The Indians are struggling at six games below .500, and it’s not hard for their fans to spot the main cause of their troubles: the bullpen. Here’s an email I received from a Tribe fan that starts off with the club’s awful line from our bullpen rankings:

Team     IP    R    ARA    APR    RRA    ARP
CLE   150.7  125   7.51  -45.9   7.81  -50.9

On pace to reach -200 [Adjusted Runs Prevented] and -100 looks like a lock. The worst in your stats archive was Florida in 1999 at -71.2. 29th place currently is -9.3. Is there a way to compare this group to some all-time worst? The Tribe’s 87-88 bullpen was nicknamed ‘Bullpen from Hell’ and the general consensus around Cleveland has been that this performance is worse. And how can David Riske go from the top 10 one year to the bottom 10 the next? AARRGHH!

— W.W.

Ah, those Cleveland fans–always a ray of sunshine. WW’s letter was from a week ago, and the Indians’ pen has actually been pretty good in the interim, so they look a tiny bit better in the current ratings. Still, those bullpen numbers are wretched for this point in the season, and WW’s main question is a good one: Is this a historically bad bullpen?

Rating bullpens from the pre-Retrosheet days is tricky since no one bothered to keep stats from a pitcher’s relief appearances separate from his starting appearances. So we can’t calculate the exact number runs prevented in relief appearances alone. But we can make a pretty good estimate. We’ll do this by partitioning a pitcher’s innings into starting and relief innings according to the proportion of starts and relief appearances made, and assuming that innings per start outnumbered innings per relief appearance by 4-to-1. We do the same with his runs allowed. Once we have this estimate of each pitcher’s relief innings and runs, we can get the bullpen’s Runs Prevented above average (RP) by using a variant of Pete Palmer’s Pitching Runs formula. The numbers are park-adjusted.

Using that method, here’s what we get as the ten worst bullpens of all-time:

Year Team                      RP
1953 Detroit Tigers          -101
1997 San Diego Padres         -88
1974 San Diego Padres         -75
1962 New York Mets            -74
1930 Philadelphia Phillies    -74
1996 Detroit Tigers           -72
1954 St. Louis Cardinals      -70
1975 Chicago Cubs             -67
1944 Brooklyn Dodgers         -67
1938 Philadelphia Phillies    -65

Since the bullpen is so much more prominent in today’s game than at any other time in baseball history, I expected the worst bullpens list would be dominated by teams from the last fifteen years or so. But no, Tiger relievers set a standard of ineptitude a half century ago that no one has come especially close to since. That bullpen allowed 7.12 runs per 9 innings, in a league where the average was 4.49. It was “led” by the immortal Dave Madison, who put up one of the fifty worst relief performances of all time, allowing 55 runs in 62 innings.

But it was their across-the-board consistency that really did this bullpen in. All 14 Tiger pitchers with five or more relief appearances that year were below league average, many of them dramatically so. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that nearly all the names are long forgotten–Ray Herbert, Dick Marlowe, Ray Scarborough. But there is one name that we’ve all heard. Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser contributed 21 1/3 disastrous innings to the club (including three relief appearances) before being released.

The achievement of the 1997 Padres bullpen was perhaps even more impressive, because they did their damage despite having a great reliever in his prime. Trevor Hoffman turned in his usual excellent work in the closer role–a 2.77 RA in 81 1/3 innings–but the rest of the pen was a catastrophe. And that’s no surprise, when you have Doug Bochtler, Sean Bergman and Heath Murray playing important roles in the pen.

If you use the same method to figure the best bullpens of all time, you see the dominance of recent teams I expected in the “Worst” list:

Year Team                      RP
2003 Los Angeles Dodgers       92
2002 Atlanta Braves            85
1990 Oakland Athletics         80
1982 Boston Red Sox            80
2003 Houston Astros            69
2002 Anaheim Angels            66
2003 Anaheim Angels            64
1998 Colorado Rockies          64
1999 Cincinnati Reds           63
2003 Seattle Mariners          62

Actually, I can’t say that I expected recent teams to be quite that dominant in the reliever rankings. Eight out of the ten best all-time bullpens came from the past five years? No Nasty Boys? (The 1990 Reds ranked 27th.) No Henke/Eichhorn Blue Jays? (The 1987 Jays finished 34th.) No Gossage teams? (The 1980 Yankees were 61st.)

Some of the dominance of recent teams is simply because of the higher number of innings pitched by relievers of late. But not all of it. I suspect much of it is due to an increased willingness to put real talent in the bullpen–it’s not just for failed starters anymore–and an ever-increasing reliance on situational strategies. So the next time you’re tempted to complain about the third pitching change of an inning, just remember: for a lot of teams, it works.

But back to WW’s original question: Will this year’s Indians shatter the Tigers’ fifty-year-old standard and go down as the worst bullpen of all time? Probably not. They’ve allowed runs at a rate 38% higher than the league so far, and they’re just not likely to continue that pace throughout a 500-inning season. (The ’53 Tigers’ pen was 59% worse than the league, but in a lot fewer innings than this year’s Indians will get.) Like I said earlier, they’ve been pitching a lot better lately, and there is some talent in that squad. (You can see it if you squint really hard.)

So Tribe fans, take heart. Your bullpen may be bad, but they’re a far cry from the worst in baseball history.

Thank you for reading

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