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You wouldn’t know it given the way that their bullpen pitched at times during the latter portion of the American League Championship Series, but the Rays likely wouldn’t have reached this year’s World Series without the remarkable turnaround achieved by that unit. By a couple of measures, the performance of the Tampa Bay bullpen qualifies as historically significant.

In 2007, the Rays’ bullpen finished dead last in the majors with -1.8 WXRL. As if that weren’t bad enough, the bullpen’s Fair Run Average-adjusting their runs allowed per nine innings for their performance in handling inherited runners-virtually tied for the worst of all time at 6.80. Roughly speaking, that’s about three runs allowed for every four innings, a long night of watching a relief corps fritter away a shaky starter’s five-inning effort. Here’s a quick look at the relievers most responsible for this debacle (all stats for relief appearances only):

Pitcher            IP    FRA    WXRL   LEV
Gary Glover      77.1   4.45    0.7   1.12
Brian Stokes     62.1   6.75   -1.3   1.15
Al Reyes         60.2   5.18    2.6   1.78
Shawn Camp       40.0   8.36   -0.9   0.98
Juan Salas       36.1   5.42    0.0   0.67
Scott Dohmann    32.2   2.87    1.1   0.96
Dan Wheeler      25.0   7.73    0.2   1.75
Casey Fossum     24.2   9.92   -0.9   1.02
Jae Kuk Ryu      23.1   7.41   -0.7   0.75
Grant Balfour    22.0   7.39   -0.4   0.77

Pretty ugly, isn’t it? Rays manager Joe Maddon had just two pitchers whose FRAs were below 5.00, workhorse Glover and journeyman Dohmann, the latter of whom didn’t arrive until the second half. So bare was the cupboard of reliable relievers that Maddon was often stuck using ones with FRAs above 6.00 in higher-leverage roles, virtually guaranteeing disaster. The team had overseen the recovery of Reyes from Tommy John surgery in 2006, and he rewarded that patience by getting off to a hot start by compiling a 2.17 ERA through mid-June, converting his first 17 save opportunities, but he was rocked for a 7.39 ERA the rest of the way while converting 10 of 14 opportunities. On the other hand, there weren’t all that many leads to protect and risk being blown.

Maddon and GM Andrew Friedman couldn’t be blamed for wanting to burn the bullpen to the ground and start over, and that’s almost what they did. They signed free agents Troy Percival and Trever Miller, and shifted 2007 starters Jason Hammel and J.P. Howell to the bullpen. Here’s what they got (relief stats only):

Name              IP     FRA  WXRL    LEV
J.P. Howell      89.1   2.78   4.6   1.41
Dan Wheeler      66.1   2.94   2.1   1.84
Grant Balfour    58.1   0.96   3.4   1.34
Jason Hammel     50.2   5.81   0.7   0.84
Troy Percival    45.2   5.26   1.7   1.51
Trever Miller    43.1   3.32   1.5   1.07
Gary Glover      34.0   6.21   0.5   0.81
Al Reyes         22.2   4.86   0.0   0.98
Chad Bradford    19.0   2.65   0.8   1.53
David Price       8.2   1.20   0.1   0.60

Percival, who’d come out of retirement to put together a nice second half in St. Louis in 2007, was installed as the closer, and despite serving stints on the DL in June and July, he saved 27 games and put up a 3.69 ERA into mid-August before injuring his knee while fielding a bunt. He was rocked for seven runs in his first four appearances upon returning, lost his closer job and pitched sparingly while dealing with assorted maladies, and was left off of the post-season roster. Balfour and Wheeler, acquired in separate deals near the 2007 trade deadline, both filled in for Percival, with the former coming up from Triple-A Durham and carving out a roster spot for himself in the closer’s absence. Howell emerged as a multi-inning lefty stopper, giving Maddon a much more versatile palette to draw on for the late innings, while Miller did solid work as a lefty specialist. Meanwhile, 2007 mainstays Glover and Reyes both struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness and were cut loose in midseason as more effective pitchers were added to the roster; Reyes was designated for assignment shortly after the team traded for Bradford in early August.

It all worked like a charm, as the Rays led the majors in WXRL with 15.2 and finished fourth in reliever FRA at 3.70. Their improvements in both categories qualify as the largest year-to-year gains in our database, which now goes back to 1954. Here are the top 20 in year-to-year change in WXRL:

Year   Team        WXRL   Prev   Diff
2008   Rays        15.2   -1.8   17.0
2007   Indians     13.5   -1.5   15.1
1996   Padres      16.0    1.3   14.7
1970   Phillies    11.3   -2.7   14.0
2001   Astros      13.3   -0.4   13.7
2002   Twins       16.7    3.5   13.2
1993   Dodgers     11.8   -1.1   12.9
1992   Indians     10.4   -2.4   12.8
2006   Mets        17.8    5.0   12.8
2004   Cardinals   15.0    2.4   12.6
1974   Braves       5.9   -6.6   12.5
1991   Braves       7.8   -4.6   12.4
1996   Yankees     14.2    1.8   12.3
1998   Padres      15.9    3.8   12.1
2007   Royals      10.4   -1.6   12.0
1989   Cubs         8.8   -2.4   11.2
2002   Braves      18.9    7.9   11.0
2004   Padres      11.0    0.6   10.4
1992   Astros      11.1    0.8   10.4
2000   Mariners    12.0    1.8   10.2
2007   Braves      11.4    1.2   10.2

As usual, there are plenty of good stories to be told starting from such a list. Fourteen out of these 21 teams made the postseason, and five of them, including the Rays, won pennants: the worst-to-first 1991 Braves, the 1996 Yankees, the 1998 Padres, and the 2004 Cardinals.

The 1990 Braves had tallied the third-worst WXRL total in our database, and managers Russ Nixon and Bobby Cox had used nine different pitchers to close out ballgames, with Joe Boever leading the pack with eight saves but a 5.92 FRA and -1.2 WXRL before being mercifully traded to the Phillies. The 1991 Braves benefited greatly from the arrivals of grizzled veteran free-agent Juan Berenguer and rookie Mike Stanton, and sealing the deal was one of the great waiver-period acquisitions of all time, Alejandro Pena. Acquired from the Mets on August 28 for Joe Roa (who never threw a pitch for New York), Pena saved 11 games and put up an 0.18 FRA and 2.0 WXRL over the last five weeks of the season. The Braves won the NL West by a single game, and went all the way to Game Seven of the World Series.

The 1995 Yankees had returned the storied franchise to the postseason despite a bullpen that finished second to last in the league in WXRL. Although John Wetteland had saved 31 games, a rocky two-week period in August saw him turn three save opportunities into losses, and he finished with just 1.6 WXRL. His set-up men weren’t much to write home about either, but that changed for the better the following year, when a second-year pitcher named Mariano Rivera emerged as one of the league’s top relievers, striking out 130 hitters in 107 2/3 innings and finishing second in the AL in WXRL at 6.9. Wetteland himself finished fourth at 6.0. That combo played a huge role in the Yankees’ first world championship in 18 years under new manager Joe Torre; in fact, they’re the only team on this list to win it all.

Speaking of all-time greats like Rivera, the ups and downs of Trevor Hoffman play a role in no fewer than three separate appearances for the Padres on this list, including the 1998 pennant-winners. The future all-time saves leader had topped the 30-save mark for the first time in his career in 1995, but thanks to seven blown saves, he totaled just 0.7 WXRL while sporting a flabby 4.14 FRA amid an awful bullpen. Relying on a much-improved changeup, Hoffman increased his strikeout rate from 8.8 per nine to 11.4 in 1996, and led the league with 7.7 WXRL, while set-up men Tim Worrell and Doug Bochtler finished 10th and 11th, helping the Pad squad to the third-best turnaround of all-time, not to mention the second playoff berth in franchise history. All three pitchers fell off in 1997, with Worrell ending up south of replacement level at -0.3, one of three Padre pitchers to total at least 50 relief innings and a negative WXRL. Hoffman rebounded in 1998, not only leading the league in WXRL again, but also setting a career high with the seventh-best total of all time. Dan Miceli augmented that work by placing ninth, tops among NL set-up men.

The 2003 Cardinals were hamstrung by the fact that Jason Isringhausen missed the first 63 games of the year recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. Steve Kline, Cal Eldred, and Jeff Fassero tried to hold down the fort with predictably bad results; none of them even managed 1.0 WXRL for the year. Izzy rebounded to put up 4.9 WXRL in 2004, good for sixth in the league, while Ray King-acquired over the winter along with Adam Wainwright and Jason Marquis in a deal for J.D. Drew-pitched in with 3.1 mark, a high total for a lefty specialist. Additionally, Kiko Calero and Julian Tavarez both cracked the top 30 to round out the pen. The Cardinals finished second to the Eric Gagne-led Dodgers in WXRL and won 105 games-the fifth-highest total of any post-war NL team-and the pennant, before falling to the Red Sox in the World Series.

The 2006 Mets and 2007 Indians both came within one win of joining the above ranks, but their bullpen turnarounds were nonetheless noteworthy. The former got a huge shot in the arm by upgrading from Braden Looper to Billy Wagner at closer; Wagner finished second in the league in WXRL, while Aaron Heilman and Duaner Sanchez cracked the top 15, and Chad Bradford placed 27th. All told, those Mets posted the fourth-best team WXRL total in our database. The Tribe rebounded from an ugly 2006 thanks to the stellar work of set-up men Rafael Betancourt (second in the league in WXRL) and Rafael Perez (13th despite being a mid-season call-up); much-maligned closer Joe Borowski ranked 16th despite a 4.84 FRA inflated by some early-season woes. Alas, all three tailed off dramatically in 2008; Borowski was released in early July after struggling with triceps issues, while Betancourt saw his FRA rise from 1.07 to 5.43. The team’s 2008 falloff ranks as the fourth-worst in history, and it’s an all-too-familiar story in Cleveland; their 2006 falloff ranks as the third-worst.

Cherry-picking a few highlights among the rest: the 1974 Braves represent a rebound from the second-worst WXRL total in our database. Phil Niekro had led the club in WXRL in 1973, compiling 0.9 WXRL after beginning the year in the bullpen due to shoulder stiffness. Tom House, who was below replacement level in 1973, rebounded to lead the league in WXRL the following year. … The 2002 Braves own the second-highest WXRL in our database. In his first full year as closer, John Smoltz finished second to Gagne in WXRL, while Mike Remlinger and salvage-job Chris Hammond-who hadn’t pitched in the majors since 1998-placed in the top 10. … The 2002 Twins boasted five of the league’s top 20 relievers, with lefty J.C. Romero (5.5 WXRL) ranking third in the league and closer Everyday Eddie Guardado placing seventh. … The 2007 Royals rank as high as they do thanks in large part to GM Dayton Moore hitting the Rule 5 jackpot by plucking Joakim Soria from the Padres; the rookie ranked fifth in the league in WXRL and topped that by finishing third this year. … The 2000 Mariners represent the team that rebounded from a 6.80 FRA the year before, the mark with which the 2007 Rays virtually tied.

On that note, here’s a quick look at the teams that put up the biggest year-to-year Fair Run Average improvements:

Year   Team         FRA   Prev    Diff
2008   Rays        3.73   6.80   -3.07
1974   Braves      3.47   5.79   -2.32
2005   Indians     3.10   5.40   -2.30
1972   Yankees     3.11   5.37   -2.26
1960   Cardinals   3.40   5.58   -2.18
1979   Orioles     3.12   5.23   -2.11
1998   Padres      3.65   5.74   -2.09
1988   Brewers     3.16   5.20   -2.04
2001   Phillies    4.28   6.29   -2.01
2004   Cardinals   3.29   5.29   -2.00
2001   Blue Jays   4.23   6.23   -2.00
1963   Athletics   4.25   6.25   -2.00
1958   Reds        3.52   5.51   -1.99
2000   Mariners    4.89   6.80   -1.91
1967   Red Sox     3.38   5.27   -1.89
1960   Tigers      3.69   5.58   -1.89
1991   Braves      4.18   6.01   -1.83
2001   Astros      4.11   5.90   -1.79
2001   Mariners    3.14   4.89   -1.75
1971   Mets        2.90   4.64   -1.74

Not only do the aforementioned 2000 Mariners make the list, but the 2001 Mariners do as well; they improved by nearly as much while helping the M’s to their 116-win season. Closer Kazuhiro Sasaki and set-up man Arthur Rhodes, both of whom arrived prior to the 2000 season, were the biggest keys to those improvements, with Jeff Nelson putting up an excellent 2001 to push them even further.

Overall, this list is less playoff-centric than the previous one, as just nine out of the 20 teams made the playoffs. Unlike the other list, several teams from the Fifties and Sixties turn up here. Teams didn’t use their bullpens as often back then, preventing large year-to-year WXRL fluctuations, but shifts in performance as captured by FRA could still be dramatic. Of the older teams on this list, the standout is the 1967 Red Sox, the “Impossible Dream” team that returned the Sox to the World Series for the first time since 1946. Along with a stellar year from John Wyatt (2.76 FRA, 3.7 WXRL), they got outstanding work from mid-season call-up Sparky Lyle (1.20 FRA, 1.2 WXRL), who allowed just three out of 28 inherited runners to score. The pennant roll also include the 1979 Orioles, who benefited greatly from the rebound of Tippy Martinez (5.66 FRA in 1978, 2.61 in 1979) and the work of rookies Tim Stoddard and Sammy Stewart, as well as mainstay Don Stanhouse.

Personnel turnover is a recurring theme of these reversals. That may seem like an obvious point, and it’s certainly not uniform across the board; some of these turnarounds were based simply on improvements or rebounds from the pitchers already on hand. Nonetheless, in general the teams who enjoyed the most dramatic bullpen turnarounds did so by shaking things up, whether that meant going the free-agent route to find proven talent and stability, working youngsters into the mix, or overturning rocks to find the next Hammond or Soria. The 2008 Rays did a little of each, showing some creativity by relying on 38-year-old comeback kid Percival at the start of the year, and later turning to top 2007 pick David Price, who made just his eighth big-league appearance to close out Game Seven of the ALCS in an “October Surprise” for the ages. That outside-the-box thinking, as much as anything else, is why they’re playing in a World Series for the first time in their 11-year history.

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