Those who have crunched the numbers have proof that relief pitchers are a fungible commodity. No, that doesn’t mean the clubhouse guys forgot to wipe down the shower room. The numbers suggest that clubs should spend the fewest dollars on the bullpen, in no small part because relief pitchers’ performances fluctuate so much from year to year, and a good arm worthy of providing 80-90 innings can be found on the cheap.
Yet don’t tell that to the Cleveland Indians. While General Manager Mark Shapiro is a believer in sabermetric principals, he also understands the human element of the game. Shapiro was more than willing to invest in relief pitchers on the free-agent market over the winter, signing four veterans to one-year contracts with club options for 2008: Keith Foulke ($5 million with a $5-million option), Joe Borowski ($4.25 million with a $4 million option), Roberto Hernandez ($3.5 million with a $3.7 million option) and Aaron Fultz ($1.65 million with a $1.5-million option).
“I know people say one of the worst things you can do is spend a lot of money on free-agent relievers, but I think it made a lot of sense in our case,” Indians manager Eric Wedge said. “There is no greater (area of) volatility on your roster than the bullpen, so I think it pays to try to find the most consistent relievers you can, guys you can count on.”
The Indians learned a lesson in bullpen volatility last season as their relievers ranked 11th in the 14 team American League with a 4.73 ERA. In 2005, the Indians’ 2.80 relief ERA led the major leagues. Not surprisingly, the Indians’ record fell from 93-69 in 2005 to 78-84 in 2006, even though they outscored their opponents by 88 runs last season.
While Wedge, like most managers, hates to point fingers at individual players or a certain part of his club, he admits the relievers’ performance made the difference between the Indians contending for a playoff spot into the final days of 2005 and finishing in fourth place in the tough AL Central last year.
“One of the lessons we learned is that you can’t rely on too many young kids in the bullpen,” Wedge said. “You need guys you can count on from one outing to the next… In my opinion, the toughest thing for a club to go through is losing a series of games in the late innings. It’s tough to swallow when you work hard for eight innings to get the lead and then see it slip away. When it happens over and over, it wears on you. Guys are human and sports are emotional. It’s not like we’re making widgets at XYZ Company. Guys start wondering what is going to happen next.”
The Indians’ bullpen suffered 27 losses, torpedoing a fine season by Cleveland’s starting pitchers, whose 4.31 ERA ranked third in the AL behind only Detroit (4.00) and Los Angeles (4.16).
Of the Indians’ five most frequently used relievers last season, in terms of appearances, only Guillermo Mota and Jason Davis had pitched more than 175 innings in the major leagues prior to 2006. Davis, though, had been primarily a starter. Rafael Betancourt had pitched 172 1/3 innings, Fernando Cabrera had logged just 36 innings, and Fausto Carmona had never pitched in the big leagues.
“The season is long, too long,” Betancourt said. “The human body isn’t built to play 162 games in six months. It was just too much for a lot of our young guys. They broke down mentally and physically last season. I don’t think people understand how much wear and tear being a reliever in the major leagues puts on your body. Some of our young guys learned the hard way.”
The Indians want to make sure the learning curve comes in fewer leveraged situations this season. Though Foulke was forced to retire on the eve of spring training because of persistent elbow pain, the Indians believe that Borowski, Hernandez and Fultz will make the bullpen one of the team’s strengths in 2007. Borowski will begin the season as the closer after notching 36 saves for the Florida Marlins last season. Hernandez and his 326 career saves makes him a likely Plan B if Borowski falters.
“What we’ve done is given ourselves options,” Wedge said. “That’s something we didn’t have last season.”
Ironically, PECOTA expects Fultz, perhaps the least-heralded of the Indians’ new relievers, to have the best season in 2007:
NAME PERA VORP WXRL WARP Borowski 4.56 5.3 0.6 1.2 Hernandez 4.28 6.3 0.5 1.1 Fultz 4.33 8.6 0.7 1.4
While the Indians’ bullpen woes were perhaps the most glaring last season, as far as making a difference in the standings, the Baltimore Orioles had an even worse relief ERA, as their 5.27 mark ranked next-to-the-last in the major leagues, ahead of only Kansas City’s 5.41.
The Orioles spent much more money than the Indians to fix the problem, though it is highly debatable whether it will be enough to vault Baltimore past the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, or Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East. In all, Baltimore gave a guaranteed $42.4 million to Danys Baez (three years, $19 million), Jamie Walker (three years, $12 million), Chad Bradford (three, $10.5 million) and Scott Williamson (one year, $900,000) to pitch in front of promising young closer Chris Ray, who had 33 saves last year in his second major league season.
Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo sees the revamped set-up corps being as much help to young starting pitchers like Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen as it will be to Ray. “You hope that we’re no longer in a position where we might be tempted to squeeze an extra inning out of the young guys, which can be dangerous,” Perlozzo said. “Now, they should be able to relax a little more and know they can have confidence to turn the game over to the bullpen when the time comes.”
Here is how PECOTA thinks the Orioles will make out on their investment this season:
NAME PERA VORP WRXL WARP Baez 4.29 8.3 0.7 1.4 Walker 4.02 8.1 0.7 1.2 Bradford 3.52 12.8 1.1 1.8 Williamson 4.31 7.5 0.6 1.3
But there again, big money doesn’t necessarily guarantee big results. How it plays out during the season remains to be seen.
John Perrotto is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and covers Major League Baseball for the Beaver County Times. You can reach John by clicking here.
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