Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Lazy Sunday Sorting Through the Bull(pen)

Last week, it was written that “fattening up” is what the Indians needed to do against what look to be the dregs of the AL (and that Seattle lineup is almost as bad as the Royals’ pitching) and they’re probably loosening their belt a little bit as they finish up their road trip that took them through Kansas City, Seattle, and Oakland – three teams that look likely to finish at or near the bottom of their respective divisions, if anything is to be gleaned from seeing each of these teams in the early going. The Indians needed to build some momentum with this portion of their schedule and they’ve done just that as they prepare to welcome the Royals to the friendly confines before the big, bad, bloated (paying Vernon Wells $24M this year) Angels, the team with the big off-season that has resulted in them being…wait for it…7 games back in their division after just a couple of weeks into the season. While the Angels aren’t likely to play .357 baseball throughout the season, the Indians have the opportunity to carry the thrust from this road trip (and perhaps the Royals series) to take advantage of an Angels’ team still looking to find its sea legs.

But that’s getting too far ahead of ourselves and knowing what the 2012 Indians actually are or will be is still far off on the horizon as there have been both positive signs and negative ones since the season started. In fact, the idea that much can be gleaned from small samples is always one that’s bothered me in terms of baseball coverage this early in the season and burying the Angels (or Red Sox) as fun as that may be is always premature. Unless you’re talking about an aspect of a particular team (Kansas City’s pitching, Seattle’s offense, Minnesota’s…well, team) that was thought to be a weak spot and has looked worse than expected, the results of April are often fool’s gold.

Certainly, these games count just as the ones in September do in the midst of a pennant race, but if you’re overly analyzing the performance of a particular player based on what happens before Memorial Day even, then…well, you’re doing it wrong. That is said, of course, with the full knowledge that Josh Tomlin “outdueled” King Felix for a victory a day after I wrote that he may find himself as the odd man out when/if Roberto Hernandez returns. However, against one of the worst lineups that I can remember seeing (hey, Chone Figgins is hitting leadoff and Phil Humber just threw a Perfect Game against them) thrown out there by The Atomic Wedgie in the Emerald City, Tomlin did what Masterson and Lowe could not in going deep into the game and giving the bullpen some much-needed rest.

Interestingly, his 8-inning outing represented only the 2nd time that a starter had gone 8 innings (Masterson did it on Opening Day) and what’s interesting is that, the 8-inning outing from “The Lil’ Cowboy” (as Acta dubbed him after the victory) was the first time that an Indians’ pitcher had gone at least 7 innings since Masterson, Ubaldo, and Lowe each did in the opening series with Toronto. What has happened since that series with Toronto has been some shorter outings for the Tribe starters, either due to Acta’s hook or the umpire’s thumb (in the case of Jeanmar), which has caused the bullpen to throw a good number of innings, which is the topic of today’s Lazy Sunday…

Though we’re still more than a week away from May, the innings are piling up for the Tribe’s bullpen as (going into Saturday night), the Indians’ bullpen is AVERAGING a little less than 4 1/3 IP per game. Certainly, they’ve played in some extra inning games and the game in Kansas City (in which Gomez was ejected), which play a role here, but take a look at where they rank among all MLB teams in terms of IP for bullpens, per game:
Cleveland – 4.19 IP (50 1/3 IP in 12 games)
Kansas City – 3.72 (48 1/3 IP in 13 games)
Pittsburgh – 3.49 IP (45 1/3 IP in 13 games)
San Diego – 3.44 IP (51 2/3 IP in 15 games)
New York (AL) – 3.38 (47 1/3 IP in 14 games)
Washington – 3.38 (47 1/3 IP in 14 games)
Just to provide some context here, the Orioles’ bullpen threw 3.55 innings per game last year to lead MLB…by a pretty wide margin. Just to go further, the Indians were in the middle of the pack, with the bullpen throwing 3.07 innings per game in 2011.

Perhaps this is ignoring my own advice and making too much of what looks like an inordinately high number (compared to the rest of MLB) in just a couple week’s worth of games, but the bullpen is almost AVERAGING 4 1/3 IP per game. Watching Ubaldo’s pitch counts start after start and realizing that Tomlin and Gomez are still largely back-of-the-end rotation fodder who could be chased early in a good many starts, I’m not sure if this isn’t the start of a trend that could have a profound effect on the performance of the overall bullpen in 2012 and, perhaps more importantly, the health of these individual relievers (which looked so solid as a group last year) heading into this “window of contention”, in which the bullpen looks to be a strength. 

Admittedly, bullpen performance is certainly something that is difficult to quantify on a player-by-player basis in such a short amount of time and because of the short outings for these, but bullpen usage is much easier to see in terms of the stress and workload being placed on a bullpen. That’s not to say that the “player-by-player” analysis should be ignored (even this early), as many of us will remember Joe Borowski almost single-handedly botched away the start of the 2008 season (he had a 7.56 ERA and a 1.92 WHIP in only 16 2/3 IP that year before the Indians designated him for assignment on July 4th of that year, 4 days before they would trade CC Sabathia), in a year that was…um, kind of important to the Indians.

Certainly I’m not suggesting that there’s any link nearly as weak on this team as Brodzoski (The Close) was in 2008, as Borowski gave up nearly 3 times as many hits (24) as he accumulated strikeouts (9) in a season in which he was the closer to start the season. Realistically, even attempting to parse out a season’s worth of effectiveness is hard to do based on a couple of performances for any reliever. If you’ll remember back to 2010, Rafael Perez (a player with a strong track record as a reliever) posted a 7.20 ERA, 2.27 WHIP, .940 OPS against in 15 IP over his first 19 games, then somehow rebounded to post a 1.96 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, .679 OPS against in 46 IP over his final 51 games. While some (ahem…me) were calling for the Indians to cut ties with Perez, their patience paid off as he was able to settle into a groove.

However, while expectations of performance vary wildly for relievers, what we’re seeing so far for the Indians is a HEAVY usage of the bullpen due to extra inning games and starters not going very deep into games. As much as the 2011 was an unquestioned strength of the team, most were hopeful (if not convinced) that the bullpen could remain that “strength”, only made skeptical mainly because of the volatility of relievers as a whole. The concern here is that the volatility is only going to rise as they throw more innings or as they’re leaned on more heavily if the starters are not able to extend their starts into the 6th or 7th innings. It was a fear that this could happen as I wrote this prior to the season, “the bullpen is going to be leaned on too heavily early on because of uncertainty in the rotation (and particularly in the back-end) which could cause the bullpen to falter down the stretch”. Though we’re still talking about the team being in April and any intimation that the bullpen WILL “falter down the stretch” is just guessing, the amount that they’ve been used is throwing up some red flags.

If you want to say that the bullpen as a whole (or individually) has thrown up some red flags or if you want to go through a pitcher-by-pitcher evaluation of each of the relievers this early in the season, have at it. But I’m not going to sit here, not quite to the end of April, and make any grand pronouncements that THIS reliever has to be in Cleveland or THAT player should be DFA’d as it takes a while for bullpens to evolve and shape out.

However, in looking at the way that the bullpen is absorbing so many innings in the early going, perhaps it is time to look at how this bullpen can remain healthy and effective…and not just for the rest of this season. By that I mean, the Indians have a promising group of young arms in the bullpen (Pestano, Perez, Smith, Sipp, Hagadone) with more in Columbus (CC Lee, most notably) and Akron (Bryce Stowell, most notably) that should provide the backbone for a solid bullpen for years to come. But if we’ve learned anything about predicting bullpen performance in the past, it’s that it can’t be predicted. Though I’m not going to re-post the variances between the 2005 bullpen and the 2006 bullpen or the 2007 bullpen and the 2008 bullpen, we’ve learned in Cleveland that bullpens are fickle beasts, who seemingly cannot (or will not) be tamed.

But what if the 2012 season is the time that the Indians use to overhaul the way that bullpens are thought of and used, throwing out the notion of the “one-inning reliever” or the set-up role and the closer role being used based on inning instead of situation? Can the Indians tame the fickle beast that is the MLB bullpen in 2012 by challenging “conventional wisdom”?

To start this off, there’s been a groundswell afoot for the “save” stat to be abolished and Joe Sheehan had an interesting piece that opines that abolishing the “save” rule (which is not a new idea…but I’ll get to that”) would allow the way that bullpens are constructed and utilized to be overhauled in a more efficient manner, asserting that:
The biggest positive of eliminating the save rule would be a reversal of the trend toward less and less work from more and more relievers. The one-inning closer begat the one-inning setup man, which begat one-batter matchup guys. That's why your team has eight relievers but no one to bat for the .180-hitting shortstop in the ninth. Eliminating the closer myth would free managers to use their best pitchers in the biggest spots and balance rosters and payrolls.

Watching this 2012 Indians’ bullpen get worked over early, one has to wonder what would happen if the Indians were the team that overhauled the way that bullpens were constructed and utilized to work more efficiently, while protecting their young bullpen arms BEFORE the save rule was eliminated?

Maybe you’d say that the public outcry would be too overwhelming for the Indians to attempt an overhaul, but since most of Cleveland is more concerned with which three players the Browns are going to take in the first 37 picks in the draft than they are about a young, exciting baseball team, if the Tribe were to be pro-active in their handling of the bullpen, throwing out the conventional wisdom that has existed since Tony LaRussa put The Eck in the back of the A’s bullpen, they could perhaps change the way that bullpen performance is so volatile…all while flying under-the-radar of a Cleveland Sports Media that churns out more mock drafts than insight.

Would it be an ambitious undertaking?
Of course, but if the Indians’ bullpen is being overtaxed right now and they have young arms in the bullpen that they want to protect in the interest of creating a “stable” environment out of their relief corps, wouldn’t now be the time to do it?

Perhaps even more important than bullpen performance however, the idea that the Indians could be at the cutting edge of usage for these relievers to avoid injury presents a much more compelling reason to do so, with the early burden of 2012 providing the impetus. Since we all know what happens when Danny Graves, Oldberto Hernandez (no, not #55…the other one from a few years ago), and their ilk are asked to handle major innings for a team that is supposed to contend, wouldn’t it behoove the Indians to protect these young arms to keep them effective and HEALTHY for the next couple of years, as they attempt to contend?

As we watch Brian Wilson go for Tommy John again and as we’re about to welcome the Joakim Soria-less Royals to Cleveland, let’s not pretend that these “carefully crafted” bullpens that are everywhere in MLB with their roles have produced this perfect scenario where pitchers are slotted into their “roles” and games are shortened by a couple of innings. Sure, that has happened a couple of times in the past decade (mostly due to Mo Rivera), but Tom Verducci of SI challenges the notion that the “conventional wisdom” for the way that bullpens are handled is wise, given the volatility and the injury risk:
No one wants to admit it, but the modern bullpen is a failure and the modern conventional wisdom of training pitchers is a failure. The modern specialized bullpen does no better job protecting leads than the pitching usage that preceded it. And though closers, like pitchers of all types, work less often, they break down more often. What industry would accept these failure rates -- the way baseball does? 
• Sixty-six percent of 2011 Opening Day closers (20 of 30) are no longer closing for the same team 12 months later, with seven of them hurt. 
Yet baseball keeps doing things the same way. It is addicted to the “theater” of having a specialized closer and the “theory” that an arm has only so many pitches in it -- and that everybody’s arm will be treated exactly the same way. And when the casualties keep piling up, baseball keeps going about it the same way. The sport is so flush with money even wasting half a billion dollars a year doesn’t set off any alarms. 
Managers are motivated by the save statistic, throwing three-out save chances to their closer like bones to a dog. The game universally has embraced this idea that a closer can’t come in to a tie game on the road -- better to lose the game with a lesser pitcher than run your closer out there without a save in hand. What makes this groupthink so crazy is that the system isn’t working. Closers are breaking down or losing effectiveness faster than you can say Joel Zumaya. (Quick, look around baseball: show me the high velocity, high energy closer with the obligatory, goofy closer-hair starter kit who has a long career. The job has a bit of planned obsolescence to it.)

Think about this in terms of the Indians’ current bullpen and how the Indians (seem to) have built up some depth in their relief corps. While that may seem like an oxymoron, given the volatility of relievers, perhaps the 2012 Indians could be what Verducci later calls the “maverick” team that begins to protect their bullpen assets in a new way while turning this antiquated notion of bullpens (and saves) on its collective head. 

Truthfully, this is not the first time that a new bullpen alignment has been suggested, as Grantland’s Jonah Keri had an interesting piece on relievers and saves after Chris Perez’s Opening Day meltdown, even asserting that the Indians are an ideal team to be the guinea pig in a necessary experiment:
In fact, the Indians could be a perfect candidate to blow up the save and start anew. They’re a small-revenue club that’s already opted to pass on megapriced free-agent closers. They’re run by a progressive front office and a manager who’s eager to use statistical analysis to his advantage. Their bullpen already skews young and features multiple middle relievers and setup men with the skills to succeed (depending on the situation, Pestano, Rafael Perez, or Joe Smith could be a great fit, and even Tony Sipp and Dan Wheeler can be deployed against certain batters in certain ballparks for big spots). Whether it’s the Indians or anyone else, the door’s wide open for any other ball club with some balls and some common sense to run with a new idea. 

Though Keri mainly dealt with compensation and arbitration, as well as measures of a reliever’s effectiveness, he believes that relievers should be used based on situation, not necessarily what the inning is and the whole piece is worth a read, in terms of proposing a new way to evaluate a bullpen and how to implement relievers in an effective way. It makes a lot of sense if you think about it logically, in that hypothetical situations like Indians having a lead in Detroit with Miggy and Prince scheduled to hit in the 6th inning. Do the Indians go with their “6th inning reliever” or do they go with the pitcher that’s going to give them the best shot of making it through the heart of a dangerous Tiger lineup, regardless of the inning. Obviously, the latter makes more sense…but that’s not what the Indians (or any MLB team does) as those “sacred” roles and who pitches which inning somehow takes precedence.

But even more than what Keri suggests (which should be adopted immediately), when he says that the Indians’ “bullpen already skews young and features multiple middle relievers and setup men with the skills to succeed”, it brings us back to the larger point of whether the Indians can somehow maintain those “skills to succeed” for the long-term – in the face of everything that we “know” about the volatility of bullpens – so the Tribe’s bullpen could actually be a strength not in one-or-two-year spurts, but for a sustained period of time. Up to this point, they’ve attempted to find relievers where they can and – once their effectiveness wanes – they attempt to find more relievers. Unfortunately, the reliever with staying power is the exception, not the rule. Perhaps there’s good reason for that as most relievers are failed starters of pitchers that only feature a two-pitch mix, but a good amount of attrition comes from injury and, perhaps, from overuse.

While the likes of Jensen Lewis and Tom Mastny have fallen by the wayside on the North Coasat, Rafael Perez has endured, ranking 21st in all of MLB among pure relievers in innings pitched from 2007 to now. While it may be surprising to note that Rafael Betancourt ranks 10th on that list, the question becomes why that is and whether the Indians’ deep thinkers or analytical department can devise a strategy to take that 2011 bullpen or the one that is in Cleveland now and maintain the integrity and the effectiveness of the bullpen, particularly in this season, in which they’ve already thrown more than 50 innings in 12 games?

How can it be done?
Admittedly (and though I hate when people present a problem and not a solution), I’m not going to pretend to know the answer to that, Verducci thinks that it will take a “maverick” team to revolutionize bullpens and Keri says that the Indians are a good candidate because of “a progressive front office and a manager who’s eager to use statistical analysis to his advantage”, so maybe this early burden for the Indians’ bullpen becomes that opportunity to take chances. With a talented group of players, all under control for similar amounts of time (and that includes the bullpen), the Indians are trying to take this current group of players (which includes relievers) into the playoffs this year or in the coming years. Joe Smith and Rafael Perez can become FA after the 2013 season and Chris Perez can become a FA after the 2014 season (though he’s going to get expensive in coming years, for the reasons that Keri laid out in his piece), so it isn’t as if many of these guys are going away anytime soon and maintaining their effectiveness and health could become an equalizer for a team that isn’t going to stack up against Detroit’s offense in the AL Central. Due to this, the 2012 season may present the perfect opportunity for the Indians to revolutionize the way that bullpens are thought of, handled, and perhaps develop an advantage that capitalizes on the talent on hand in Cleveland and below.

As endearing as they may be as a group, the bullpen isn’t exactly full of “known” commodities right now as Pestano was a revelation last year, Sipp always seems to be riding the razor’s edge, and Chris Perez has been…um, adventurous at times this season and dominant at other times. Knowing that nothing can sabotage a season like a leaky bullpen, seeing the inning count tick upwards for the bullpen, and seeing a player like Hagadone arrive and thrive, you start to wonder if this is the time for the Indians to be proactive in handling their young bullpen arms – both in terms of role and usage.

Though I’m not going to pretend to know what the different utilization of a bullpen might be, as we’ve all been hard-wired to this 7th-8th-9th inning parade of arms, perhaps using these arms more effectively and more judiciously is in the cards for THIS season. Truthfully, if the Indians are looking for a competitive advantage, utilizing Pestano, Smith, Perez, Sipp, Hagadone, and others effectively while attempting to protect their arms or prolong their efficacy, the early burden could be used as the “reason” or “excuse” to initiate some radical thinking. Though everyone in the world thinks they can manage a bullpen better than an MLB manager (just like everyone in the world grills the best steak in the world), Acta has the personality and the smarts to make this work. While most of the writers that cover the Indians will be off wondering if the Browns should be taking/ shold have taken Ryan Tannehill in the Draft for the next couple of months, Acta could slowly turn bullpen strategy on its head, using the pile of innings the bullpen has thrown to date and the youth in the bullpen as his impetus to do so.

With the way that the starters have…well, started the season, this bullpen could be burned from overuse in a hurry this season unless the Indians are ready to play the role of the innovator and call into question the “conventional wisdom” on how to handle bullpens that has developed over the past 20 years. That “conventional wisdom” may not be “conventional” or particularly “wise”, considering the volatility of bullpen performance and with the rate of injuries to relievers in the past couple of years. Right now, it seems that the Indians have a good number of young, effective relievers just embarking on an MLB career and given the uncertainty around their health and effectiveness going forward, doesn’t it behoove the Indians to do everything in their power to keep those young, talented, and (quite frankly) cheap arms as healthy and effective as possible.

Though the risk is there, the reward is certainly there…
With Acta perhaps playing the role of trailblazer, armed with stats and endearing quotes as he utilizes his relievers based on “situation” rather than “role” and attempting to protect the long-term health of the bullpen, perhaps prolonging the effectiveness of this group of relievers which, in the era of overspecialization and injury for relievers would be a “revolution” that a whole town (and sport) could get behind.

1 comment:

KY said...

Very good read. Joe Maddon might be another manager who could think outside the box of the 9th inning closer role. Granted the Rays starters can probably pitch deeper into games than the Tribe's, but since pitching is that team's strength they need to manage that bullpen effectively to win. The Rays have never really seemed interested in hanging onto their closers year after year either.