The Angels Bullpen Is a Minor Miracle

The Angels outlasted the Yankees Tuesday night, walking off 3-2 in the bottom of the 11th. As a result, the Angels moved to 34-34, a record which is the very definition of neither good nor bad. Some people would argue that playing .500 baseball is actually the worst possible path, but the Angels should be counting their blessings. They’re within easy striking distance of a wild-card spot, and, oh, by the way, they’ve won more games than they’ve lost since losing Mike Trout.

It doesn’t hurt that Eric Young has *played like* Mike Trout. That’s just one of those things. There is no explanation. But let’s think about where the Angels are. Before the year, I thought the Angels’ chances of success would come down to Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker, and Tyler Skaggs. They were projected for a combined 8.1 WAR. They’ve actually combined for a total of 1.0. So, that’s a bad look, and the rotation has had its predictable problems. What’s really astonishing to me, though, is the bullpen. Like the rotation, the bullpen has been made worse by injury. Unlike the rotation, the bullpen has still found a way.

This isn’t how this was supposed to go. The bullpen was supposed to be the liability, even when intact. A patchwork assortment of journeymen has helped to keep the Angels afloat.

When we ran the positional power rankings in March, the Angels bullpen ranked 24th. Nobody thought it was going to be good, and the projections put it at 2.3 WAR. Of that total, 2.1 WAR were projected to come from Cam Bedrosian, Andrew Bailey, and Mike Morin.

Those three pitchers have so far combined for 0.6 WAR, over just 19.1 innings. Throw in Huston Street, and they’ve still thrown just a combined…19.1 innings. Bedrosian is on the disabled list. Bailey is on the disabled list. Street is on the disabled list. But the Angels bullpen has already racked up 3.1 WAR, good for seventh in all of baseball. The Angels, for comparison, are 0.2 points ahead of the Rockies, and 0.6 points ahead of the Cubs. A bad bullpen has been mostly without its best relievers, yet it’s been a good bullpen. Okay. I don’t know. The numbers are what they are, and I’m sure there’s a lesson in this.

Frequently, we write articles about a player or team that has been the best at something. The Angels have not had the best bullpen. Nobody would argue that the Angels have had the best bullpen. The point is that it’s been more good than bad, and the other point is that it wasn’t supposed to go like this. That’s bullpens for you. I decided to look at every team’s top five relievers, by average leverage index when they’ve come in to pitch. I set a minimum of 10 innings thrown so I didn’t get random mistakes or call-ups. This way, I’m not crediting or penalizing anyone for the performance of low-leverage types. It’s not perfect, but it’s functional. For the Angels, this isolated Blake Parker, Yusmeiro Petit, Bud Norris, Jose Alvarez, and David Hernandez. Just for comparison, for the Astros, this isolated Chris Devenski, Will Harris, Ken Giles, Luke Gregerson, and James Hoyt.

Right. So, here’s how all the bullpens rank in strikeout minus walk rate:

The Angels are clearly highlighted, in eighth place. Would you believe that they’re tied with the Indians? Again, a team doesn’t have to be No. 1 to be noteworthy. It’s all about the difference between performance and expectations. Anyhow, that’s just one measure. Why not look at another? You know about ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP-, I’m sure. In this plot, I’ve simply taken the average of those three stats, to form a hybrid, combination stat.

The Angels are in ninth, which, obviously, places them within the top 10. We’ve talked about how the Astros bullpen is enviably deep, and, hey, it is. The Astros here occupy the spot right after the Angels. I’m not saying this is necessarily all that predictive, but what’s already happened is remarkable, because it wasn’t supposed to be like this, not even a little bit.

Here are some stat rankings:

  • K-BB%: 8th
  • ERA-: 10th
  • FIP-: 6th
  • xFIP-: 10th
  • Average: 9th

Here are the Angels’ numbers, with the MLB averages in parentheses:

  • K-BB: 22% (17%)
  • ERA-: 70 (80)
  • FIP-: 67 (83)
  • xFIP-: 80 (90)
  • Average: 72 (84)

Parker, Petit, Norris, Alvarez, Hernandez. Read those names again. Read those names as many times as you need to in order to understand what the Angels have been working with. Bud Norris — literally Bud Norris — has been closing. Only Alvarez pitched with the Angels in 2016. He was acquired earlier in a minor trade. Parker was a waiver claim, and the Angels even designated him for assignment in January. Petit was signed to a minor-league contract in February. Norris was signed to a minor-league contract in January. Hernandez was signed by another team to a minor-league contract in February, and the Angels acquired him in exchange for a player to be named later, or cash. Nobody really cost anything. All these players would’ve been pretty easy to get. Parker you might remember in particular for bouncing around. Just since last August, he’s been employed by the Mariners, Yankees, Brewers, and Angels. He was a 41st man for a 40-man roster. Parker has struck out 45 hitters in 30 innings.

Yes, Parker has baseball’s 12th-highest strikeout rate. He ranks above Wade Davis, Chris Devenski, and David Robertson. Petit has increased his strikeout rate by 10 percentage points. Norris has increased his strikeout rate by 10 percentage points, owing to a new and excellent cutter. Hernandez has maintained his strikeouts while cutting his walk rate in half. And while Alvarez has been the least remarkable of the group, he’s the only lefty, and he’s held lefties to a .184 OBP. Granted, he’s also allowed them to hit four home runs, but, it’s at least a mixed bag.

The Angels have made it work. Their bullpen is full of journeymen having surprising success. Some of that could be sustainable, and some of that could regress, but there’s further good news: Bedrosian is working back from a groin injury. He’s their best reliever out of anyone. And the Angels have more recently welcomed Keynan Middleton, an actual Angels prospect who’s allowed a contact rate of just 62% over 17 big-league innings. Bedrosian is supposed to be good. Middleton was billed as a potential difference-maker. They could and should bolster the group from here on out, protecting against too much of a letdown.

But it shouldn’t be lost what the Angels have done. The easy lesson is that you shouldn’t invest too many resources in building a bullpen. That’s not entirely true, and it’s not like relievers are actually unpredictable. Most of the time, a bullpen that projects as poorly as the Angels’ did will be a pretty bad bullpen. Yet, it might be that there’s the slimmest difference between an effective reliever and an ineffective reliever, so players can more easily slide from the latter group to the former. The Angels acquired a pile of lemons, and they’ve turned it into tasty juice. I don’t know if the Angels are actually going to go anywhere, but they can thank the bullpen for even still having the chance.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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The Ghost of Stephen Drews Bat
6 years ago

A non-Trout Angels piece. Never thought I’d see the day.