The Bullpen Narrative

The first few days of playoff action have had a little bit of everything. At one point or another, we all likely saw something we had never seen before, and been reminded in some way why we had fallen in love with this game in the first place. Each postseason, a narrative or two seems to emerge – this time around, seemingly every media outlet opines that a team’s bullpen is the primary reason for each playoff team’s success, or lack thereof. This was particularly true during the Orioles-Tigers series, which in truth, did feature one of the most catastrophic pen implosions in recent memory. The narrative tells us that a club must do whatever possible, especially via the trade and free agent markets, to bolster one’s bullpen. In other words, do exactly what the Tigers did to build their still smoldering relief corps.

Building a quality bullpen is important to team success, don’t get me wrong. Reliever performance, however, is one of baseball’s most fickle, unpredictable aspects. Sample sizes are small, and traditional stats like ERA sometimes never recover from a bad outing or two in April. Personnel turnover is much more rapid in the pen compared to the rotation or the starting lineup. The standards used to measure reliever performance are also much different than those for starters.

The major league average K rate has been steadily climbing in recent years, faster for relievers than it has for starters. In 2014, relievers had a 22.2% average K rate, and 8.46 K’s per 9 IP, as compared to 19.4% and 7.36 for starters. Many clubs have several live arms that routinely reach the mid-to-upper 90’s with their fastballs. If you don’t have a big fastball, you need a “hook” to excel out of the pen – either a plus-plus “out” secondary pitch, or an extreme batted-ball tendency, generally either focused upon popups or grounders. If you lack any of these traits, perhaps you can carve out a niche by having a deceptive delivery and being able to routinely retire same-handed batters, particularly if you’re a lefty.

What can we learn about building a bullpen from the eight teams that reached the divisional round? Have these pens gotten too much credit for what has gone on in the playoffs to date? Let’s take a closer look at the composition of those eight pens for some clues.

Gausman D-12-1st 3.67 Sanchez TR-12 2.00
A.Miller TR-14 3.33 Soria TR-14 1.00
Britton D-06-3rd 2.33 Nathan FA-14 1.00
O’Day WV-12 1.00 Chamberlain FA-14 0.33
Hunter TR-11 1.00 Coke TR-10 0.33
Brach TR-14 0.67

For each club, each reliever used through Sunday night’s game is listed, along with his series innings pitched total and the manner in which he was originally acquired by his current club.

This series is the likely germination point of the bullpen narrative, and for pretty good reason. The Tigers’ pen poured fuel on the eight-run 8th inning rally that put away – but did not lose – Game 1, and let a three-run lead get away in the 8th inning of Game 2. While the Tigers’ pen posted a lovely 17.34 ERA – not to mention the inherited runners they allowed to score – in 4 2/3 innings, the Orioles’ pen posted a 2.25 ERA in 12 frames. The innings pitched totals, when you think about it, are just as instructive as the runs allowed – Brad Ausmus was loath to go to his pen, while Buck Showalter was all too willing to do so.

Interestingly, arguably the most effective member of either team’s pen during this series was a regular season starter – Anibal Sanchez for the Tigers, and Kevin Gausman for the Orioles. Both led their respective clubs in relief innings, Sanchez was the Tigers’ only Game 1 or 2 reliever who gave them a chance – might Game 2 have turned out differently if he remained in the game? – and Gausman’s Game 2 long-relief performance made possible their late-inning heroics. I did qualify myself by stating “arguably” the most effective, as Andrew Miller was pretty untouchable in both of his appearances.

The Tigers built this bullpen the way the narrative suggests one should do – via the high-end free agent (Joe Nathan) and trade (Joakim Soria) markets. In addition, the Tigers have been much more prone to spending early-round draft picks on college relievers than most clubs – Cody Satterwhite, Ryan Perry and Cory Knebel (sent to Texas as the second piece in the Soria deal) are just a few examples. The major league track record of such pitchers are quite poor – as we shall see, however, high-end college starters who move to the pen by the time they reach the major leagues are a different story.

The composition of the Oriole pen is quite different. There is the homegrown draftee – Zack Britton – who spent most of 2013 in the minor leagues and was way down on their depth chart as recently as this spring training. There is the waiver claim – Darren O’Day – upon whom the Orioles wisely pounced at about the only moment during the last few seasons when he would possibly become freely available. There’s the buy-low bounceback trade acquisition – Tommy Hunter – who blossomed alongside Chris Davis in Baltimore when both were acquired from the Rangers for Koji Uehara at the deadline in 2011. Then there’s Miller. The O’s are on the other side of the deadline deal this time, and in a year or two, we might be reading about how the Red Sox stole a stud starter in Eduardo Rodriguez in exchange for Miller. If the O’s win, and Miller is in the middle of it, their fans rightly won’t care. Flags fly forever.

Davis TR-13 3.33 Street TR-14 3.00
Holland D-07-10th 3.00 Rasmus TR-13 2.67
Finnegan D-14-1st 1.67 Smith FA-14 2.00
Frasor TR-14 1.33 Jepsen DR-02-2nd 2.00
Herrera INTL-06 1.00 Grilli TR-14 2.00
Duffy D-07-3rd 1.00 Salas TR-14 1.33
Collins TR-10 0.67 Santiago TR-14 1.33
Pestano TR-14 1.00
Morin DR-12-13th 1.00

Talk about different bullpen-building strategies. The Royals have largely done it from within – four of their ALDS relievers were homegrown, three via the draft (Greg Holland, Brandon Finnegan and Danny Duffy), one an international signing (Kelvin Herrera). Finnegan was drafted just this June, but was not a reliever in college. He was one of the premier college starters, used to going around the order three or four times. Only going around once as a pro, his stuff is playing way up. His future still could be in the rotation, but the Royals have received massive early ROI out of the pen.

Wade Davis has been the Royals’ key pen trade acquisition, in the oft-panned Wil Myers deal. Davis had been somewhat disappointing as a starter at the major league level, but like Finnegan, his stuff is playing way up out of the pen. He was primarily a starter for the Royals as recently as 2013, when he struck out five more batters than he did this season – in 63 more innings.

Taking a closer look at the Angels, the club with the AL’s best record this season, reveals some startling flaws. One of them is the fact that their bullpen logged the most innings (540) in the AL this season. That’s pretty stunning when you think about it. So is the fact that five of the relievers they used in the ALDS were 2014 trade acquisitions. They sold the farm – though it admittedly wasn’t much of a farm – for 29 1/3 innings of Huston Street, and here we are. (The club does hold an affordable option on Street for 2015, so all is not completely lost.) Like the Tigers, the Angels’ pen is expensive, with Street, Joe Smith and Jason Grilli alone costing them $16.6M in 2014. The young, homegrown pieces present in say, the Royals pen, are not in the pipeline here. Their very best candidate, R.J. Alvarez, was part of the package dealt for Street.

Petit MINFA-12 6.00 Stammen DR-05-12th 4.00
Strickland WV-13 2.00 Blevins TR-14 2.00
Romo DR-05-28th 2.00 Thornton WV-14 2.00
Casilla MINFA-10 2.00 Clippard TR-08 2.00
Lopez TR-10 1.33 Roark TR-10 2.00
Affeldt FA-09 1.33 Soriano FA-13 1.00
Machi MINFA-11 0.33 Storen DR-09-1st 0.33
Barrett DR-10-9th 0.00

Ah, the Giants, those kings of October. Look how they’ve built their pen – through the relatively boring minor league free agency process. When I was in the Mariner front office, this process was part of my area of responsibility. We twice signed Yusmeiro Petit as a minor league free agent. He was late to camp once (with visa issues), and let’s just say, he didn’t pass the eye test. Unfortunately, he was quickly assigned to minor league camp both years. Thing is, he gets people out. The Giants obviously are focused on the right things, as the eye test isn’t kind to Santiago Casilla or Jean Machi, either. A 28th round pick – Sergio Romo – has anchored their pen for years, and now a waiver claim – Hunter Strickland – is his likely heir apparent. This low-risk method of building a bullpen has allowed the Giants to direct their assets toward their rotation and lineup, where year-to-year performance is much more predictable.

The Nats have a little bit of everything in their pen. Their acquisition of Tyler Clippard from the Yankees in exchange for Jonathan Albaladejo in 2008 belongs in the Bullpen Building Hall of Fame. On the other hand, they paid top dollar in the free agent market for Rafael Soriano, and spent a first round pick on college reliever Drew Storen. Even the waiver claim designation for their acquisition of Matt Thornton is a little misleading – this was a trade waiver situation in which the Yankees were happy to clear his 2015 $3.5M annual salary.

Gonzales DR-13-1st 2.00 League TR-12 1.33
Neshek MINFA-14 1.67 Jansen INTL-04 1.00
Martinez INTL-10 1.33 Baez INTL-07 0.67
Rosenthal DR-09-21st 1.00 Elbert DR-04-1st 0.67
Maness DR-11-11th 0.67 Howell FA-13 0.67
Freeman DR-08-32nd 0.00
Choate FA-13 0.00

The Cards are another club with their own, uniquely efficient method of bullpen-building. They use the draft, particularly the later rounds, to great effect. Five, count ’em five, of their Game 1 and 2 NLDS relievers earn approximately the major league minimum salary. Four (Marco Gonzales, Trevor Rosenthal, Seth Maness and Sam Freeman) were draft picks, while Carlos Martinez was an international amateur signing. Only Gonzales was selected before the 10th round – like Michael Wacha before him, Gonzales is a first round, high-end onetime and future starter who reached the majors within a year of signing his first professional contract. They complemented their homegrown group with the minor league free agent signing of the year in Pat Neshek.

The Dodgers’ method of pen-building is much less efficient. They trade for “proven” non-elite closers (Brandon League), and pay middle relievers for what they’ve done rather than what they’re going to do (J.P. Howell). And these are the “success” stories – others like Brian Wilson and Chris Perez made real dollars this year to not pitch in the post-season, and they spent a 2012 2nd-round draft pick on college reliever Paco Rodriguez, who raced to the big leagues, only to spend much of this season at Triple-A Albuquerque. They do have the best closer of the eight Divisional Series clubs in Kenley Jansen, who was signed as an international amateur in 2004 – as a catcher. Utilizing the occasional conversion guy – Joe Nathan was drafted by the Giants as a shortstop – is yet another way of efficiently cobbling together a bullpen.

So what have we learned? Well, bullpens are important, but let’s not get carried away here. The Orioles’ bullpen advantage certainly helped them defeat the Tigers, but their clear advantages in defense, athleticism and position player depth were also huge. The Tigers apparently do not have a center fielder. The Royals’ pen was great, but their defense was greater, and their starting pitching depth superior. C.J. Wilson says hi – and bye. The Nats pen basically matched the Giants pitch for pitch in the first two games, and the vast majority of the Cards’ damage in Game 1 was done against Clayton Kershaw, which can’t be held against the Dodger pen.

It does appear clear, however, that unless you have a chance to get one of the game’s premier closers at the very apex of his career, you should not sink big money or assets into the free agent and trade markets when assembling your bullpen. Acquire accomplished starting pitchers or potential conversion candidates in the late rounds of the draft or the international amateur market, and do it each and every year to create organizational depth. Scour the minor league free agent lists and waiver wire for sleeper candidates. Convert “failed” starters into relievers, narrow their repertoires, and let them pin their ears back and fire away. Major and minor league pitching coaches are key – sometimes the slightest tweak can turn an underachiever into the latest John Holdzkom-esque success story. The Mariners had the best relief ERA in baseball this year, with many of the members of its pen pitching at the upper end of their projections – pitching coach Rick Waits likely had a great deal to do with this.

Focus your dollars and assets on areas where proven performance is easier to identify, but harder to find. Intelligent, efficient implementation of a sound bullpen-building strategy can allow even the largest of large market clubs the additional flexibility to go out and add that piece that can put you over the top. For a smaller market club, such an approach is a necessity to just get your foot in the door.

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Jim S.
Jim S.

Very nice job.