The Bullpen Crapshoot
It has become particularly obvious in the past three seasons of baseball that the bullpen can no longer be an afterthought, but instead can make all the difference between success and failure. As Confucius said, the Rangers learned this lesson bitterly each of those three seasons. The 2010 Giants used their bullpen to dominate in their World Series win over Texas. The 2011 World Series ended with the Rangers bullpen failing to hold the leads that put a championship in their grasp, while the Cardinals and Tony La Russa’s funky bullpen usage resulted in a ring. The 2012 season for the Rangers ended with not enough reliable arms, while Oakland rode their bullpen to the AL West title thanks to a record-setting number of walk-off wins and excellent performance in close games.
In 2012, the best bullpen in the American League belonged to the Tampa Bay Rays. The best reliever on the Rays was Fernando Rodney. Rodney posted the lowest-ever ERA at 0.60, to go with outstanding peripherals as well (9.2 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 5.2 H/9). The year before, Rodney was worse than terrible, walking an outstanding 7.9 batters per nine innings for the Angels, and was essentially written off as a lost cause after that season.
In 2011, the best bullpen in the AL was the New York Yankees. Their best reliever that year was David Robertson. He posted a 1.08 ERA, with 13.5 K/9. The year before, Robertson’s ERA out of the bullpen was 3.82, which was only slightly above league average. Robertson’s peripherals were great in both 2010 and 2011. The difference-maker in 2011 was Robertson’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) against. BABIP is really just a more statistical way of saying “luck”. Some pitchers/hitters can generate high or low BABIPs, but in general everyone is about average, which is .300. Any fluctuations from that is just “lucky” or “unlucky”. In 2010, Robertson’s BABIP against was .335. In 2011, it was .289. Robertson’s home run per fly ball ratio also dropped from 8.8% to 2.3% between seasons.
In 2010, the best bullpen was the Rays again, and the best reliever was Joaquin Benoit. Prior to 2010, the last time that Benoit had pitched was as a member of the Rangers in 2008. Benoit’s final campaign as a Ranger ended with a 5.00 ERA and 7.0 BB/9 out of the bullpen. After rotator cuff surgery and missing all of the 2009 season, Benoit returned to post a 1.34 ERA and a 6.8 K/BB ratio in 2010.
In 2009, the Oakland Athletics led the league in bullpen ERA behind their rookie closer, Andrew Bailey. Bailey burst on the scene, winning Rookie of the Year behind his 1.84 ERA. Fast forward to 2012, and Bailey only played half the season due to injuries, posting a 7.04 ERA in the process.
Bullpens are incredibly inconsistent, not only among which team has the best bullpen in the league year to year, but also the individual players in those bullpens. There are a select few who are solid year in and year out, but even that list is growing shorter and shorter each season (and somehow Darren Oliver is on it now). Successful bullpen arms, especially recently, are more often than not surprises, not “proven” successful relievers. In just these four examples I offered from 2009-2012, we have four different categories of successful relievers, even if just for one year. There is the Reclamation Project (Rodney), the Due for a Lucky Season (Robertson), the Return From Injury (Benoit), and the Rookie (Bailey).
Here are some candidates who could land in the Rangers bullpen this offseason in these roles, and being the difference makers to put the Rangers bullpen back among one of the best in the league.
Brad Lidge – Lidge was awful for the Nationals in 2012, and was released in mid-June after giving up 10 runs and 11 walks in 9.1 innings. Lidge had hernia surgery in late April. The 35-year old was one of the best relievers in baseball in 2010 and 2011.
Francisco Liriano – Liriano likely will not sign to be a reliever this offseason in a free agent market that is shallow on starting pitchers. However, if he could be inked as a reliever, the enigmatic lefty could be dominant pitching all-out in short bursts.
Guillermo Mota – The 2012 Giants had a great bullpen in their World Series victory, but that was no thanks to Mota. The 39-year old had a 5.23 ERA. However, he did post 10.5 K/9, well above his career average of 7.3 K/9, while keeping his walk rate at his career average. He also had the misfortune of collecting a .389 BABIP. I’m not crazy about signing 39-year olds, but Mota fits the bill of what we’re looking for here.
Todd Coffey – Filled with hot politics opinions, and so much more at 280 pounds, Coffey has showed moments of brilliance out of the bullpen in the past couple of seasons, but overall has been unimpressive. He could be a candidate to put it all together for one great year.
Due for a Lucky Season
These are the pitchers who had better peripherals than their seasons would suggest, partially driven by above-average BABIP rates in 2012.
Jason Frasor – 4.12 ERA, 10.9 K/9, and .333 BABIP
Brandon Lyon –3.10 ERA, 9.3 K/9, and .305 BABIP
Michael Gonzalez – 3.03 ERA, 9.8 K/9, and .309 BABIP
Jason Grilli – 2.91 ERA, 13.8 K/9, and .309 BABIP
Juan Cruz – 2.78 ERA, 8.3 K/9, and .346 BABIP
Return From Injury
This list is short for me, and includes two former lights-out closers who missed all of 2011 due to injury, and could use 2012 as a one-year shot at a long-term deal.
In 2012, the Rangers bullpen got a big boost from Robbie Ross. It was mostly unexpected for Ross to break camp with the Rangers, and especially to perform as well as he did. He wore down and battled injuries as the season went on, but he showed that a rookie can produce and contribute on this club, if their performance warrants it. Who in the Rangers system right now could be that spark plug in 2013? Perhaps one of these very live arms that is currently in the farm system:
Wilmer Font (2012 across two levels: 4.03 ERA, 138 SO and 44 BB in 98.1 IP)
Roman Mendez (2012 across three levels: 4.43 ERA, 87 SO and 30 BB in 91.1 IP)
Matt West (missed 2012 due to UCL injury in elbow, underwent Tommy John surgery in August)
Jon Daniels recently suggested that the team is not likely to bring back Mike Adams this offseason, because the team would prefer to not give multi-year contracts to non-closing relievers. Given the sporadic nature of bullpen performance across the league, that position is completely justifiable. Why commit big dollars and multiple years to production that could be found for an inexpensive one-year deal? Apart from perhaps Grilli, Cruz, and Lyon, each of the relievers listed in this piece could be signed for a one-year deal, and/or would be very inexpensive.
There is more to finding a surprise contributor in the bullpen than reviewing some statistics and small sample performances; scouting and talent evaluators may be the biggest key. The Rangers are one of the best in the business in that area. So don’t be surprised if you don’t recognize a lot of the names on the backs of the uniforms stationed in the ‘pen in right-center in 2013, but don’t misinterpret that lack of recognition into a lack of confidence in their performance.