Bullpens sometimes get a bad name. Although by some metrics, elite relievers can be worth more than five wins to their squads, other metrics value the best relievers at no more than three wins. Because nearly all pitchers improve their rate stats (strikeout and home run rates in particular) when moving from the rotation to the bullpen, there is a common mood among the sabermetric community that relief pitchers are overvalued, overpaid, and that they should speak only when spoken to. I think the problem of reliever valuation is extremely tricky and I shout my ignorance of the answer from the rooftops. But I do have two basic observations:

  1. Not every team has a great bullpen. In fact, some teams have downright terrible bullpens.
  2. Almost every team spends a considerable amount of money on at least one reliever, suggesting that, if more pessimistic valuations of relievers are true, nearly every team is overpaying for the same type of player.

But then there are the Padres.

Yeah, What About the Padres?

Here is a ranking of the amount the Padres are currently spending on relief pitcher salaries, in descending order:

  1. Heath Bell ($4 million)
  2. Mike Adams ($1 million)
  3. Edward Mujica ($419,800)
  4. Luke Gregerson ($416,500)
  5. Tim Stauffer ($415,100)
  6. Sean Gallagher ($413,500)
  7. Cesar Ramos ($401,300)

The Padres are spending a little more than $7 million collectively on their bullpen at the moment. More than half of that money is tied up in Heath Bell, whom many of our fantasy experts expect will be traded this season. Even before a potential Bell trade, $7 million is a pretty cheap bullpen. Among major-league teams, only the Marlins and Athletics spend less on their bullpens while the Mariners spend almost exactly the same amount, and the Pirates spend just slightly more. However, given that Bell represents an excellent trade chip and makes up more than half of San Diego's bullpen budget, the likely trade would almost certainly make the Padres' relief corps the cheapest in baseball. But would it be any good? Here are the same pitchers, with 2009 SIERA and innings pitched listed instead of salary:

  1. Heath Bell (2.92 SIERA, 69 2/3 IP)
  2. Mike Adams (2.09 SIERA, 37 IP
  3. Edward Mujica (3.73 SIERA, 93 2/3 IP)*
  4. Luke Gregerson (2.91 SIERA, 75 IP)
  5. Tim Stauffer (4.63 SIERA, 73 IP)**
  6. Sean Gallagher (5.27 SIERA, 19 2/3 IP)
  7. Cesar Ramos (3.98 SIERA, 14 2/3 IP)

*includes four rather poor starts
**exclusively as starter

Those top four are simply excellent. You might take off minor points for the fact that they don't have a dominant lefty, although Joe Thatcher, who is on the DL with left shoulder soreness, is more than serviceable in that regard. You might also take off points for Adams' injury troubles. But really what you have is a bullpen with three guys who could probably hold down a closer job. Even if you take away Bell, Adams, Gregerson, and Mujica provide extreme bargains at the back end of the bullpen. PECOTA likes all three, pegging Gregerson for a 3.49 ERA this season, Adams for a 3.05 mark, and Mujica a 4.15. Additionally, PECOTA thinks Thatcher can put up a 3.68. Not one of these guys will earn more than $1 million this year, and most are basically unknown outside of San Diego.

But did anyone know who Bell was before he filled the unexpectedly slow-moving shoes of Trevor Hoffman? Bell, once a mediocre starter cast off by the Mets, was essentially freely available to the Padres prior to the 2007 season. Last year, he led the league in saves. It's exactly guys like Bell that reinforce the idea that great relievers are found and not bought. In turn, this conception eats away at the win value assigned to relievers.

Ultimately, the difficulty lies in identifying which players have skill sets that are particularly suited for the bullpen. For a variety of reasons, minor-league numbers for relievers can often be very misleading, especially ground ball specialists. And some players have repertoires that "play up" in the 'pen. Projecting a pitcher's performance in the bullpen cannot be a matter of simply mechanically subtracting a fixed amount from a guy's ERA, even though that might be the correct adjustment in the aggregate). Rather, a smart team like the Padres must necessarily take the data they get from scouts, from speed guns, and from bullpen sessions and use it to evaluate bullpen candidates.

Best in the West?

I don't know if a $3-million bullpen could be the best in the division, but that's only because the division features some of the strongest relief corps in baseball. The "In Play, Out(s)" Giants have the equally impressive trio of Brian Wilson (3.06 SIERA in 2009), Sergio Romo (2.64), and Jeremy Affeldt (3.46), albeit at a considerably higher cost. Similarly, the Dodgers have Jonathan Broxton (1.98), George Sherrill (3.80), and Hong-Chih Kuo (3.44), who has started the season on the disabled list. The Rockies may have fallen behind in the arms race now that Huston Street has paid a visit to Dr. James Andrews, but with Rafael Betancourt (3.03) and Franklin Morales (4.08), they can't be counted out.

But there can be no doubt that if the Padres end up spending $3 million on relievers, they'll have the best bargain bullpen in baseball. One can only assume that general manager Jed Hoyer and the Padres front office will demand good value in return at the trade deadline, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that they identified another previously fringy pitcher who will be able to step into the bullpen and succeed.

Question of the Day

What kind of data best helps to predict success in the bullpen? How can teams identify pitchers who might become particularly effective relievers? Do the Padres have the best bullpen in the NL West?

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Nice article, Tommy. If it were an isolated incident, that would be one thing. But the Padres manage to find great arms "on the scrap heap" every year, it seems. So who do you think they will tap to close if Bell is shipped out? Adams? Gregerson?
I don't know about data, but I'd say it has something to do with "Look for the best in a person." Top two pitches being plus in terms of stuff and command, great velocity if not extended more than a couple of innings. I think you hit it on the head with the "play up in the pen" remark.
Quick correction: Heath Bell was never a starting pitcher prospect. He started two games in 2005, like eight years after he was drafted, but they weren't really because he was a starting pitcher; it was just because he happened to be the pitcher that began the game. Otherwise, every appearance from 1998- on of Bell has been as a reliever.
Yes, you are correct. I regret the error.
While I agree the Padres have done an excellent job in cobbling together bullpens over the last few years, could the "pitcher's park" be a factor in their favor? Under "Best in the West?" above, it is mentioned that the Dodgers and Giants also have good pens, albeit more expensive ones, while the Rockies do not and Arizona is not mentioned. Coincidence?
Identifying relievers? I'd been high on Heath Bell for a couple of years before the Padres got him. Awesome minor league stats, and a great K/BB rate in the majors and minors. He had a couple of bad partial seasons with the Mets, but his BABIP of .374 and .394 made it clear his poor numbers in the majors would likely improve. So basically a good K/BB rate and dominance are nice signs, and not quickly writing off a player due to fluky numbers is a good idea.
As a Padre fan, it's been amazing to watch them keep finding arms. I hope that's an organizational ability and not something Kevin Towers brought to the organization. They've done a very nice job of carving out roles that give players opportunities and quickly promoting the strong performers into more high leverage situations. I do think the park helps build the pitchers confidence.
For what it's worth, Heath Bell was exactly as good on the road last year as at home - a .568 OPS against (just as a quick and dirty measure) at home and .567 on the road. Gregerson pitched better at home, Adams was a beast both at home and on the road (small sample size caveat) and Mujica was better at home than on the road. One thing about Petco is that while it suppresses home runs, that outfield is HUGE, and with a poor defensive outfield (Blanks and Headley in particular) a lot of hits fall in that might be outs in a smaller park with better outfielders.
I normally don't get excited over the literary/cinematic/musical/historical references sewn into some BP writer's comments, but Yes's 'Close to the Edge' ranks up there as one of my all-time favorite LPs, yet it is far less known than its two comparable masterpieces that were released a few months later: Led Zeppelin's 'Houses of the Holy' and Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon'.
I'm with you even though it's only my third favorite Yes album.
One indicator that's proven foolproof as an indicator of bullpen failure is "Orioles" on the jersey front.