 batters in 276 innings.
This year, Gordon has been hurt and Acosta and Van Poppel have gone on to less distinguished seasons in Texas, leaving four pitchers to anchor the pen - Farnsworth, Fassero, Joe Borowski and Antonio Alfonseca. All four have logged 40 or more appearances without a start, while no other Cubs pitcher has made more than 27 relief appearances. Here are the grim results:
That's right, the GOOD part of the Cubbies' bullpen has been as bad as the BAD part of the Red Sox' bullpen.
3. The Mets
The Mets' bizarre collapse this year -- not a totally unexpected result but shocking in its scope -- has come from every cause you could have dreamed up before the season and then some. The pivotal moment, though, was a blown save by Armando Benitez on a Craig Counsell home run in the first game of a doubleheader with Arizona on August 3, leading to the second of the Mets' record-setting 15-game home losing streak. Between them, Benitez and Scott Strickland have been tagged for 15 home runs in 117.1 IP, an unacceptably high rate for a team's top late-inning relievers, and the great majority of them game-breaking.
Let us speak no more here of the Mets. They have gone on to a better place.
Of course, no theory explains everything, but even the less dramatic cases offer some support. The White Sox have struggled from a myriad of causes, and the loss of confidence in Keith Foulke isn't really at the top of that list, but it has been a factor. The Cardinals, in true LaRussa fashion, have used 6 different relievers with 40 or more games pitched, with varying results. But the triumvirate of closer Jason Isringhausen and setup men Mike Timlin (since traded) and Mike Crudale (ERAs of 2.47, 2.51 and 1.80, respectively) have been devastating. Another partial example is the A's. The red-hot A's, who have exceeded their Pythagorean W-L record by nearly 6 full games this season, the largest margin in baseball. The A's have gotten brilliant setup work from Chad Bradford (a 2.82 ERA, 69 baserunners allowed and just 1 home run in 67 innings) and a solid year from closer Billy Koch (9-2, 37 saves in 43 tries, 2.93 ERA), plus recent additions Ricardo Rincon (acquired the day before the trade deadline, a 2.13 ERA and just 6 hits and 3 walks in 12.2 IP over 16 appearances) and Micah Bowie (called up July 29, 2-0 with a 1.00 ERA in 9 games) have been big factors in the recent hot streak. Arizona has three top relievers with ERAs in the ones and a combined 14-3 record - Byun-Hyung Kim, Mike Koplove and Mike Fetters - although the bullpen's overall numbers are scarred by Eddie Oropesa (30 games, 11.03 ERA) and Bret Prinz (17 games, 10.45 ERA), and it's hard to say that the bullpen has been the key factor in the D-Backs' pitching staff.
In the modern (post-Eckersley) game, a bullpen invariably involves anywhere from 4 to 7 pitchers who are expected to pitch regularly, each with a small role in terms of total innings, but collectively having a large impact on a team's ability to win close games. (Some managers always used these types of committees rather than individuals with huge workloads - Earl Weaver comes to mind, as well as Sparky Anderson in his Reds years and Chuck Tanner, who always went several deep around workhorse Kent Tekulve). There are a few steady setup men out there of the Arthur Rhodes/Jeff Nelson/Mike Jackson variety, but by and large, the individual relievers tend to be erratic from year to year; they are often drawn from the scrap heap; and many managers have to largely rebuild the pen every year. Handling patterns, who has what role and who warms up when can all have a big impact. That's why I regard the bullpen as the critical test of any manager in this day and age, the part that separates the men from the boys.
Bobby Cox is the master, and Tony Muser was the worst at it, becoming the first, then the second manager ever to have a team with more blown saves than saves. (Do you doubt that most of the guys in the Atlanta pen would have ERAs over 5.50 pitching for Muser?) Many managers fall in between. The success of many of his bullpens is a big reason I've been a convert to Bobby Valentine, although this season even that has finally gone sour. The newer managers? Give me Ron Gardenhire, Jim Tracy, and Mike Scioscia. And I haven't seen enough Sox games to connect all the dots, but - for now, I'll pass on Grady Little.