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May 12, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Bleeding Bullpens

by Jay Jaffe

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In the wide world of Baseball Prospectus readers and writers, I'm fairly certain that nobody looks at our win expectancy-based team pitching stats (SNLVAR and WXRL) more often than I do. For some reason, we still don't have pre-programmed team pages for those the way we do for Defensive Efficiency or the Team Baserunning pages (a Johnny-come-lately on our Sortable Stats page), but I've got a customized page bookmarked, and I reference it dozens of times per week in the Hit List. Getting a picture of which end of the staff is shining and which might be failing to hold up its end of the deal always feels like a fairly critical piece of information to analyze, even this early in the season when a few bad outings can have a disproportionate effect.

On that note, in this week's installment of "Pair Up in Threes," we turn our attention to a trio of dysfunctional bullpens, all of them on teams that were expected to contend and coincidentally all in the American League. While the sample sizes for the individual pitchers are small, the team-wide trends are unmistakable—these clubs are in trouble if something doesn't change soon. All stats through Sunday.

The Yankees Bullpen
WXRL (MLB Rank): 0.547 (20th)
Fair Run Average (MLB Rank): 6.99 (28th)

The Setup: The Yankees missed the postseason for the first time in the wild-card era last year, and while new manager Joe Girardi drew heat for some of his playing time decisions, one area where his performance surprised people was in handling his bullpen. Aside from Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain, who sandwiched two stints of relief around a dozen starts and four weeks on the shelf due to a shoulder injury, the cast was largely unheralded, but the unit nonetheless finished second in the AL in WXRL, behind only the Rays. At the age of 38, Rivera had an extraordinarily good season even for a future Hall of Famer, saving 39 games with a 1.40 ERA (both figures his best since 2005) and leading the league with 6.174 WXRL. Most impressively, he posted a jaw-dropping 12.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 70 2/3 innings (77 K, six BB), the third-best ratio of any pitcher to toss at least 50 innings in a season since 1901.

Among the middle and set-up relievers, four finished in the league's top 50 in WXRL (Chamberlain, Kyle Farnsworth, Brian Bruney, and Jose Veras) and three more the top 75 (Phil Coke, David Robertson, and Damaso Marte), but what's particularly telling in retrospect is that only one of those seven, Veras, actually reached 50 innings of relief work, and that the only other reliever to top 50, Edwar Ramirez, finished an unimpressive eighth on the staff at 0.282 WXRL. Three relievers of varying effectiveness in the 40-50 inning range, Farnsworth, LaTroy Hawkins, and Ross Ohlendorf, were all traded at midseason. Bruney threw just 32 1/3 innings of relief but was the third most effective reliever on a per-inning basis, as he missed over half the season with a foot injury.

With perhaps too much confidence in last year's showing and a farm system full of worthwhile upper-level pitching prospects, the Yankees spent little money on their bullpen this winter. Of the $441 million in contract commitments, Marte's three-year, $12 million deal was the only guaranteed expenditure on the bullpen.

The Fall: The Yankees' staff as a whole is allowing an MLB-worst 6.23 runs per game, and while the rotation has had its problems—particularly with Chien-Ming Wang—the bullpen has been even worse. Injuries have been a major problem, as Bruney and Marte, expected to be Rivera's top set-up men, are both on the DL, the former with a strained flexor mass, the latter with shoulder tendonitis. Worse, Rivera has been battling arm-strength issues and experiencing discomfort in his surgically repaired shoulder. While his 18/1 K/BB ratio is impeccable, he's yielded four homers in his past six outings, as many as he allowed in 2007 or 2008, and more than he yielded in eight other seasons; last week he surrendered back-to-back shots for the first time in 863 career games.

Indeed, homers have been the staff's downfall; their 2.0 HR/9 rate is dead stinking last in the majors. The new Yankee Stadium, where an MLB-high 3.62 homers per game are flying out of the park, is a particularly poor match for a corps whose holdovers aside from Rivera are decidedly fly ball-oriented:


Pitcher                  IP     WXRL    FRA      GB%
Jonathan Albaladejo    16.0   -0.046    5.62   53.7%
Edwar Ramirez          15.0    0.193    6.22   37.5%
Jose Veras             15.0   -0.209    6.24   34.1%
Phil Coke              13.2   -0.021    4.19   33.3%
Mariano Rivera         12.1    0.652    4.73   41.2%
Brian Bruney            8.0    0.611    1.88   40.0%
Damaso Marte            5.1   -0.099   17.17   35.0%
David Robertson         4.2   -0.044    7.42   36.4%

With their primary trio failing to fire on all cylinders, the less experienced members have been called upon to shoulder a larger workload, and in doing so, they've looked like small-sample flashes in the pan whose 2008 performances were flukes. Veras and Ramirez have combined to walk 21 hitters in 30 innings, and the latter has yielded five homers.

The Fix? Predictably, the bullpen's disarray has renewed calls to move Chamberlain back to the set-up role in which he flourished in 2007 and early 2008, particularly given his early struggles as a starter and the recent return of Phil Hughes. But with Chamberlain heating up—23/7 K/BB in 18 2/3 innings over his last three starts, as opposed to 11/10 in 16 innings over his first three—and Hughes getting cuffed in two of his three starts, the Yankees need for a Jobaful rotation is clear; he's third on the team in SNLVAR, and tops among the starters in strikeout rate.

That still leaves the team muddling through without Bruney and Marte, neither of whom is likely to be back much before the end of the month, if then. Power arm Mark Melancon debuted a few weeks ago, and he showed good stuff in a couple of outings while failing to find the plate in two others; he was sent back down to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to make room for the return of Alex Rodriguez, but he'll likely be back soon. Mexican League refugee Alfredo Aceves, who made two relief appearances and four starts for the 2008 Yanks, has been recalled to fulfill a long-relief role; he could find a home in the later innings if Wang or Hughes or whomever can establish a habit of getting through five innings (those two are 1-for-6 in that category). Would the team consider moving the latter to a relief role assuming Wang returns close to full strength? If not, they may be left to twiddle their thumbs while shuffling through an assortment of Brett Tomkos and hoping the likes of Veras, Ramirez, and Albaladejo can find the strike zone sooner or later.

The Indians Bullpen
WXRL (MLB Rank): -1.598 (29th)
Fair Run Average (MLB Rank): 6.99 (29th)

The Setup: Two years ago, the Indians came within one win of advancing to the World Series, and their bullpen was one reason they played so late into October. While closer Joe Borowski was nobody's idea of a prototypical ninth-inning shutdown guy, set-up men Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez did a great deal of the heavy lifting. Both finished with Fair Run Averages under 1.50; Betancourt's 1.06 was the 10th-lowest of any reliever with at least 70 innings since 1954, his astounding 80/9 strikeout to walk ratio ranked eighth among pitchers with at least 70 innings since 1901, and his 6.861 WXRL ranked second in the league.

Alas, Betancourt and the rest of the Tribe's bullpen fell off the table last year, to the point where their year-to-year decline in WXRL was the fourth-largest of the Retrosheet era (a topic discussed in their Baseball Prospectus 2009 team essay). Borowski got hurt early in the year and was soon released, and the team tried Betancourt, Masa Kobayashi, and Jensen Lewis in his stead, to little avail. As a unit the Indians' relievers finished last in the league in WXRL, with Betancourt slumping to 0.598. His 2.6 K/BB ratio was still solid if hardly extraordinary; the real trouble was 11 homers allowed in 71 innings on the way. As bad as his 5.43 FRA was, it was bettered only by Perez and Lewis among relievers with at least 20 innings for the club.

The Indians worked hard to better their bullpen in the offseason. They signed Kerry Wood to a two-year, $20 million deal to be their closer, the sole multi-year contract they doled out all winter, and traded for side-arming Joe Smith, whose 2.97 FRA and 1.770 WXRL with the Mets made him one of their few reliable relievers. They also brought in an assortment of disposable veteran arms like Matt Herges, Juan Salas, and Vinnie Chulk.

The Fall: Favored to win the AL Central, the Indians have instead stumbled into the division's basement after an 11-21 start. The starters have been no great shakes, ranking ninth in the league in SNLVAR, but the bullpen has simply been a contagion of awful performance. Wood (6.69 FRA, 0.159 WXRL) is 5-for-6 in save opportunities, but he's been lit up a few times as well. Betancourt (6.62, -0.248) remains lost; according to the data at Fangraphs, while his velocity is actually slightly higher than it was in 2007, he's falling behind hitters more often and hitting the strike zone with a lot less frequency. Perez (11.33, -0.561) has already been farmed out, Lewis (6.59, -0.349) has been tagged for six homers in 16 2/3 innings, and Smith landed on the DL with a strained rotator cuff last week. Chulk is the only reliever with more than five innings and an FRA below 6.00, and his reward for that effort—which at 5.38 and a -0.268 WXRL admittedly wasn't much—was being designated for assignment.

In all, the team has gone 9-10 in games they've led or tied after five innings, and they've allowed 94 runs in the sixth through eighth innings of their 32 games, the equivalent of 8.81 runs allowed per nine. While some of that's on the starters, the bottom line is that the team's failure to stop the bleeding threatens to turn them into bystanders in the division race for the third year out of four.

The Fix? As noted above, the Indians have recently purged themselves of Perez and Chulk, both of whom were shipped to Triple-A Columbus last week. Kobayashi (10.46, -0.292) may be next after his role in their recent dozen-run debacle; he inherited a 4-2 deficit against the Red Sox with the bases loaded and nobody out, failed to retire any of the five batters he faced, and departed trailing 10-2. Lefty Aaron Laffey, who's been the closest the team has to a second consistent starter besides Cliff Lee, was moved from the bullpen because of his ability to warm up quickly and to generate double plays; he earned a three-inning save in his bullpen debut, a 9-2 rout of the Red Sox. He and Tony Sipp, who was once among the team's top prospects before missing all of 2007 and half of 2008 due to Tommy John surgery, may shore things up from the left side, but the return of Jeremy Sowers to the rotation in Laffey's place hardly ensures more leads to protect. Meanwhile, Herges and a whole lot of hope won't be enough to heal the right side, and neither will the pending arrival of Luis Vizcaino, who pitched poorly with Colorado last year (5.11. -0.467) and who has burned through six teams in his past five-plus seasons already.

The Angels Bullpen
WXRL (MLB Rank): -1.291 (30th)
Fair Run Average (MLB Rank): 7.51 (30th)

The Setup: During Mike Scioscia's first nine years as the Angels' skipper, his teams consistently featured strong bullpens. While they've only led the league in WXRL once, they've never finished below seventh, and they've been among the league's top three five times in the past seven years. Last year, they ranked a very close third behind the Rays and Yankees on their way to an MLB-high 100 wins. Francisco Rodriguez finished second to Rivera in WXRL while more notably setting a major league record with 62 saves. The Halos allowed him to depart for the Mets via free agency, but with Scot Shields (12th in WXRL), Jose Arredondo (16th) and Darren Oliver (23rd), they still had a successful set-up corps on hand.

To replace K-Rod, the Angels signed former Rockies closer Brian Fuentes, who after losing his job in mid-2007 due to injury had reclaimed it, setting career bests in ERA, homer, and strikeout rates in 2008. He upped his stock even more by putting up a 1.47 ERA and whiffing 15.8 per nine over the last three months of the season.

The Fall: Fuentes converted his first save opportunity as an Angel, but he yielded three runs and took the loss in his second. That performance took on far more meaning after the fact, as starter Nick Adenhart, who had tossed six scoreless innings and was in line for the win, was killed in a car accident several hours after the game.

There's no way of knowing to what extent that tragedy has affected the team's performance as a whole, but a rotation that has been decimated not only by Adenhart's loss but by the absences of John Lackey and Ervin Santana has nonetheless climbed to second place in the team SNLVAR rankings. The bullpen, on the other hand, has been unequivocally the majors' worst. Fuentes (6.14 FRA, -0.268 WXRL) has been only part of the problem; his defense, which ranks just ninth in the league in Defensive Efficiency, hasn't been much help, as he's been strafed for a .419 BABIP. Jose Arredondo (4.52, 0.379) has been scorched at a .455 clip. Shields (7.35, -0.391) was recently diagnosed with patellar tendonitis, which may or may not explain his 8/12 K/BB ratio. Darren Oliver (1.03, 0.599) was pressed into duty as a starter, then suffered a triceps strain before he could make his second turn. Justin Speier (7.84, -0.072) has been consigned to low-leverage duty ever since he took up gopher farming last year. Mop-and-bucket men Rafael Rodriguez and Jason Bulger have pitched even worse.

The Fix? There are signs that the principals are coming around. Fuentes is riding a streak of four straight scoreless appearances. Oliver has made three scoreless appearances since coming off of the DL. Shields pitched once in the past six days while undergoing treatment on his knee, and he doubled his season total of strikeouts while tossing two scoreless innings. With Lackey and Santana on their way back to the rotation, one of the stopgaps—Dustin Moseley, Shane Loux, or Matt Palmer—could be moved to the bullpen. It's quite possible that the rehabbing Kelvim Escobar, who is expected back next month, will find his way there as well, though coming off labrum surgery there's certainly no guarantee he can reprise his late-2005 performance as a reliever (1.26 FRA, 1.511 WXRL in 19 September innings). Relative to the other two teams here, this bullpen might be the most hopeful candidate for turnaround.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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