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How well do you know the relief pitchers on your favorite team? Given the volatility associated with being a reliever, it’s not uncommon for a team to have a bunch of fresh faces sitting out in the bullpen—minor-league free agents cattle-called into spring training, unexciting non-prospects whose stuff played up after moving out of rotations into the bullpen, fallen closers hanging on to careers, or trade throw-ins with enough funk to retire a lefty. Takes all kinds.

Earlier this offseason we tried our hand at critiquing managers for the use, or abuse, of their bullpens; it’s admittedly not exactly a fair exercise for a handful of reasons. The one thing that wasn’t addressed in that analysis was something that managers often have no control over: who the guys in their bullpen are.

There doesn’t seem to be a right method to identify relief talent that will perform well in the following season; at least not a foolproof one. This in turn leads to very different methods. During the San Francisco Giants season preview episode of the Effectively Wild Podcast, Sam and Ben and Grant Brisbee discussed the fact that the Giants had very little turnover in their bullpen. Brisbee acknowledged the absurdity of the Giants’ bullpen continuity, noting for example Jean Machi, who will be going into his third season with the team, is one of the greenest members of the group. The “new” guy.

Inspired by this revelation, I looked into which teams had the longest tenured bullpens last year, and which teams had a whole bullpen full of fresh faces. On average, major-league bullpens are filled with relievers that have been with the team for just 1.2 seasons. Those relievers had spent 3.7 seasons at the major-league level with at least a modest workload. I opted to use a 15 IP cutoff for each season in this study.

Here is a table of each team, the number of pitchers who threw 15 IP for them in 2014, and their tenure with their team prior to last season, and total MLB experience:

Team

WPA

Avg. Tenure

Avg. Years in MLB

Blue Jays

0.91

2.6

3.2

Giants

4.63

2.6

5.9

Nationals

4.42

2.4

4.9

Twins

-0.47

2.4

3.7

Reds

-2.51

2

3.4

Royals

7.64

1.9

3.4

Rockies

-5.98

1.5

4.5

Pirates

3.68

1.5

3.3

Orioles

6.24

1.4

4.1

Phillies

2.49

1.3

3.3

Braves

1.79

1.2

2.1

Rays

-0.41

1.2

4.4

Mariners

5.48

1.1

3.6

Cardinals

5.67

1.1

2.8

Yankees

4.26

1.1

3.5

Marlins

0.79

1.1

2.1

Indians

5.42

1

3.1

Red Sox

4.04

0.9

4.6

Brewers

2.03

0.9

3.8

Dodgers

1.11

0.9

6.0

Cubs

1.14

0.9

2.6

Tigers

0.94

0.9

4.0

Rangers

-0.07

0.8

3.7

Diamondbacks

-1.69

0.8

3.2

Padres

7.13

0.8

3.8

Mets

0.11

0.7

4.9

Athletics

1.73

0.7

3.8

Angels

6.21

0.4

3.8

Astros

-4.63

0.3

3.1

White Sox

-5.25

0.2

2.6

The collective thoughts of Ben, Sam, and Grant are corroborated, as the Giants have not only the second-longest-tenured bullpen in baseball, but also the second-most-veteran staff. The average reliever on the Giants’ staff has been in baseball for nearly six seasons, which is more than two standard deviations above the mean. The Giants’ bullpen staff has also been with the team for more than two and a half seasons, so by now the concessionaires should know exactly how garlicky Sergio Romo likes his garlic fries. Not only should Giants fans know their relievers pretty well by now, they should also be pleased with the results on the field. The Giants’ bullpen posted a solid 4.63 WPA last season, good for the eighth-best mark in baseball.

Let’s explore how The Giants built their bullpen, from least tenured to most (data sources indicated in parentheses):

9. Juan Gutierrez – 0 seasons w/ SF, 5 seasons in MLB – Gutierrez was originally signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela back in 2000 by the Houston Astros. Houston traded Gutierrez to Arizona in 2007. Eventually he was released by Arizona, finding a home in the Royals organization. Eventually he was DFA’d by Kansas City, claimed by the Angels, and then DFA’d by the Angels. On Jan. 13, 2014 the Giants signed Gutierrez to a minor-league contract. (Cot’s Contracts)

8. David Huff – 0 seasons w/ SF, 5 seasons in MLB – The Giants were able to acquire Huff from the New York Yankees for cash considerations. Huff was pretty bad for the Giants, and wound up being traded back to New York for cash considerations. Prior to his first stint with the Yankees Huff spent several seasons in Cleveland. (Wikipedia)

7. Jean Machi – 1 season w/ SF, 1 season in MLB – Machi actually got a cup of coffee with the Giants in 2012, but 2013 was his first season meeting our 15-inning threshold. Machi, like Gutierrez, was signed out of Venezuela in 2000. Four years later Tampa Bay acquired him from the Phillies in the Rule 5 draft. After leaving Tampa Bay, Machi spent time in the minor leagues for Toronto and Pittsburgh before being signed as a minor league free agent with San Francisco. He was 30 when he made his major-league debut, and has a 2.71 ERA since. Interestingly, the Giants loaned Machi to the Mexico City Diablos Rojos for five months back in 2011. (Cot’s Contracts)

6. Yusmeiro Petit – 1 season w/ SF, 5 seasons in MLB – Petit, the talented swingman, is another Venezuelan pitcher holding down a prominent spot in the San Francisco bullpen. Petit was part of several trades, including one between the Mets and Marlins that involved Carlos Delgado and one between Arizona and Florida that saw Jorge Julio get swapped. Petit was claimed off waivers by Seattle in 2010, where he’d pitch until the Giants signed him as a minor-league free agent in 2012. Petit spent several seasons in the Giants’ high minors before breaking into a prominent role in the club’s bullpen. (Cot’s Contracts)

5. George Kontos – 2 seasons w/ SF, 2 seasons in MLB – The New York Yankees drafted Kontos in 2006 out of Northwestern. The Padres had a brief dalliance with Kontos via the Rule 5 draft, but eventually he was returned to the Yankees. In 2012 the Giants traded Chris Stewart for Kontos, and he’s been with the team ever since.

4. Santiago Casilla – 4 seasons w/ SF, 7 seasons in MLB – Way back in 2000 the Oakland Athletics signed an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic named Jairo Garcia. Eight years and one name change later, the A’s non-tendered Santiago Casilla. The Giants signed their neighbor’s castoff to a minor-league deal a few weeks later. Casilla worked his way up through the system and has pitched out of the Giants’ bullpen for four full seasons now. (Cot’s Contracts)

3. Javier Lopez – 4 seasons w/ SF, 10 seasons in MLB – Lopez was drafted by Arizona out of Virginia in the fourth round of the 1998 amateur draft. Boston acquired Lopez in 2002 via the rule 5 draft but traded him to Colorado before the conclusion of spring training. In 2005 the Diamondbacks claimed Lopez from Colorado, only to DFA him three months later. The White Sox signed him as a free agent a few months after his DFA, only to flip him to Boston in June 2006. Three seasons later Lopez was picked up by the Pirates as a free agent but they too would flip Lopez, this time to the Giants. Since landing in San Francisco Lopez has found stable ground, becoming one of the longer-tenured relief pitchers on the club. Isn’t the life of a relief pitcher glamorous?

2. Jeremy Affeldt – 5 seasons w/ SF, 12 seasons in MLB – Drafted by Kansas City in the third round of the 1997 draft, Affeldt spent time with the Royals, Rockies, and Reds before landing in San Francisco for good prior to the 2009 season. Affeldt was traded just once, from Kansas City to Colorado, his status as a decent prospect likely keeping him from bouncing around too much. In San Francisco Affeldt has pitched in relative anonymity despite solid numbers and comfortable annual salaries. (Cot’s Contracts)

1. Sergio Romo – 6 seasons w/ SF, 6 seasons in MLB – We always hear about late-round draft pick successes, something that Romo can identify with. He was taken in the 28th round of the 2005 draft, working his way up the Giants’ organization ever since. Like many of his bullpen-mates, Romo sharpened his craft in the upper levels of the minors before becoming a familiar face in the bullpen for the first six, now seven, years of his career. (Cot’s Contracts)

We can see that the Giants acquired nearly all of their relievers when they were still in the minors, something that illustrates their preference for building guys into key bullpen players through their upper minors. We can also see what is often a long and tumultuous career path for these names and faces that so rarely get recognition among the fanbase.

That’s not to say that building a bullpen featuring veterans and guys that have been around your organization for several years is the best model. It’s not even possible for many teams, simply because they don’t have the young talent in place to do such a thing.

In fact, the top five bullpens in baseball by WPA averaged just over a year of tenure per relief pitcher and 3.5 total seasons of MLB experience. If a team were looking to emulate these successful methodologies, there are a few options to consider:

1. Acquisition

The Angels used a novel approach of letting other teams figure out which pitchers would perform well last season before acquiring them for a stretch and playoff run. (Actually, some of those pitchers were acquired when those other teams gave up on them ever pitching well.) What this method lacks in monetary expenses it makes up for in prospect costs during midseason trades. It requires a significant focus on the present rather than the future. This method isn’t for everybody.

2. High Risk-High Reward

The Padres built a successful bullpen around volatile veterans and longtime bullpen stalwarts that have been developed from within. The Padres have the built-in advantage of playing in Petco which makes those volatile veterans a bit more likely to succeed, and certainly easier to swallow for the fanbase. This method of filling holes with high-upside guys like Benoit or Street has its advantages because, even though it can be pricey, flipping those vets can bring back a nice bounty in terms of prospects.

3. Ex-Starters Club

The Orioles, Cardinals, and Royals take a slightly different approach building bullpens of failed starting pitching prospects. Former starters like Wade Davis, Zach Britton, Carlos Martinez, Tommy Hunter, Trevor Rosenthal, Luke Hochevar and Aaron Crow were all once promising starting pitchers who excelled upon a move to the ‘pen. Executing this plan requires a lot of borderline pitching talent and an organizational emphasis on helping them excel when starting is no longer in the cards.

4. Find Them, Grow Them, Keep Them

Let’s of course not forget the method that the Giants employ, which is to continually re-sign guys that have been successful for you in the past. One of the primary tenets of this method revolves around using a consistent closer to shield your other relievers from having too much salary inflation during their arbitration seasons. The Blue Jays employed this method, albeit a lot less successfully than San Francisco, having familiar names like Janssen, McGowan, and Cecil take up prominent bullpen roles over the past half decade.

We must keep in mind that it is but one aspect of a very complicated problem that a GM has to solve. Just yesterday Sam explored how the Angels, in their haste to craft an impactful bullpen during a playoff run, were able to find another successful aspect around which to build their bullpen. This though is still an important and potentially expensive facet to consider for any general manager.

While you may not know or even care about the names and faces in your team’s bullpen beyond the typical eighth- and ninth-inning guys, you probably should care about how your favorite team builds its bullpen. We learned last October that a team’s bullpen could very well be the difference between playoff disaster and awkward celebratory hugs. Who doesn’t love awkward celebratory hugs?

Thank you for reading

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