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September 18, 2008
On Tuesday, Jay Jaffe examined the recent performances by the bullpens of the teams fighting for post-season berths. It hasn't been pretty in many cases; the Mets have struggled to find effective late-inning work in the absence of Billy Wagner, while the Brewers' relievers contributed to the firing of manager Ned Yost. The Diamondbacks' lost September is in part due to their problems in the late innings, and even teams that look like they'll make the tournament, such as the Red Sox, are managing around pen issues.
This feels strange, because we've become used to bullpens being a critical element on winning teams. Post-season play has come to reflect modern usage patterns, only much more so, with teams using their starting rotations largely as a bridge from the national anthem to the guys who they really want pitching with the game on the line. From the Yankees of the late 1990s with Mariano Rivera, through the Angels of 2002 and the Red Sox of 2007, relief pitchers have been the stars of October. If a team doesn't have a strong bullpen, it starts well behind the curve even in making it to the postseason.
So when we see all of these teams struggle to close out games, it's natural to wonder how they're even in contention. It feels like this pool of post-season contenders-down to 12, as we include the Astros and Marlins for our purposes today-has the weakest collection of bullpens of any potential post-season participants in memory. Here are the dozen's rankings in team Reliever Win Expectancy (WXRL) through last night:
1. Rays 2. Phillies 4. Angels 6. Dodgers 7. Astros 9. White Sox 11. Cubs 12. Marlins 13. Brewers 15. Twins 18. Mets 19. Red Sox 21. Diamondbacks
Data is better than memory. The Phillies have the second-best bullpen in the majors? The Brewers rank 13th? The Mets are as high as 18th? We remember recent events a bit more strongly than we do the ones back in April, but these figures reflect the season-long performance of relief staffs. Now, that's not a perfect tool, of course-Jay used first- and second-half splits to show that, for example, the Mets and Twins bullpens have been getting hammered since the All-Star break, while the Astros and Marlins have been doing much better. That reflects personnel changes (the loss of Billy Wagner in New York, or the addition of Arthur Rhodes in Miami) and performance changes (the Phillies' pen had a very low HR/FB in the first half) along the way. Overall, though, we see that this group of post-season contenders includes six of the top nine bullpens in the majors, and none of the bottom nine. That puts it near the bottom of recent seasons:
Year Avg Med T10 B10 2008 10.6 11 6 1 2007 12.5 14 3 2 2006 6.8 6 6 0 2005 11.8 7.5 5 2 2004 4.3 6 6 0 2003 10.3 9.5 5 1 2002 7.1 6.5 7 1 2001 6.6 5.5 6 0
Data trumps memory here as well: you have to go back only one season to find a less impressive group of post-season bullpens. The 2007 season stands out as one in which a strong bullpen was not apparently necessary to reach October. It had the lowest average rank, the lowest median, the fewest top-ten bullpens, and was one of two years in which two bottom-ten teams made it to October. On the other hand, even that data hides some information; the Rockies were 21st in WXRL last season, but in September and October, their bullpen was as much a part of their success as their superior defense was.
If you just look at the 2008 teams who would make the playoffs if the season ended today (the four who have basically clinched, plus the White Sox, Phillies, Dodgers, and Mets), you get a somewhat improved pool: average of 8.8, median of 7.5, five top tens, and no bottom tens. Loosely speaking, the group looks a lot better if the Dodgers hold off the Diamondbacks, and one reason that might happen is the Dodger bullpen out-pitching their desert counterparts for most of the year. Getting Takashi Saito back can only help them.
There are some other things to consider here. One is that WXRL includes leverage, which may not be the best way to evaluate a bullpen's potential as opposed to its performance. A team whose manager has been searching for the right roles for his guys all year long may have found the one that works down the stretch. Moreover, we're looking at entire bullpens here, and in the postseason, most teams push all of their high-leverage innings-they're all high-leverage in October, Joseph-to their best pitchers. The Cubs have the 11th-best WXRL in baseball, a figure that almost certainly understates the true caliber of a pen that can shove Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood down your throat late in games. On the other hand, the Rays' number one WXRL ranking reflects a depth that won't mean as much in a short series as it has in the regular season.
Thirteen days from the start of the Division Series, though, it's fair to say that this could be a highly entertaining postseason because the bullpens aren't quite up to snuff. Whereas in past seasons a two-run lead often felt insurmountable, only the Angels, the Cubs, and maybe the Dodgers have the kind of bullpens that inspire fear, the sense that a game could be just six innings long. This October, few leads will be safe... and fewer still if the Diamondbacks, Mets, and Brewers manage to play their way into the tournament.