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July 2, 2004

Banking on the Bullpen

How Much Do a Starter's Numbers Depend on His Relievers?

by Michael Wolverton

Kyle Lohse got no help last Sunday. The Minnesota starter was fairly effective in his outing against the Brewers, surrendering three runs through 6 2/3 innings, and leaving a bases-loaded, two-out situation for Aaron Fultz to deal with. If Fultz could retire Brady Clark, Lohse would have a Quality Start on his ledger, and the Twins would still be in the game. Instead, Fultz and successor Joe Roa surrendered a single and two walks, the game got out of hand, and Lohse was blamed for three extra runs that he only played a small part in allowing.

A few months ago, I talked about one side of this story--measuring how well relievers handle their inherited runners. But what about the starters? How much can bullpen support distort their numbers during the course of a season or a career? One way of measuring this is to compare the expected outcome of those inherited runners to the actual outcome. For example, those three runners Lohse left for his relievers with two outs would be expected to score 0.7 runs on average. That's based on this year's league scoring numbers, as well as the impact the Metrodome has on scoring. Since all three runners actually scored, Lohse's relievers cost him 2.3 runs for that particular outing. Add those numbers up for a starter, and you have a measure of the season- or career-long bullpen support he received.

We've tracked bullpen support of starting pitchers in our Support-Neutral pitching stats reports over the years. We recently added historical SNWL reports going back to 1963, which you can find on our statistics page. The historical numbers are made possible by the amazing folks at Retrosheet, who have painstakingly reconstructed play-by-play accounts of every game in the NL going back to 1969, and in the AL going back to 1965 (plus 1963). We're still missing the play-by-play for a couple of seasons in the post-Retrosheet years, but the data we have gives us a nearly-complete picture of starters' bullpen support over the past three-plus decades.

Here are the 10 starters most victimized by their bullpens over the course of a season during the Retrosheet years. The numbers reflect relief support in starts only.


                                   Ex.  Act.   Runs
Pitcher         Team   Year  Rnrs  IR    IR    Saved
----------------------------------------------------
Larry Gura       KCR   1983   28   9.9   20   -10.1
Don Wilson       HOU   1969   32   9.4   19    -9.7
Len Barker     CLE/ATL 1983   26  10.4   20    -9.6
Gene Brabender   MIL   1970   27   8.7   18    -9.3
Rick Sutcliffe   BAL   1992   39  12.3   21    -8.7
Tim Conroy       OAK   1983   16   6.6   15    -8.4
Jose Jimenez     STL   1999   20   7.1   15    -7.9
Steve Arlin      SDP   1971   26   9.3   17    -7.7
Don Aase         CAL   1978   29  11.3   19    -7.7
Bob Knepper      HOU   1988   18   6.5   14    -7.5

The columns in the table are easy to understand through an example. Take Larry Gura's 1983. Gura turned over 28 runners to his relievers that season. From the bases those runners occupied and the number of outs there were at the time, you'd expect 9.9 of them to score, if he had gotten average relief support. Gura's relievers actually allowed 20 of them to score, meaning poor relief work cost him an extra 10.1 runs he didn't deserve.

Gura's support that season was awful, but Tim Conroy's support that same season was even more extraordinary. Conroy's relievers manage to strand just one of the 16 runners he turned over in 1983. That puts him in the top 10 of runs cost despite his having pitched only 104.2 innings as a starter that year.

The impact of that kind of extreme poor relief support is probably easier to see if we look at the impact on those pitchers' Run Averages. Here the "Fair RA" is calculated by subtracting the runs the reliever cost from the starters' ledgers.


                              Act.    Fair
Pitcher         Team   Year    RA      RA
------------------------------------------
Larry Gura       KCR   1983   5.56    5.09
Don Wilson       HOU   1969   4.80    4.41
Len Barker     CLE/ATL 1983   5.37    4.90
Gene Brabender   MIL   1970   6.44    5.73
Rick Sutcliffe   BAL   1992   4.66    4.33
Tim Conroy       OAK   1983   5.33    4.61
Jose Jimenez     STL   1999   6.15    5.71
Steve Arlin      SDP   1971   4.58    4.25
Don Aase         CAL   1978   4.43    4.05
Bob Knepper      HOU   1988   3.60    3.21

In Gura's case, poor reliever support inflated his RA by almost a half a run (and of course had roughly the same effect on his ERA). While you don't often see that level of distortion in a starter's RA, you do typically see several starters every year who have their RAs inflated or deflated by a quarter of a run or so. While that doesn't render traditional pitcher evaluation metrics completely meaningless, it's enough of a distortion to make a noticeable difference for some seasons.

And here's the other side of the support spectrum--starters whose relievers saved them the most runs:


                                   Ex.  Act.   Runs
Pitcher         Team   Year  Rnrs  IR    IR    Saved
----------------------------------------------------
Mudcat Grant     MIN   1966   29  12.3    4     8.3
Mudcat Grant     MIN   1965   30  11.7    4     7.7
Phil Niekro      ATL   1983   31  11.4    4     7.4
Jim Kaat         MIN   1965   43  14.8    8     6.8
Jerry Reuss      HOU   1973   37  14.8    8     6.8
Rich Hand        TEX   1972   28  11.7    5     6.7
Ray Burris       CHC   1976   27  13.7    7     6.7
Reggie Cleveland BOS   1977   22   9.7    3     6.7
Jeff Juden     MON/CLE 1997   21   7.6    1     6.6
Kurt Kepshire    STL   1985   44  19.6   13     6.6

And the effect on RAs for the same pitchers:


                              Act.    Fair
Pitcher         Team   Year    RA      RA
------------------------------------------
Mudcat Grant     MIN   1966   3.76    4.06
Mudcat Grant     MIN   1965   3.46    3.72
Phil Niekro      ATL   1983   4.19    4.53
Jim Kaat         MIN   1965   4.15    4.38
Jerry Reuss      HOU   1973   3.83    4.06
Rich Hand        TEX   1972   3.59    3.95
Ray Burris       CHC   1976   3.72    3.96
Reggie Cleveland BOS   1977   4.30    4.65
Jeff Juden     MON/CLE 1997   4.68    5.06
Kurt Kepshire    STL   1985   5.14    5.55

The mid-60s Twins had a spectacular bullpen, led by Al Worthington, one of the best relievers of the day. That bullpen accounts for three of the top four best-supported starter seasons, including the top two from Mudcat Grant. As before, we see RAs distorted--this time in the other direction--by a quarter to half of a run.

And how much difference can good or bad relief support make over the course of a career? As you'd expect, that support often tends to even out over a number of years. But there are plenty of pitchers whose numbers suffered or benefited from the bullpen to a noticeable degree over the course of their careers. First, the pitchers who suffered:


                       Ex.   Act.  Runs
Pitcher         Rnrs   IR     IR   Saved
----------------------------------------
Rudy May         315  108.2  139   -30.8
Jose DeLeon      206   75.5   95   -19.5
Fritz Peterson   217   74.8   94   -19.2
George Brunet    126   45.6   64   -18.4
Gene Brabender    75   26.6   44   -17.4
Tom Glavine      245   84.8  101   -16.2
Rick Sutcliffe   265   89.9  106   -16.1
Milt Wilcox      206   74.1   90   -15.9
Sam McDowell     194   63.7   79   -15.3
Russ Ortiz       138   45.7   61   -15.3

Rudy May is in a class by himself when it comes to bad bullpen support, but a much more compelling sad sack story comes from Jose DeLeon. Not only was DeLeon one of the unluckiest pitchers in history when it comes to W/L record--see, for example, his 1984, 1985, and 1990--his relievers added insult to injury by giving him historically bad bullpen support as well. (Admittedly, the latter played a role in the former, but it wasn't all of it.) Tom Glavine is the sixth worst-supported starter in recent times, a fact that gives his already strong Hall of Fame case a small extra boost.

Here are the best-supported starters in recent years:


                       Ex.   Act.  Runs
Pitcher         Rnrs   IR     IR   Saved
----------------------------------------
Phil Niekro      366  139.6  112    27.6
Mudcat Grant     103   39.6   18    21.6
Jim Perry        274   97.2   77    20.2
Jim Kaat         401  148.6  129    19.6
Steve Sparks     105   36.3   19    17.3
Danny Jackson    182   69.7   53    16.7
Jeff Fassero      96   39.9   24    15.9
Fergie Jenkins   258  101.3   86    15.3
Rick Reuschel    311  118.6  104    14.6
Erik Hanson      119   43.6   29    14.6

On balance, this is a slightly better group of pitchers than the worst-supported list, and that makes sense. Good starters go deeper in games than bad starters, and they tend to leave with leads more often. So it stands to reason that they would be succeeded by better relievers than bad starters. That's obviously not the only determiner of the quality of bullpen support--if it was, you wouldn't see Glavine on the other list--but it is something to consider.

Reliever support isn't a huge effect, but it does make a difference for some pitchers, and it's worth correcting for if you have the right data and the right model. It may be a small consolation to Kyle Lohse, but there are a few of us who don't blame him for pitches that were thrown while he was icing his shoulder.

Related Content:  Relievers,  Starters,  The Who,  Rick Sutcliffe

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