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September 9, 2010
Several months ago, Tommy Bennett penned a paean to the economy and efficiency of the Padres’ bullpen. In retrospect, his choice of topic seems particularly prescient, given that the Padres had played all of three games by the time his article appeared. 135 games later, San Diego’s relief unit has outperformed even Tommy’s lofty expectations, supplying league-best performance at a fraction of the costs associated with other teams’ firemen. Despite their recent 10-game losing streak, the Padres sport a 78-59 record and the best run differential in the National League, and much of the credit for their success must go to the relatively unheralded men who compose their relief corps.
The Padres’ offense, while not quite the utterly anemic attack that Petco Park makes it appear, still rates as something less than a strength: the team’s .258 TAv ranks 13th in the NL. San Diego’s .02 PADE qualifies as an asset, but not a spectacular one, ranking fifth in the NL, and while the Friars have performed well on the basepaths, their speed hasn’t been a major factor behind their success.
Pitching has been the story of San Diego’s season, and while the Padres’ starting rotation probably deserves its own article, the pen has excelled in an even more noteworthy manner. With the exception of Mat Latos, San Diego’s starters are a contact-oriented bunch, dependent to a greater degree on their defense and home park. In contrast, the Padres’ bullpen’s approach would play anywhere. No matter what metric you enlist to assess their performance, Padres short men have offered greater relief than the competition: they lead the league—in most cases, by fairly wide margins—in ERA (2.85), FRA (3.54), WXRL (14.3—the eighth-highest mark through September 7 since 1996), and ARP (78.5). In addition, to appropriate Preparation H’s original slogan, the Padres’ pen has been effective even in cases of long standing, racking up the fourth-most innings of any relief unit.
As Joe Posnanski pointed out recently, exceptional relief seasons often aren’t all that, well, exceptional. The small sample sizes associated with relief work allow a number of pitchers to finish their seasons with statistics that might appear historic at first glance, but seem less impressive once considered in context. However, in San Diego’s case, we’re not talking about one or two relievers having standout years; more or less every pitcher who’s seen significant work out of San Diego’s pen this season has been extremely effective.
Consider that the active Padres reliever with the lowest seasonal leverage score (minimum 15 IP division), Joe Thatcher, sports a 1.39 ERA. The next-lowest has recorded a 11.0 K/BB ratio, and the lowest after that boasts a 12.5 K/9. Bud Black would be hard pressed to go wrong with options like those. Even the Padres’ mop-up innings have been a pleasure to watch; a single team with a bullpen this deep simply can’t play enough high-leverage innings to supply a suitable number to each deserving hurler.
Let’s take a look at the cast of characters who’ve made this bullpen miracle come true (min. 15 IP, and excluding Sean Gallagher, who washed out of the San Diego Finishing School for Relievers in July and has since fared even worse in Pittsburgh):
Clearly, this pen isn’t lucking its way into league-leading marks in every major relief category; those SIERAs tell the tale of a unit with the peripherals to back up its production thus far. The Padres’ 2.96 SIERA in relief is nearly half a run lower than that of second-ranked Atlanta (3.40). Of course, the group’s performance is only part of the story; perhaps the more compelling subplot is its price tag. The zeros to the left of the decimal points in most of those relievers’ salaries would be a welcome sight to any owner or GM.
According to Tommy’s early-season arithmetic, only the Marlins and Athletics have devoted fewer funds to their bullpens this season, with the Mariners spending in the same range—and those clubs aren’t experiencing nearly the same level of success. By my count, 11 teams (12, if you include Brian Wilson’s extension through 2012) are paying their closers alone figures within half a million dollars of the Padres’ entire bullpen payroll, if not far greater sums. Mariano Rivera may be the game’s highest-paid relief pitcher for a reason, but it’s unlikely that even the Yankees would have chosen to pay him over 200 percent of the money for fewer than 13 percent of the innings accumulated by the San Diego octet this season, if the AL East leaders could have managed to assemble the more economical group themselves.
That brings us to what might be the most interesting question arising out of the Padres’ ability to field MLB’s best bullpen on a budget: Where did these guys come from?
“Fungible” and “reliever” are two words that have gone together in many an article at BP. Most front offices (with the possible exception of the ones in which Ed Wade has hung his hat) at least pay lip service to the notion that relievers, like your flaky ex-girlfriend, are undependable, prone to wild fluctuations in performance, and unworthy of serious commitment. The Padres may talk the same talk, but they put their major league-minimum salary where their mouth is.
Not one member of the Padres’ inexpensive Gang of Eight was acquired as a professional free agent; each was drafted, signed as an amateur, or plucked from another organization. In three of the trades to which the table above alludes, the Padres shipped an older reliever with more service time out of town, and acquired a cheaper, more effective replacement to ease the pain of his passage. In doing so, the Padres either pulled the wool over their trade partner’s eyes, or espied quality where other teams didn’t. Most of these relievers didn’t show their first hints of effectiveness in a Padres uniform; their skills were present in some form while still with their old organizations, waiting to be recognized and allowed to blossom at the highest level.
Heath Bell, perhaps the poster boy for this approach to bullpen talent acquisition, proved effective for the Mets in limited duty in 2004, but seemed to falter in 2005 in 2006; in actuality, much of that apparent decline stemmed from inflated BABIPs, which haven’t been repeated since the Padres acquired him and Royce Ring in exchange for the undistinguished duo of Jon Adkins and Ben Johnson, the two of whom accounted for one inning pitched and 30 plate appearances in New York, respectively.
Luke Gregerson had showcased his abilities at Double-A and below before the Padres selected him as the player to be named in the Khalil Greene trade. Thatcher was as effective in the minors for Milwaukee as he has been in the majors for San Diego, but his old organization was seduced by the allure of Scott Linebrink (who was himself an earlier, inexpensive, and ultimately disposable waiver find for San Diego). Mujica has seemed close to putting it together for some time; I mentioned him as a possible source of quality innings in my first article for BP (along with plenty of other candidates who have yet to pan out).
Not all of the Padres’ success can be attributed to trusting the stats, which should reassure those of you who enjoy a side of tacos with their beer. Ryan Webb is a converted starter (which speaks to what Rob Neyer wrote recently about the plethora of potential MLB-caliber bullpen arms currently laboring as starters in minor league obscurity), and Frieri had little experience when he was signed out of Colombia at age 17. Mike Adams showed promise at various points before breaking through in 2008, but command issues and inconsistent mechanics held him back in the minors. He’s done better in San Diego than he did at Triple-A, and Padres scouts deserve credit for spotting a late bloomer where others might have seen a lost cause.
Kevin Towers cultivated a well-deserved reputation as a bullpen whisperer while still in San Diego, and the fruits of his labor have outlasted his tenure as GM. His replacement, Jed Hoyer, hasn’t yet had time to demonstrate the same ability to conjure relief talent through unorthodox avenues, but to his credit, he hasn’t tampered with the bounty left to him by his predecessor, and as a result, his charges have exceeded expectations. For a team of limited means like the Padres, spending wisely may be the only way to win; by avoiding commitments in the bullpen, they’ve freed themselves to direct their dollars to sectors more ripe for investment, such as the amateur draft.
So is there an easily followed blueprint for regrowing the Padres’ inexpensive octopus of awesome in another team’s tank? Of course, in bullpen assembly, as in all things, a little luck often goes a long way, but Branch Rickey’s old saw certainly applies in the Padres’ case; the team’s relief results are largely the product of a sound process. Scouts might be as difficult to evaluate as young pitchers, so assembling a group of baseball men capable of spotting diamonds in the rough with their bare eyes could prove as tough a task as fabricating a league-leading bullpen for $7 million or less. However, while the scouting of scouts may be an art in itself, insightful analysis of minor-league statistics can yield both immediate and lasting results. Trusting an unproven arm over one attached to a major-league veteran takes guts, but the potential payoff is on display for all to see this season in San Diego.