Friday, October 29, 2010

How big is bullpen depth?

Watching the Rangers' bullpen completely melt down in the eighth inning last night, I couldn't help but wonder how the Nationals' relief corps might have handled that situation. Seven runs allowed, all with two outs? Four straight walks, two with the bases loaded? Yeah, we've seen that before.

At least one member of the Nats bullpen was watching and had sympathy for Texas left-hander Derek Holland (who at one point threw 11 consecutive balls). As Collin Balester wrote on his Twitter account (the typos are his):

"Sometimes throwing Strikes isn't easy. I feel for Holland I never like to see anyone struggle like that.I have been there before#worldseries"

The funny thing is, the Rangers bullpen was quite good all season. That unit posted a 3.38 ERA, sixth-best in the majors (the Nats ranked fifth). It held opponents to a .236 batting average (tied for fifth-best). It did issue 203 walks in 503 2/3 innings. But the group as a whole was very strong, boasting five pitchers with ERAs under 3.00: Neftali Feliz, Darren O'Day, Darren Oliver, Alexi Ogando and Michael Kirkman.

The Nationals had three relievers with sub-3.00 ERAs: Sean Burnett, Joel Peralta and Balester. (You could also throw Matt Capps in there if you want to count his numbers before he was traded to Minnesota.) They had five more relievers with ERAs under 4.00: Tyler Clippard, Miguel Batista, Drew Storen, Doug Slaten and Tyler Walker.

In the end, the depth of the Nats bullpen was perhaps as important (if not more important) than its talent. With a starting staff that threw only 889 1/3 innings (only the Pirates rotation threw fewer), Jim Riggleman needed a lot of work out of a lot of relievers this year. Guys like Batista and Peralta, who often pitched the fifth and sixth innings, were just as important as Storen and Burnett in the eighth and ninth.

So how would the Nationals have handled that eighth-inning situation last night? When the inning began, the Rangers were down 2-0, needing a new pitcher after using a pinch-hitter in the top of the inning. Figure Peralta or Clippard would have gotten the call to face Andres Torres, Freddy Sanchez and Buster Posey. If Riggleman felt the need to turn to a lefty once Nate Schierholtz's spot came up, Burnett probably would have been next in line. And even if something went wrong there, Riggleman would still have had either Peralta or Clippard, Batista, Balester or even Storen.

Ron Washington might have been wise to think in those terms. As Game 2 (and perhaps the entire World Series) crumbled before his eyes, his closer remained on the bench. Feliz never warmed up. No, the Rangers never had the lead to put Feliz in a position to pitch in the closer's traditional role. But sometimes a two-run deficit in the eighth inning is just as important a spot as a two-run lead in the ninth inning. Sometimes even more so.

Managers have fallen into a trap of thinking they can never use their closer unless it's the ninth inning and their team leads by one, two or three runs. That's incredibly foolish thinking. Had the Rangers simply been able to record one more out in the bottom of the eighth, they could have entered the ninth down only two runs. They still would have had a fighting chance to win the game. Who was the best option to record that one out? How about their best reliever, even if he is the closer?

Instead, the parade of second-tier Texas relievers turned that game into a rout. And by the time the ninth inning came around, the score now 9-0, there was no hope of a rally.

Bullpen usage is one of the most-important parts of a manager's job. Ron Washington's decision-making last night was almost as bad as his relievers' attempts to throw strikes. If the Rangers lose this series, that torturous inning may haunt them for a long time.


Feel Wood said...

First you say "the Rangers bullpen was quite good all season. That unit posted a 3.38 ERA, sixth-best in the majors (the Nats ranked fifth). It held opponents to a .236 batting average (tied for fifth-best). It did issue 203 walks in 503 2/3 innings. But the group as a whole was very strong, boasting five pitchers with ERAs under 3.00: Neftali Feliz, Darren O'Day, Darren Oliver, Alexi Ogando and Michael Kirkman."

Then you argue "Who was the best option to record that one out? How about their best reliever, even if he is the closer?

Instead, the parade of second-tier Texas relievers turned that game into a rout."

Your conclusion that they ran out a parade of second-tier relievers last night is not at all supported by your expository argument, Mark.

Sam said...

Actually, it absolutely is. Closers are the best relievers in a team's bullpen. Middle relievers are, then, the leftovers from those who didn't make the rotation and weren't as good as the closer. So, the "first tier" or relievers should be defined as the 30 closers (or thereabouts, Storen might not be there yet). The next tier is all of the other relievers in the leagues.

Relative to other relievers, yes, they are very talented. However, they are still "second tier" relievers.

Doc said...

Good introductory analysis MarkMeister.

The argument that you make for short-term relief was proposed by Bill James/Theo Epstein a few years back, ergo why not bring in your best, first in the relief parade--stopping something before it gets out of hand.

It was the 8th inning, and a limited series opportunity World Series Game, and to use Feliz with 2 outs would have been good managing.

Mark Zuckerman said...

Feel Wood: I guess the point I was trying to make is that a deep bullpen is important over the course of a 162-game season, but once you get to the postseason, it's more important to use your best relievers. I could have done a better job making that clear.

Sec3MySofa said...

I believe there's a technical term for this

DC Tom said...

I totally agree that once the bases were loaded in the bottom of the eighth, Neftali Feliz should have been brought in. That was the highest leverage at-bat in the game and you have to have your highest leverage pitcher out there. I might even have brought in Feliz after the Posey single. Today is an off-day, there is no problem with a four-out Feliz appearance.

The Nats gave up 132 fewer runs this season than last year, a 15% improvement. That change was almost soley attributable to the bullpen.

Nats starters
2009: 0.61 runs per inning
2010: 0.58 runs per inning

Nats relievers:
2009: 0.61 runs per inning
2010: 0.42 runs per inning

Hard to capture bullpen effectiveness in one metric, but still, that's a big swing for the bullpen this year, while the starters produced at roughly the same level.

By means of comparison, this year Texas relievers allowed 0.39 runs per inning.

DC Tom said...

Looking at runs scored/runs allowed provides a simple outline of how to get this team to .500 ball next year:

First, we need the 2009 offense (710 runs) back, not the 2010 version (655 runs). I think a healthy Willingham, a full season of Espinosa, growth of Desmond, less Adam Kennedy and Willie Harris, and even a moderate improvement in Nyjer Morgan can hit that 10% improvement. (Oh, yeah and that 1B issue too.)

Second, we need the 2010 bullpen (0.42 runs per inning) again. Eminently do-able. Shoot, we could even sign Jon Rauch back to trade him again later.

Third, we need the starters (0.58 runs per game) to exhibit apx 10% improvement *and* pitch 1000 innings (as they did in 2009, instead of 884 this year).

If the second two happen, you are at approximately 710 runs allowed. 710 scored + 710 allowed = 0.500 baseball team.

It is not unreasonable to think that the starters could improve 10% as a unit this year. It'd take a couple strategic signings this year, a fully-returned Zimmermann and an adequate Marquis...but it's possible.

hondo69 said...

DC Tom, that's an excellent analysis. I agree totally. BUT, with Riggleman still managing this team, IMO, it's an extreme longshot for our starting rotation to reach the 1000-inning mark. Riggs is definitely Captain Hook Jr. (Only the great Sparky Anderson pulled his starters more quickly). Way too often this past season, Riggs pulled veterans Livo, Lannan and Olsen in the 6th or 7th inning with only about 80 or 85 pitches thrown, in the process overworking his bullpen. Clippard was especially overused, even when he was in one of his funks. Just imagine how good our bullpen stats could have been with a competent manager!

It is very hard for me to believe that Rizzo is accepting mediocrity when an outstanding and proven ML manager like Bobby Valentine is still available. There's no doubt in my mind that Bobby V would take our team to the next level.

Now, before everyone starts bombarding me with the financial aspect of bringing Valentine here, all I can say is YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR! If the Lerners are unwilling to pay top dollar for a top-flight manager, then we, unfortunately, will continue to plod along our mediocre ways, probably finishing last, or next to last for the forseeable future.

JD said...


Did you ask yourself how come the Marlins didn't sign Valentine? The Cubs? The Mariners?

It's not just the money; Valentine is a control freak and so far no one wants to give him the full control he wants.

It's reasonable to stay with Riggleman this year because you retain some flexibility; this team is not ready to contend in 2011 no matter who manages and if we aren't in or around .500 we can make a move in 2012 when Strasburg is back and enough pieces are in place to have a real go at it.

Theophilus said...

Nats bullpen was just plain superior. The Rangers' nearly 4 walks per nine innings is the key. Over time, meltdowns like that become a statistical likelihood. Nats were especially fortunate to have Burnett, who in the latter part of the season was able to dominate both left-handers and right-handers, and Clippard, who handled left-handers reasonably well. In other words, they weren't limited to facing a single batter and then walking back to the dugout to get the L/R matchup again.

Digressing for the moment, every rumor about Bobby Valentine in line for X managerial job starts w/ Bobby Valentine.

hondo69 said...

JD, we'll just agree to disagree! If you're content to watch double switch Riggleman take out Michael Morse in the 6th inning in a 1-run game after hitting 2 HRs, one of them a 3-run shot, well, there's no hope for "fans" like you. I can think of 6 or 7 games off the top of my head that Riggs screwed up with his constant overmanaging. Valentine would have produced around a .500 record if he had managed our team this season. Even Rizzo said at mid-season we were vastly underachieving. Then, he turna around and brings Riggs back with the ENTIRE coaching staff!! I was praying that Listach would get one of the managing jobs that were open, but, unfortunately, "Hold 'em up" Pat will be back. He is, without a doubt, one of the WORST 3rd base coaches I've ever seen, and that's including some 40 years of watching MLB.

JD, you call it being a "control freak" but I prefer to call it being a strong presence in the dugout and clubhouse. IMO, the main reason Rizzo didn't seek to hire Valentine, other than the finances, is because he wanted a manager he could control. Riggs was happy to just be a ML manager; Bobby V would only come here if he could do it his way. With his resume, Valentine has proven that he knows what he's doing, contrary to the lifetime .442 winning percentage of Riggleman (btw, the WORST W-L record in MLB history for anyone who's managed as many games as he has).

Like I said before, if you're satisfied with that, that's your prerogative. However, after all these years of bad baseball, including horrendous fundamentals, baserunning blunders and horrific defense, I think most long-suffering Nats fans are sick of the status quo when an eminently qualified manager like Valentine is just itching to get back on the saddle again.

Sunderland said...

I'm with hondo, I want a new manager.
And I'm with JD, I do not want it to be Valentine.

I have listed more than once my reasons for wanting Riggleman gone. But if he's here one more year, it will make little difference.

We have much bigger fish to fry than the manager position. And Rizzo, one way or another, is on a budget. Spend it on players, not on coaches and managers.

Like adding Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay, it makes sense at a certain point, less sense until you get to that point.

Same with our manager spot. It matters, yes, but not all that much right now.

JayB said...

Go to see the mainstream is coming around to the facts here....Big Change and if Rizzo does not get the support he needs in the way of cash then he will be gone too.

natsfan1a said...

fwiw, I believe that Hondo and Hendo are two different commenters. That, and opinions are not facts. As for me, I don't believe the manager makes that big a difference when you don't have all the moving parts in place. Not that I'm a big Riggleman fan, because I'm ambivalent on that front. Just my two cents' worth.

JayB said...

good catch.....still the comments are a way to move this franchise forward....stop accepting incompetence and hopping that someday 100 lose average turns into something other under achievement.

Faraz Shaikh said...

Before Buck joined O's, I didn't believe in good managers either. I didn't think managers had much effect on team results. Orioles were considered short of many competent position players but Buck changed all that and was a big reason for making life hell for other AL East clubs. Is Riggs capable of doing something like that? I don't think so but there aren't many managers who could do that. Since Riggs is already on board for next season, I think we should give him some additional pieces and see how he deals with the team. Because let's be real, our team this season wasn't exactly the best we could put. Besides 3B, SS, and 1B, all other positions had different players at different times during the season.

hondo69 said...

1a, I realize that there are many fans who feel the way you do about the effect of managers on teams' performances. I agree with your premise only in the instances involving average, run-of-the-mill managers. However, in our situation, I firmly believe that Riggs had more "moving parts in place" than you believe was the case.

Around midseason, even Mike Rizzo was apparently upset with the lack of progress by this manager and coaching staff by mentioning that he felt the ballclub was underachieving. As the weeks wore on, there was very little improvement in the product on the field.

I must admit that I lost a little respect for Rizzo when he publicly praised Riggs, saying what a great job he was doing. I can't believe that a baseball lifer like Rizzo could honestly believe that. He had a rare opportunity to hire a star-quality, proven manager like Bobby Valentine and he blew it! To bring Riggs and his entire coaching staff back after this fiasco of a season is, IMO, a slap in the face to all Nats' fans.

I believe the Brewers will hire Valentine in the next week or so. They've had back-to-back disappointing seasons after making the playoffs for the first time in 26 years. If Bobby V is hired, I guarantee he will have that team back in contention in that weak division for seasons to come.

In the meantime, Riggs probably won't last past the All-Star game, and we'll more than likely hire another mediocre, retread manager. I don't know how the rest of you feel, but after these last three seasons in particular, WE DESERVE BETTER!!!

JamesFan said...

I'm not convinced the Nats should stand pat on their bullpen next year. Capps was spectacular and I don't see anyone left in the pen which is a sure-thing closer. Opening the season without an established closer is very risky--even if we get a top line starter to strengthen the staff.

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