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September 24, 2009

Prospectus Today

Post-season Bullpens

by Joe Sheehan

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The more you watch the likely post-season teams close out their seasons, the more you think we might be in for some very long nights next month. The number of teams with questions about their bullpens seems to be awfully close to the number of teams who will get to play in October.

Set aside the top tier for the moment. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers have three of the top four bullpens in the game by total WXRL, and those rankings are warranted: The Red Sox have an amazing wealth of arms, having added Billy Wagner to an already deep mix, and can get complete innings or play mix-and-match with most of their staff. When you reduce "bullpens" to "the guys who will pitch in the playoffs," the Sox take the lead on the field. The Yankees have spent much of the season rotating relievers in front of Mariano Rivera, but have settled on Philip Hughes as the two-way set-up man. There are some questions as to the order in front of Hughes, as neither Damaso Marte nor Phil Coke have been that effective, and Girardi still seems unsure of how he wishes to deploy Brian Bruney and Alfredo Aceves. Look for him to play a lot of matchups before turning as many as nine outs a night over to Hughes and Rivera. The Dodgers are bolstered statistically by two rookies, Ronald Bellisario and Ramon Troncoso, but their postseason core will be closer Jonathan Broxton and two left-handers who weren't around for much of the year, George Sherrill and Hong-Chih Kuo. Kuo may in fact wind up being the best reliever in the NL postseason, a power lefty capable of throwing multiple innings and getting right-handed batters out.

After those three teams, however, there are many questions, even for those teams that have strong statistical profiles:

  • Twins (seventh in WXRL): The Twins may belong in the safe group above, but there are concerns because for a team that doesn't get a lot of innings from its starters, the bridge pitchers to the back of the bullpen are weak. Should the Twins edge the Tigers in the AL Central, the primary questions they'll face are whether they can score enough runs, and then if they can keep from losing games in the sixth and seventh innings. Joe Nathan and Jose Mijares are fine in the eighth and ninth, and Matt Guerrier has a low ERA, but also a low strikeout rate and a high workload. Jon Rauch is a serviceable middle guy who puts the ball in the air a lot, not a positive trait for an AL reliever.

  • Cardinals (11): The most high-maintenance good bullpen in history, the Cardinals are on pace to have the second-lowest average IP/appearance ever, behind last year's Mets. (That's Eric Seidman (6) and Bil Burke (421) on the assists.) Tony La Russa has been able to get away with this because of the innings he's gotten from his top three starters. They get him into the seventh, he matches up for three to five outs, then goes to Ryan Franklin in the ninth.

    Franklin is the problem, or at least the potential one. He made the All-Star team because he didn't walk people, because his fly balls all stayed in the yard, and because the balls put into play against him all found gloves. He wasn't giving up a particularly low rate of line drives or ground balls, just seeing good outcomes on contact. In the second half, he's walking a lot more guys-11 in 108 PA, versus seven in 121 PA, about 50 percent more-and his BABIP has corrected from an unsustainable .196 to a normal .321. His ERA remains low in part because the fly balls he allows have stayed in the park: 61 on the season, just two home runs. That's an unnaturally low rate; for his career, Franklin's rate is right around average, 10.2 percent. (Thanks, Fangraphs.)

    Now, it's not unheard of for a pitcher to sustain a ridiculously low HR/FB rate on his way to closing out a championship. You have to go all the way back to 2008 to find an example of that. The problem is that when the rate does correct, everything goes bad in a hurry. Franklin's position as a the Cardinals' closer is firm, but his ability to prevent runs in that role is tenuous. Two of the three things that kept his ERA down in the first half-just one of those a skill-have slipped away from him, and should he lose the third, the Cardinals could find themselves making a rapid and dramatic exit from the playoffs.

  • Angels (14): The Angels' issues in the ninth inning have been well-documented, as Brian Fuentes has found himself to be much more hittable in the AL despite moving down from the mountains as he crossed leagues. His lowered strikeout rate has been the biggest factor in his decline this season, one masked by a league-leading 44 saves. The Angels aren't their usual dominant selves in the seventh and eighth innings, either. Darren Oliver has reinvented himself as a command guy-just 12 unintentional walks in 68 innings-giving the team a good matchup lefty. From the right side, Kevin Jepsen has been a find, with a terrific ground-ball rate and good command, and Jason Bulger has finally gotten a chance to contribute, posting a strikeout an inning in his time on the mound. It is, at best, an average group, and there's a pretty wide range of possible performances here. Jepsen and Bulger have very little track record on which to base a confident projection of their next 15 innings.

    Adding to the uncertainty, but also the upside, is the probability that Ervin Santana will join this mix. The Angels have five effective starters, and of them, Santana's power mix does seem best-suited for relief work. He has very little relief experience, which makes him something of a wild card, but as a two-inning guy, or a long reliever who enables Joe Saunders to be short-leashed, he's an asset.

  • Tigers (17): Now we're down to the teams whose bullpens have been a problem during the season. The Tigers don't have a single reliever who you think, "that guy is tough to beat." Fernando Rodney walks too many guys to be a great closer, and that trait will be exacerbated against the patient Yankees and Red Sox in the postseason. Brandon Lyon has turned out to be a nice low-cost pickup, upping his strikeout rate and containing his walk and home-run rates. Both Bobby Seay and Fu-Te Ni can be assets from the left side. Primarily, though, this bullpen gets itself into trouble by walking people, and that's unlikely to change next month.

  • Phillies (19): One reason the Phillies can't just make Ryan Madson the closer is that they don't have an obvious choice to pitch the high-leverage innings he'll be abandoning. Brett Myers made five appearances and got hurt again. Chan Ho Park is out with a hamstring injury. Chad Durbin is hampered by being, you know, Chad Durbin. Throw Lidge into that mix.

    Mind you, that's the good side of the pen. The Phillies don't really have a left-handed reliever right now. Scott Eyre hasn't pitched since early September and will have surgery-or just quit-at season's end. J.C. Romero hasn't pitched since July 19; they'll get him back next week. Jack Taschner might be done for the season, and Sergio Escalona has made just nine appearances all year. Jamie Moyer is both left-handed and pitching out of the bullpen, mostly, but he's not exactly a high-leverage guy, and he's never been one to get lefties out. At best, the Phillies will have fragile, somewhat rusty lefties; at worst, they'll have no one.

    I don't see any way to not put Pedro Martinez into this mix. The other options are relieving Joe Blanton or J.A. Happ; Blanton isn't a tactical guy, and I'm not sure you want to change Happ's role again with him coming off of the DL. Martinez can miss bats, he has some relief experience, and as cold as this sounds, you really don't care about his future. If damaging him a little bit, risking him a little bit, gets you that much closer to a championship, you have to do it.

  • Rockies (20): This rating undersells the Rockies a bit, who have rebuilt their bullpen in-season by adding Rafael Betancourt, Joe Beimel, and Franklin Morales to it. Matt Herges is back as well. I'm not sure it's a good pen, even with all those guys back and a healthy Huston Street, but it is better than what it was when Manny Corpas and Alan Embree were significant contributors, and it's better than what the Phillies and Tigers can put out there.

    Where the Rockies are a little bit intriguing is in that they might be the closest thing to the 2008 Rays, where if Jim Tracy wants to do so, he can abandon roles and just start using guys to get outs. The primary difference between his roster and what Joe Maddon has is that he doesn't really have multi-inning relievers; his best ones, aside from really-a-starter Morales, tend to be used to as matchup pitchers or to get out of a single inning. It's probably a silly idea, anyway-a healthy Huston Street is going to close games-but there's enough live arms here to make that an option if Tracy wanted to do so.

There are enough teams with bullpen questions that we could see a postseason filled with late-inning drama, as managers try and squeeze championship-caliber performance out of considerably less talent. It could make for a lot of excitement-and very late nights-for baseball fans.

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

15 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

salvomania
(449)

Interesting note about Franklin's 2 hr allowed in 2009: They were back to back in the bottom of the 9th by the Reds on May 10. Both were hit after multiple 2-strike foul balls, the second by pinch-hitter Micah Owings after he fouled off three 3-2 pitches.

Sep 24, 2009 15:15 PM
rating: 4
 
bmbergen

Completely missed on the Yanks Dave Robertson. He has been just as effective as the Sox Bard but he often gets overlooked.

Sep 24, 2009 16:41 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

Didn't forget him, I'm just not clear on whether he'll be healthy for the postseason, and at that, Girardi has never really slotted him in a high-leverage role. He's supposed to pitch next week, we'll see what happens.

Sep 24, 2009 20:59 PM
 
Rob_in_CT

Yeah, he's hurt and as much as I like him, he has a tendency to walk people. He's had some Bruney-like outings (and also been lights-out a bunch of times, unlike Bruney).

Sep 25, 2009 06:46 AM
rating: 0
 
dfiala

Still remember Pedro no hitting the Indians in 1999 for six innings in relief. Yes, it was a decade ago, but he's the Phillies's best option to get some crucial outs before Madson.

Sep 24, 2009 18:35 PM
rating: 1
 
doncoffin
(422)

But...but...Joe Morgan said (on Wednesday Night Baseball) that Lidge has to be the Phillies' closer in the post season. Because, he has, you know, closer mojo. More important that whether Howard hits. More important than starting pitching. BRAD LIDGE!!! Joe Morgan said so!!!!

Sep 24, 2009 18:44 PM
rating: 8
 
oPlaiD

Seems a bit odd to mention possible starter-to-relievers in Ervin Santana and Pedro Martinez but leave out John Smoltz, the only one of the three who actually has closed in his career and did a hall of fame job at it, too.

I suppose it's unlikely Franklin will get replaced in the closer role at this point, but you never know what might happen. Either way, Smoltz in high leverage situations could be an amazing boost to the pen, especially if he can go more than one inning. As mentioned the Cardinals have not needed to use their bullpen as much as other teams so adding a real weapon like Smoltz could be a huge boost.

Sep 24, 2009 19:06 PM
rating: 5
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

I've not seen anything that would indicate he's going to relieve in the playoffs. As with seemingly every fourth starter, it's up in the air.

Sep 24, 2009 21:00 PM
 
jtjk

I think La Russa may work his way there. Assuming Lohse continues to pitch passably, La Russa will want to get them both in the mix. Lohse as the fourth starter would limit his innings while having Smoltz available as another bullpen weapon. Will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Sep 25, 2009 12:47 PM
rating: 0
 
sblonder

Hong Chih-Kuo hasn't pitched more than one inning in a game one time this year, mostly due to his arm problems. It's not accurate to say that he's capable of pitching multpile innings (or at least not accurate to think the Dodgers will use him that way). Also, the Dodgers don't like to use him in consecutive games so it is very likely that Bellisario will be pitching in high leverage situations in this year's playoffs.

Sep 25, 2009 07:26 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

This famously got me labeled as untrustworthy. In a blind item. Awesome.

Kuo has shown, in past seasons, the ability to go multiple innings. He has not done so this year, and I'm well aware of this. I'm saying that he can, and if any manager has shown the willingness to take a one-inning reliever and use him for two in the playoffs, it's Torre.

Kuo is the best pitcher in that bullpen.

Sep 28, 2009 12:31 PM
 
Ira

I'm not blaming you, Joe for Feldman's implosion in Oakland yesterday afternoon, and, though it puts the kibosh on his bid for 20 wins, There is still the ever slim possibility of a Rangers postseason appearance. While the Rangers starters overall have been very good, and their top 4 (really just their top 3) starters even better, The Rangers can also point to an excellent bullpen to rely on once those inevitable (shhhh) playoff games come around.

Frank Francisco has been hurt, but is definitely healthy now, and his 2.976 WXRL is about middle of the pack for closers. CJ Wilson, who filled in for Frankie while he was on the shelf, has also been VERY good, though shaky at times on back to back games. His 1.437 WXRL is at least ok. Then we bring in the rookies. Why are the Mets so angry, well, waiving Darren O'Day after only 3 innings over 4 games despite not giving up an earned run has to hurt. Especially now that he's totalled 2.681 WXRL this season, more than any Met pitcher.

Lastly we get to the wunderkin. Even with the worries that he may be tired, that his velocity is down, and that he's struggling, its hard to discount 1.624 WXRL in 28.3 innings and that greater than 5 to 1 K/BB ratio, combined with the .671 WHIP. Neftali Feliz is somone to be feared if the Rangers make the playoffs this year, or possibly in the Rangers rotation next year.

Sep 25, 2009 07:29 AM
rating: 0
 
Paul Mahler

Interesting in that this article assumes the "traditional" bullpen roles in the modern era - set up/match up/closer, yet just recently, Joe did an article arguing that bullpen usage should be done on metrics, not roles. It would be great if in at least one series, a manager thought this through, instead of going all Joe Morgan on us (Brad Lidge in October, given his year - please no).

Sep 25, 2009 10:43 AM
rating: 0
 
David Coonce

Well, yes, I think most of us agree that the traditional bullpen usage patterns by managers needs to change, the current group of managers is not willing to do so. LaRussa is probably the closest, given his fondness for situational match ups.

I think the Boston "debacle" several years back, in which they went into the season without a Capital "C" closer, then blew a few close games, and everybody overreacted, set back bullpen progress for a decade.

I do believe that eventually teams will realize that their best relievers should be used in the toughest situations, but it will take time. It's a marketplace inefficiency that has yet to be exploited successfully.

Sep 28, 2009 06:26 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

Joe Maddon did, to a large extent, one year ago.

Charlie Manuel had a front-row seat for that, and with a bullpen that might include at least two starting pitchers and no left-handed relievers (by trade), I wonder if he's not the best candidate to go off the reservation.

Sep 28, 2009 12:33 PM
 
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