Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Bear Market in the Bullpen

Say what you will about the struggles of the Indians’ offense (and I’m pretty sure everyone has weighed in on that topic in some form or another this season), but the Tribe bats are showing signs of life, with 4.6 runs per game in the past week, good enough for 6th best in the AL. Spurring on this offensive “explosion” has been an increase in doubles (4th in the AL in the past week with 16) and HR (4th in the AL last week with 7), which is a sight for sore eyes as extra-base hits had become such a rare occurrence for this Punch and Judy offense of singles, walks, and HBP (1st in the AL in this category by more than 10 HBP with 35) that it was almost surprising to see the “power surge”.

The resurgence (term used loosely, but relatively speaking…it is) has been triggered by multiple players in the lineup getting warm at the same time in the past week. Most notably, Jhonny Peralta (.963 OPS, 3 HR), Grady Sizemore (.930 OPS, 4 SB), and Ben Francisco (.819 OPS, 4 2B) have been the pillars of the offense while Franklin Gutierrez (1.053 OPS in 13 AB) and Andy Marte (.833 OPS in 6 AB…which for him is a big sample size this year) have contributed in their limited appearances. Obviously that BIG hit remains elusive (team LOB in their last 4 losses – 9, 11, 13, and 8); but it’s starting to come around, Pepper…starting to come around.

With all of that being said, I’ll reiterate something that I’ve said here before – that is, the offense of the Indians (as offensive as it has been) doesn’t scare me as much as the continued struggles of the bullpen. Before asking if I’ve actually WATCHED the anemic offense squander opportunity after opportunity, allow me to explain – MLB hitters (even mediocre or struggling ones) are going to score in games. They’ll get hot or get lucky or string together a stretch of hits to cobble out some runs over the course of a season (even terrible offenses will score about 700 runs a season, or about 4.25 runs per game) just as a by-product of hitters facing poor pitchers at some point or a couple of players getting hot at the same time.

While a largely toothless offense is almost guaranteed some semblance of success over the long term, the volatility of relief pitchers can force a bullpen to go from bad to worse relatively quickly, with no sign of improvement. For whatever reason, numerous examples exist for a player being effective for one season followed by a season of difficulty (see Betancourt, Rafael) and vice versa. Really, while certain relievers can exceed expectations over the course of a season, it’s rare for a pitcher to simply get on a “hot streak” (like hitters might) once a pattern of ineffectiveness is apparent. It’s the reason that the makeup of bullpens, particularly the constant state of flux of middle relievers, change from one year to the next. A linchpin of one bullpen can become a dead weight for the next year’s incarnation and continued excellence in a bullpen is a rare commodity, particularly rare for a reliever to be dominant for a few years in a row. Unlike the nature of hitting, either you’ve got it or you don’t from year to year. There is very little “lucking” into a string of successful outings for a reliever and once that downhill trend is identified, it’s difficult for a pitcher to simply turn it around based on the frequency (or lack of frequency) that they are used.

With all of that knowledge of how bullpens are about as stable from year to year as Buzz Bissinger’s thoughts on the Interwebs, consider that the Indians’ 2007 bullpen posted these numbers:
3.73 ERA
1.33 WHIP
8.18 K/9
2.51 K/BB ratio
.254 Batting Average Against
.707 OPS Against
78% Saves Converted (49 of 63)
Outstanding stuff, to say the least – and certainly one of the main reasons the Indians separated down the stretch from the rest of the Central.

As for this year, shield your eyes because here are the numbers for the 2008 bullpen, consisting of essentially the same principals as the bullpen that performed so efficiently the previous year:
4.54 ERA
1.54 WHIP
7.44 K/9
1.95 K/BB ratio
.283 Batting Average Against
.800 OPS Against
50% Saves Converted (9 of 18)
Compared to the rest of the AL, the bullpen that was thought to be a strength of this team sits 2nd last in ERA (Texas – 4.90), 2nd last in WHIP (Detroit – 1.55), last in Batting Average Against, last in OPS against, 2nd last in saves (Detroit – 8), and tied for last (with Texas) in Saves Converted Percentage.

If the hitting has played below expectations, how does one characterize a bullpen, that was thought to potentially have three potential closers (Betancourt, Perez, and Lewis) not even pitching the 9th inning, that has so completely flopped?

Consider that the Indians have blown 14 leads this season (granted not all by the bullpen), and that their winning percentage when leading at the beginning of the 6th inning (.679 winning percentage) and the 7th inning (.783 winning percentage) pales in comparison to even the “lowly” Tigers’ bullpen when leading at the beginning of the 6th inning (.783 winning percentage) and the 7th inning (.826 winning percentage) and anyone can see that we have a problem.

I know that “if and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas”, BUT what if the percentage of saves they converted last year (78%) applied to the 18 save opportunities this year. Rather than having 9 saves in 18 opportunities, the team would have 14 saves in 18 opportunities – a 5 game swing makes the team 29-24 and sitting ½ game back of the White Sox…all this with the ulcer-inducing offense.

Would it be nice to magically fix the offense to start blowing teams out?
Sure, but realize that the combination of a low-scoring offense AND a bullpen prone to giving up leads is a recipe for disaster that any team would have difficulty in overcoming.
With that knowledge, what’s easier to find – a run-producing presence for the middle of the lineup or modestly effective pitchers who can get 3 outs every couple of days?
Yeah, I think so too.

So, what can or should be done to rescue this bullpen from itself?
Truthfully, I think that the start of the metamorphosis has already happened as the team has jettisoned Georgie GasCan and sent Jensen Lewis down to Buffalo to find those missing MPH. Additionally, The Atomic Wedgie has called Betancourt on the carpet for not throwing inside and will likely relegate him to a middle relief role until he shows that he will…and Brodzoski (The Close) hasn’t even been mentioned as he’s only thrown 6 of the 136 1/3 innings that relievers have tossed this year for the Tribe.

Right now is not the time to complain about JoeBo’s return and the resulting spike in Pepto sales or try to figure out how Jorge Julio could flame out so spectacularly, it’s time to find those relievers that are going to be “on” this year and dismiss the notion that some of these guys can work it out, because nothing (not even this offense) can take the spirit out of a team like blown games, surrendered by the bullpen. Much like last year, when Perez and Lewis were promoted to take positions in the bullpen, it’s time to see who can help…and fast!

The promotion of Scott Elarton, who (as much as it pains me to point out) did have a 2.45 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP working out of the Buffalo bullpen, and Eddie Mujica, who had posted a 1.46 ERA with 15 K in 14 1/3 IP over his last 10 appearances for the Bisons, represent a nice move in the right direction to take advantage of finding the pitcher that may “have it” (whatever “it” is) this year and slotting them accordingly in the bullpen. Most important to this approach, though, is to keep the open auditions going until the leaks in this ‘pen can be plugged by whomever.

More help is available internally (despite the continuation of Atom Miller’s finger problems, meaning he’s not coming to the rescue in Wainwrightesque fashion) as Rick Bauer has saved 14 games in Buffalo while posting a 1.61 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP while striking out 29 compared with 10 walks over 22 1/3 IP, LHP Rich Rundles has held LH hitters to a .171 Batting Average with 17 K in the 11 2/3 IP he’s gone against LH in AAA, and newly signed RHP Oneli Perez has struck out 8 of the 12 RH hitters he’s faced since joining the Bisons.

Are they small sample sizes we’re dealing with?
Absolutely, but that’s how it goes with relievers and it’s imperative that the Indians find the right mix of pitchers to lock down the middle and late innings of games, to protect what leads the offense may have been able to stake.

Further down the ladder, the Indians could try to replicate the success of Jensen Lewis last year by looking at Jeff Stevens (2.73 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 32 K to 9 BB in 26 2/3 IP) and Randy Newsom (14 saves with a 0.84 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP) in Akron if the options above them in the organization are unable to stabilize the struggling bullpen.

Regardless of who they use to do it or how they end up fixing the bullpen, the Indians need to find some effective options to protect the leads that are handed to them late in the game or to keep close games within striking distance in the off chance that the offense can mount a comeback. If they’re not, it doesn’t matter how well or poorly the offense is hitting…because the leads won’t last, the wins won’t come, and the 2008 Tribe will be done in by a bullpen that looks more and more like a pigpen.


Cy Slapnicka said...

translation: "quit bitching about the bats, we have bigger things to worry about."

great, thanks mister sunshine. what a nice way to enjoy the off day.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how you do it, but I always feel better after I read one of your uplifting posts. I have a question about our offense tho..bear with me...I want to "bitch about the bats"..we see (or so it seems) at least one shattered bat per game and who knows how many cracked ones. Is it fair to reason that maybe some of the blame for our poor (power) hitting can be put on those lighter-than-air maple bats? I have heard that players claim they can hit the ball dead on the sweet spot and saw the bat off. How many hits are lost to these bats? My guess is this topic has been covered on some of the other blogs..but I only read this one and one other (honest)

Halifax said...

Trap - thanks for not mentioning t he other, wouldn't want Paul to go off on you :)

Concerning the bullpen -- I have zero confidence in Mujica. Does he remind anyone else of Joe Roa or is it just me? Not only does he somewhat remind one of him, he also posts great numbers in AAA and not-so-great ones in MLB.

I'm for bringing up the two younger youngsters and seeing what they bring. I'd say the quickest route to the majors is a live arm in the role in someone's bullpen. Just ask Craig Breslow. If you can get someone out occasionally there's a job for you somewhere. If with regularity, all the better.

And then there's always DaBo . . .

Paul Cousineau said...

The conspiracy theory that I've heard espoused is that with the new drug policy (actually more the PED's), the guys aren't getting the bat speed that they used to, so they're making the bats lighter. Instead of making the whole bat smaller, they're just narrowing the handle. The result is a top-heavy bat whose too-skinny handle is more prone to break.
Not sure if I buy it, but it does make sense.

I can't believe you guys visit other sites!
I kid, I kid.

Anonymous said...

Does it make sense that hits are lost? Not to mention that someone is going to get speared by one of those bat barrels....If Hafner or Vic or the rest can't swing a big bat, maybe.......

woodsmeister said...

I would be interested in the difference in BABIP between this year's bullpen and last year's. It seemed that last year's relief pitching was not only better, but also luckier. This year, so far at least, it seems that very often our relief guys make a good pitch but get a bloop hit because we're playing that damned no doubles defense, or they get a seeing eye groundball that last year would have been snagged.

Paul Cousineau said...

You may be onto something here:
2007 Relievers' BABIP - .306
2008 Relievers' BABIP - .326
Not a HUGE difference but, particularly late in the game, all it takes is one ball to drop to make the deciding factor.

Also, Halifax sent me this as he can't log in for some reason to weigh in on the shattering bats:
The bat handles have been shaved thinner and thinner for years in the quest for bat speed - I don't buy that part of it. But the part about offense going down because 'roids are no longer as much of a factor? Ah, yes, makes perfect sense in a year when pitching rules supreme and offenses around the league are struggling.

Jared said...

Startin' to come TOGETHER Pepper, Startin' top come TOGETHER...

csusi said...

"Dwelling on the negative simply contributes to its power."

"Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one."

" Fear is that little darkroom where negatives are developed."

You being the ray of light you are PC in a dark "cleveland" world, your excluded from this topic, but it needs to be addressed.

I come into work each day, and spend the first 30 minutes to an hour reading up on all things Indians. Ive got my sources, all neatly laid out in my "indians" favorites folder. I will always save Dia Tribe for my final read before diving into my work day. And it is for the intake of hope that I do so.

Its getting to the point, where for the sake of sanity, im skipping over all the other Indians news sources. Ive always believed that negativity can be a poison that can spread and affect the others that are taking it in. With that said....Cleveland Media, is the Ebola Virus.

Ill be the first to say that Ive ran my mouth plenty on how much aggravation this season has brought me. But, phrases like, "Its over" or "start the trading, we're done" have yet to pass through my lips, and i commit to not letting those phrases pass through my lips. Its getting old and Im not gonna throw out any names but they're all just about equally as bad. But, the most read source for Indians info I feel is the ring leader of it all.

Whats the point of all this hoopla. The point is, we have an Indians team that "was" struggling (thanks PC for sharing the upswings despite not getting the wins) and im fine with stating the obvious, but emotions spread, especially those of a negative nature. I feel it when i read every Indians article. I feel it when the Indians botch a play that needs to happen and the player at the root of it, is getting booed off the field. I feel it when I hear Victor Martinez or Travis Hafner gives an interview and they can sense each ding-a-ling reporter beating around the bush with horrible questions, all the while desiring to just ask, "Why is it that you suck so bad?"


In short. The media I feel fill us with this negativity, we in return let it pass through us and Bleed out onto the Indians, who i feel let it play into their moral, affecting their game i believe more than you think.

Alright, im done. I apologize for the amount of words. Im in hopes that this doesnt sound like a shout it from my soapbox type post, cause i promise i dont mean it to be that way. So I guess im more less just asking for a change of thought towards the Indians. And maybe in the wise ways of minktrapper, limiting our Indians news sources to the positive few. Dont bum out. Like PC said, things are starting to pick up.

Believe. Have Hope. Dont fall into the likes of Cubs and Red Sox fans that whine and moan about the "meanness" of baseball. We're the f@!#ing INDIANS. We can win this flipping thing.

Dr. Phil

rodells said...

Alot of us believe. Alot of us have hope. There is still 4 months of baseball that includes an interleague stint where we've been OK at lately (forgetting about the Reds series of course). Actually this roadie could write our season (I'm gonna be VERY disappointed if we don't win tonight and tomorrow with Lee & CC on the hill).

That said, we have some moveable players where we can net things that help us this year and beyond. Just because you trade Byrd (which we should do regardless of our standing) or trade CC (something that should be entertained or our people are not doing their jobs) doesn't mean all is lost. I'm not starting the trade CC bandwagon right now, I'm just saying it needs to be seriously considered down the line if we're floating between 5 & 10 games back during June.

Learning to Swim said...

Just wondering if anyone else got really nauseous when Grady hobbled around the outfield after last night's JoBlo/game saving catch. I shaved 1.5 years at least off my life last night watching that game.

Paul Cousineau said...

Thanks. I'm always amazed at the negativity from certain media sources (see the Hoynes quote from this morning in the Pronk piece) that I have always chalked up to the "Sports Talk Radio Syndrome" that being negative finds an audience.

My number is 10 out in mid-July for C.C. Byrd, I don't think would fetch much (that would help now, I should say) based on his FA status and the fact that he's a 4th/5th starter.
I could be wrong.

The bottom of the 9th alone shaved a year off my life. The DiaBride shrieked when Grady hit the wall...or maybe it was becuase we were out of Summer Shandy.