The 30: Want to Win in October? Don’t Dodge Those Bullpen Problems

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Last season, we all got a lesson in the outsize importance of a brilliant bullpen. As the Royals made an unexpected run to within one win of a World Series championship, Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera propped up a team with plenty of roster flaws. Lock down the seventh through ninth innings, and your offense is essentially getting three more innings than your opponent’s. If you do that, you can afford to carry a couple of mediocre starting pitchers or a dead lineup spot or two.

This year, we’ve seen some teams — most notably the Yankees — try to replicate Kansas City’s beefed-up bullpen, but despite the example, other clubs have been thrown off course by erratic relief staffs.

The A’s should be much better than their record indicates, but the bullpen isn’t providing much help. The Twins have a promising future and will need to invest in relief help to speed up the process. The Rangers’ relievers haven’t been healthy because they’re the Rangers. And the free-spending Dodgers have tried to save on late-game pitching, but the returns on that strategy remain TBD.

The pen is not always mightier. It’s Week 19 of The 30.

Best Near-Death Experience of the Week

Anthony Rizzo risked life and limb to catch a foul ball on Wednesday.

With one out in the sixth inning, Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun sliced a popup toward the stands behind first base. Rizzo tracked the ball, sprinted toward the stands, jumped on the tarp at the edge of the field, hopped onto the wall separating fans from the field, leaned over, and made a ridiculous catch — right before landing several rows into the stands.

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Given the Cubs’ current playoff charge and how valuable Rizzo is to their chances, you could argue that attempting that kind of play was slightly insane. But then again, the Chicago Cubs are on fire right now, so insanity might be the new normal.

Leverage Lament

The A’s should be winning a lot more, but their relievers have been the opposite of clutch.

30. Miami Marlins (47-70, minus-53 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Philadelphia Phillies (46-72 record, minus-153, LW: 29)
28. Colorado Rockies (48-68, minus-87, LW: 27)
27. Milwaukee Brewers (51-68, minus-58, LW: 28)
26. Boston Red Sox (52-65, minus-51, LW: 26)
25. Atlanta Braves (53-64, minus-76, LW: 25)
24. Cincinnati Reds (51-65, minus-48, LW: 24)
23. Seattle Mariners (55-63, minus-79, LW: 23)
22. Oakland A’s (51-68, plus-5, LW: 22)
21. San Diego Padres (56-62, minus-58, LW: 21)

This is the 14th season for which FanGraphs has Base Runs data it can overlay on top of the standings to see the gaps between each team’s expected performance and its actual performance.1 The record for most underachieving season is shared by the 2014 Rockies and 2006 Indians; they both won 11 fewer games than you’d expect given their simplest component stats. However, the 2015 A’s are on pace to break that record by three and lose 14 more games than context-independent stats would suggest. For that, they can thank a bullpen that hasn’t just been bad; it’s been bad at exactly the wrong moments.

To convey the situations that are least and most responsible for a team’s wins and losses, Baseball-Reference splits up pitching numbers into three different headings: low leverage, medium leverage, and high leverage. When it comes to opposing hitters’ slash lines, the A’s have MLB’s biggest gap between low-leverage and high-leverage pitching results … by far.

Low leverage .233/.296/.352
Medium leverage .244/.296/.372
High leverage .269/.330/.427

Even after you remove that game-state context, they rank last in park-adjusted ERA. We can blame some of that on injuries. The best relief pitcher on the roster, Sean Doolittle, has thrown just one inning all year. And multiple starting-pitcher injuries forced Jesse Chavez, one of the better pitchers on the roster, out of the bullpen and back into the rotation. Combine those awful stats in big spots with the broader bullpen weakness and it’s no wonder the A’s have baseball’s worst record in one-run games: 13-27.

But, for as bad as the results are, much of that poor performance simply stems from the fickle nature of bullpens and the randomness of late-game situations. Last season, the A’s targeted a group of mostly unheralded relievers, stockpiling plenty of pitchers who’d shown good command in the minors and in their early major league careers but without the longer history of big league success that would net them big paychecks. The result? In 2014, Oakland’s pen compiled the best strikeout-to-walk rate and second-best park-adjusted ERA in MLB.

That the A’s could use the same approach to building a pen one year later, bring back many of the same relievers from 2014, and still fail miserably should be bittersweet for Oakland fans. For now, it’s probably all bitter: The A’s would have the ninth-best record in baseball if their Base Runs performance matched up with actual results, and they’d be in the thick of the playoff race. Soon enough, though, it could be sweet: Considering how volatile bullpen results are — we can reasonably expect more normal results in high-leverage situations and a few relievers to bounce back on the whole — Oakland looks like an early contender for a solid rebound in 2016.

Practicing Patience

The Twins have come back to earth, but better tidings lie ahead.

20. Chicago White Sox (55-60, minus-65, LW: 20)
19. Cleveland Indians (54-62, minus-22, LW: 19)
18. Detroit Tigers (55-61, minus-52, LW: 16)
17. Arizona Diamondbacks (57-59, plus-29, LW: 18)
16. Minnesota Twins (59-58, minus-24, LW: 17)

We started saying it two months ago: Even when the Twins appeared to be riding high, they weren’t very good. For a while, their offense thrived on an unsustainable stretch of bunching hits together, but once that good fortune wore off, the Twins fell back to the pack. They’re 1.5 games back of the second wild-card spot and have a 7.0 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs.

Even if they end up short of the miracle playoff berth, let’s not diminish the Twins’ accomplishments this year. Watching 22-year-old Miguel Sano launch tape-measure home runs out of the cleanup spot, seeing 25-year-old Aaron Hicks putting up numbers after a rough start in the big leagues, or pining for 21-year-old Byron Buxton to get back to The Show and stay there once his talents eventually round into form, it’s easy to see that good things lie ahead for this team.

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Since they’re still rebuilding — despite their fringe-playoff-contender status — there’s no great urgency for Minnesota to build a lockdown bullpen right now. Yet, if things go according to plan and the young ones keep getting better, there should be soon. Consider some of the fungible arms the Twins have trotted out this season:

J.R. Graham: The 25-year-old right-hander was a Rule 5 pick from the Braves in December. The occasional Johan Santana or Shane Victorino jackpot notwithstanding, Rule 5 picks are usually a cheap way to pluck borderline but still usable players off overstocked rosters. Functioning as Minnesota’s most-used bullpen arm, Graham had owned a 2.85 ERA … and then he got rocked for 15 runs in his last eight appearances.

Aaron Thompson: A journeyman who’s missed too few bats to be successful in the big leagues, Thompson posted a 5.01 ERA in 32.1 innings before being sent back to the minors early last month.

Tim Stauffer: The 33-year-old right-hander was released in June, but in 15 innings he posted a 6.60 ERA and a 7.17 FIP.

With pitchers like these soaking up playing time — they’ve combined for more than 100 innings — it’s no surprise that the Twins pen places 21st in park-adjusted ERA.

Now, one of the best ways to build a great major league bullpen is to simply have more quality arms than starting rotation spots. The Twins do have some intriguing pitching prospects ripening in the minors, and we could see Jose Berrios and others crack the big leagues fairly soon. But for now, this is still a team that lacks front-line starting pitching, too, as the team’s starters rank 13th in park-adjusted ERA and 21st in park-adjusted FIP.

Instead, when it comes to building a pitching staff, the mandate here should be the same as it is for Minnesota’s young corps of hitters: Give everyone the time they need to develop, and once they do, spend the necessary money to make sure you don’t have replacement-level players (or worse) receiving the playing time that’s not going to your homegrown talent. When you’re a small-to-mid-revenue team trying to beat richer opponents, building a team through depth and patience is more likely to work than going with stars and scrubs.

Hunting for Health

Pitching injuries have left the Rangers short-handed for the second straight season.

15. Tampa Bay Rays (58-59, minus-16, LW: 15)
14. Texas Rangers (59-57, minus-30, LW: 14)
13. Washington Nationals (58-59, plus-8, LW: 12)
12. Los Angeles Angels (60-57, plus-26, LW: 9)
11. Baltimore Orioles (60-56, plus-69, LW: 13)
10. San Francisco Giants (64-53, plus-68, LW: 11)
9. New York Mets (63-55, plus-22, LW: 10)
8. Houston Astros (64-54, plus-81, LW: 8)
7. New York Yankees (64-52, plus-63, LW: 9)

When it comes to avoiding pitching injuries, the Rangers briefly looked like they might’ve unlocked at least part of the secret code. Heading into the 2010 season, Nolan Ryan was working from the executive suite, strength and conditioning coach Jose Vazquez was preaching some of the same regimen that Ryan credited for his own success, and Mike Maddux was exerting his quiet brand of influence as pitching coach. Led by that trio, Texas pitchers seemed to have grown adept at staying healthy.

Fast forward five years: Both Ryan and Vazquez are gone. And thanks to a rash of injuries that was historically bad last year and only a bit less painful this season, Maddux, now one of baseball’s longest-tenured (and most respected) pitching coaches, has had to funnel his tutelage toward less-talented pitchers.

While much of the coverage has (rightfully) centered on the loss of Yu Darvish and Derek Holland, who have combined to start just 28 games over the past two seasons and pitch just one inning in 2015, the Texas bullpen has suffered plenty from its own health issues. Last year, the Rangers set the all-time record for most relievers used by any team in a single season (25). This year, the injury bug hasn’t bitten quite as hard, but their bullpen ranks 26th in park-adjusted ERA and 29th in park-adjusted FIP.

The most painful recent casualty among Rangers relievers was Neftali Feliz. A top-10 prospect according to both Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America before the 2010 season, Feliz had flashed electrifying stuff while dominating much older competition at every level of the minors and was expected to become a starter. Despite those impressive results, the Rangers instead decided that the 22-year-old Feliz would have a quicker path to success if he shifted to the closer role and threw just two pitches in the majors — a few sliders mixed in with an onslaught of high-90s fastballs. In Feliz’s 2010 rookie campaign, the decision looked brilliant: His opponents hit just .195 off his fastball (which he fired more than 80 percent of the time) and a microscopic .059 on at-bats ending with that nasty slider. Feliz struck out more than a batter an inning, saved 40 games, made the All-Star team, and won the AL Rookie of the Year award. His command wavered the next season, but he still saved 32 games and posted playable numbers as the closer for the 2011 pennant-winning Rangers.

Then, in August of 2012, Feliz went under the knife for Tommy John surgery, and he hasn’t been the same since. By July 10 of this year, the Rangers had grown so exhausted with Feliz’s injuries and his inability to get batters out when he did pitch that they simply released him.2 Fellow homegrown righty Tanner Scheppers was Baseball America’s no. 42 prospect in 2010, made The Show in 2012, and looked like a keeper when he flashed a 1.88 ERA in 2013. He then spent 158 days on the disabled list last year, posted a 5.66 ERA in 35 innings this year, and is now back on the shelf with a knee injury.

In addition to the struggles of Feliz and Scheppers, the injuries to Darvish, Holland, Matt Harrison,3 and Nick Tepesch have prevented any would-be starters from fortifying the pen this year.

The good news for the Rangers is that years of strong drafting and international talent hauls mean that several promising pitchers (and position players) are nearing the majors. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked Texas’s farm system no. 3 in the majors last month, and while it has since sent some intriguing prospects to Philly in exchange for Cole Hamels, the system remains in good shape. Former first-round pick Luke Jackson could make his major league debut next month; 2015 third-rounder Michael Matuella could arrive in 2016 or 2017 once he recovers from Tommy John surgery; this year’s no. 4 overall pick, Dillon Tate, has the talent to blaze through the minors; and others are coming, too.

Despite all the rotten injury luck, Texas has benefited from some hit-sequencing fortune in 2015,4 and the Rangers sit just one game out of the second wild-card spot. While the numbers don’t favor them to jump the Angels (or the Orioles), 2016 is already looking promising. If Darvish and the rest of this year’s wounded can return in good stead next year, the Rangers will have enough talented arms to potentially staff both a solid rotation and a good bullpen. For all the subtleties of building a pitching staff, it ultimately boils down to this: Get as many good pitchers as you can, wait for the inevitable injuries, and roll with what’s left.

Wrongheaded Risk

Unchastened by last season’s playoff exit, the Dodgers will once again enter October with a questionable bullpen.

6. Los Angeles Dodgers (67-51, plus-61, LW: 6)
5. Toronto Blue Jays (65-54, plus-138, LW: 4)
4. Chicago Cubs (67-49, plus-32, LW: 5)
3. Pittsburgh Pirates (69-46, plus-70, LW: 3)
2. Kansas City Royals (71-46, plus-77, LW: 2)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (75-42, plus-123, LW: 1)

For a team that’s been in first place for most of the season, a squad that boasts a star-studded roster led by the best pitcher on the planet and a payroll pushing $300 million, the Dodgers still have plenty of problems.

The offense, once an unstoppable machine that wrecked everything in its path, has cooled down after a red-hot start. Joc Pederson, once a three-true-outcomes king, is batting .163 with three homers since July 1 and striking out in more than one-third of his at-bats over that span. Meanwhile, Yasiel Puig remains nowhere near the superstar pace he showed in his rookie campaign two years ago.

With Clayton Kershaw reasserting his best-in-the-game status and comparisons to Bob Gibson’s 1968 masterpiece looking perfectly sane for Zack Greinke, the rotation is a joy to watch … two out of every five days. The rest of the time, results go from unpredictable to scary. Brett Anderson boasts a solid 3.48 ERA and baseball’s highest ground ball rate, but he has allowed fewer than three runs just twice in his last seven starts. As for L.A.’s two trade-deadline pickups: Mat Latos and Alex Wood have combined to post a 5.85 ERA over six starts in Dodger blue.

When looked at through a wider lens, though, the starting pitching and the offense aren’t overwhelming concerns. Puig has started to hit a lot better lately, Pederson has the talent to bounce back, and the returns of Justin Turner, who’s healthy again, and Howie Kendrick, who could come back from the DL in two weeks, should raise overall production. And even if the other three-fifths of the rotation can’t figure things out, once the playoffs start, the Dodgers can deploy Kershaw and Greinke three times in a five-game series, and as many as five times in a seven-gamer.

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The real dark cloud hanging over this team, then, is the same one that helped make Kershaw and Don Mattingly into playoff goats last year against the Cardinals: Other than Kenley Jansen, the bullpen, with the third-worst park-adjusted ERA in baseball, is one big bowl of question marks.

In the playoffs, if Kershaw tires by the seventh (as we painfully witnessed twice last fall), Greinke has an off day and can’t make it past six, or whoever else starts delivers a mediocre effort, the Dodgers will need to wring multiple outs from non-Jansen relievers. Not counting the closer, Dodgers relievers have a 4.27 ERA on the year. And while fielding-independent numbers suggest that L.A.’s relievers on the whole are something closer to an above-average group, the results over the past month have been downright horrific.

So, the underlying numbers do provide some reason to hope, but given last year’s playoff meltdown, the awful season-to-date run-prevention numbers, and the disaster over the past month, you can’t fault Dodgers fans for not feeling too hot about the current relief situation. But here are some more bits of optimism for the pen:

• Despite missing a month and a half with a chest injury in mid-May, Pedro Baez has evolved into a homegrown success story. He has parlayed a 98 mph fastball and wipeout slider into impressive numbers: 45 strikeouts, 28 hits, and eight walks in 37 innings.

• Juan Nicasio and J.P. Howell can be functional complementary pieces when they’re on: Nicasio has remade himself as a high-strikeouts reliever (albeit one who walks a batter every other inning) and Howell continues to befuddle hitters with his slow curve (unfortunately, they’re batting nearly .300 against his fastball).

• Rookie right-hander Yimi Garcia could lend some more support if he can regain the impressive form he showed in the first two months of the season. Four straight ugly outings in late June and early July earned him a demotion to Triple-A, but after being called back up on August 11, he hasn’t allowed a run.

• Mattingly has also learned some lessons in what not to do: 5.1 innings were enough to convince him never to use Jim Johnson in any game where the lead on either side is fewer than 10 runs, and now that hitters have figured out Joel Peralta’s cagey, low-velocity repertoire, he probably won’t see any more high-leverage spots, either.

However, the biggest complaint from many fans isn’t necessarily directed at Mattingly, or even at the team’s relievers themselves; it has to do with the front office. After contending teams like the Cardinals, Blue Jays, Pirates, and others made aggressive trades for bullpen help at the deadline, why didn’t the Dodgers, eager to build and spend on depth everywhere else on the roster, follow suit?

It’s because Andrew Friedman & Co. have recognized the volatility of bullpens and decided not to invest big money in their own. After all, many of baseball’s best relief arms are young, homegrown, inexpensive pitchers once ticketed for the rotation who instead ended up dominating in relief (Dellin Betances, Trevor Rosenthal, Zach Britton), while many pricey free-agent bullpen acquisitions fail spectacularly.5

That doesn’t mean it’s the right decision, though. Friedman isn’t running a shoestring budget like he was in Tampa, and smartly allocated money can still fortify your bullpen. Just look at the Astros: They spent actual money to address a troubling relief corps, and they’re reaping the benefits of having veterans Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek to stabilize what’s now one of the league’s best pens. When the Dodgers outspend Houston and everyone else by tens and/or hundreds of millions, it’s odd to see them try to play Moneyball with a bullpen that caused so many problems in the playoffs.

Now, it’s possible that Baez, Garcia, & Co. form an effective bridge from the starters to Jansen, and Los Angeles finally breaks through and rolls to the World Series. But that’s not the point: By heading into the postseason with a teetering pen, the resource-rich Dodgers are opting for a chance they really don’t have to take.

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Power Rankings, Baseball, The 30, Jonah Keri, Relief Pitching, Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs, Oakland A's, Sean Doolittle, Jesse Chavez, Minnesota Twins, Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Texas Rangers, Neftali Feliz, Tanner Scheppers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Don Mattingly, Kenley Jansen, Pedro Baez, Yimi Garcia, MLB Stats

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri