At some stage of their baseball career, a relief pitcher was no longer viewed as starting pitcher material by an organization. Perhaps, they couldn’t consistently repeat their delivery, didn’t possess a viable third pitch, or had physical limitations due to their injury history.
These “flaws” can make it challenging to forecast the performance of many relievers, especially during stressful game situations. That’s why baseball analysts frequently use the term “volatility” when describing the inconsistent nature of relief pitching.
“Volatile” is certainly an appropriate way to describe Seattle Mariners relievers during the past two seasons. After being a strength in 2014, the club’s bullpen became one of the worst in the majors last year despite the fact that the cast of characters was largely the same.
I found the Mariners’ regression to be intriguing. What Mariners experienced the largest declines in performance and reliability? How did Seattle’s meltdown stack-up when compared to other teams? Has any team been able to stave off the volatility so often mentioned by baseball experts? How did the new batch of relievers that Seattle has imported this offseason do last year? With these questions on my mind, I set out to get answers. What I found will be considered enlightening and/or exasperating to many Mariner fans.
Weighing reliever contributions
In order to simplify the review process, I wanted to use a lone statistic to illustrate the impact that a reliever can have on winning games. It didn’t have to be a perfect, all-inclusive stat. Just something that would help me gauge a reliever’s effectiveness in tight situations. Fortunately for me, Hall of Fame baseball writer Peter Gammons recently noted that FanGraphs has long advocated using Win Probability Added (WPA) to weigh relievers.
I quickly realized that WPA was exactly what I had in mind; a cumulative metric that represents a hitter’s or pitcher’s impact on the win expectancy (WE) of his team during plate appearances over the span of a season. Players are proportionately credited or debited based on their actions and the scenario. For example, a home run in the bottom of the eighth inning will earn a hitter more credit and the pitcher a larger debit than a homer in the first.
Using WPA is especially helpful when looking at a reliever because the best relievers are used during the most crucial moments of a contest. Consequently, elite relievers will have a higher WPA than most starters, while less reliable or inexperienced relief pitchers will have a low or negative WPA. If you’d like to know more about win probability, David Appelman of FanGraphs provides an explanation and additional links to WPA explanations here.
How bad was it?
After having the sixth best bullpen WPA in 2014, the Mariners slipped to number-24 last season. To see who regressed and how much during that two-year span, let’s first look at the Seattle relievers who pitched at least five innings for the club in both 2014 and 2015. Very quickly, it becomes apparent who did well and who were the most “volatile” relievers.
|Seattle Mariners Bullpen Comparison (2014-2015)|
|Fernando Rodney||1.5|| -1.2
|Carson Smith||0.4|| 2.2
||On team — recovering from injury|
|Tom Wilhelmsen|| 1.9
|Joe Beimel|| 0.7
The only pitchers with a positive WPA in 2015 were the versatile Tom Wilhelmsen, rookie Carson Smith, the injured Charlie Furbush, and Yoervis Medina – who traded to the Chicago Cubs in May, Otherwise, the remaining 2014 holdovers were disappointments.
Clearly, the unreliability of Opening Day closer Fernando Rodney and middle-reliever Danny Farquhar played a huge role in the club’s slide. After bursting onto the scene in 2014 as a rookie, Dominic Leone was very ineffective during limited time with the Mariners last season.
To compound matters, Medina was traded to the Chicago Cubs in May in exchange for catcher Welington Castillo. Just 15 days later, Leone was sent with Castillo to the Arizona Diamondbacks for slugger Mark Trumbo and starter/reliever Vidal Nuno.
Misery loves company
The ebb and flow of relief pitcher performance isn’t a “same old Mariners” thing; it happens across the league in both a positive and negative manner. Take a look at the four bullpens that joined Seattle in taking the biggest step backwards in 2015.
|Five Teams with Most Bullpen Regression (2014-2015)
Of the five teams listed above, only the Mariners and Washington Nationals were considered strong postseason contenders entering last season. Yet, both clubs were let down by their respective bullpens.
During this offseason, the rebuilding Atlanta Braves and enigmatic Miami Marlins have been relatively inactive in the reliever market. Conversely, the Oakland Athletics, Nationals, and the Mariners have been aggressively retooling their respective relief staffs.
The new guys
WPA isn’t a predictive metric and can’t be used quantify a player’s talent level. Nevertheless, I thought it’d be interesting to review how the Mariners’ bullpen candidates currently on their 40-man roster have improved/regressed over the last two seasons. Unfortunately for Mariner fans, the numbers won’t generate much enthusiasm.
|Seattle Mariners Bullpen Candidates|
|Justin De Fratus||0.9||-1.2|
It appears that Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto is banking on reliever volatility and bounce back performances because his projected eighth inning set-up man – Joaquin Benoit – is the only current Mariner reliever who had a good 2015 season. Everyone else either had a down year or was a rookie in 2015.
Dipoto’s new closer – Steve Cishek – had the worst WPA among major league relievers in 2015. When Seattle signed the side-arming right-hander, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill commented that the club would be “counting on him to get back to where he was the previous seasons.”
Seeing the win probability numbers for Cishek and the rest of the relief staff will likely infuriate fans, especially after watching the team’s two best relievers – Smith and Wilhelmsen – be used as trade chips during the offseason.
The above names won’t be the only candidates who could find themselves in the mix for a bullpen spot. As I mentioned earlier, there are times when a club determines that a starter would be more effective in a relief role; even if it were only on a temporary basis. Mike Montgomery – who is out of minor league options – could be a candidate for a left-handed reliever spot, if he doesn’t earn a rotation spot or isn’t traded.
Former number-two overall draft pick Danny Hultzen has been converted to a reliever after suffering several injury setbacks. He may not be in the mix on Opening Day, but doesn’t exclude him from being an option for the club later in the season.
The Mariners will also have non-roster camp invitees to help generate organizational depth. To date, the club has invited prospect Paul Fry, plus several pitchers with major league relief experience – Casey Coleman, Blake Parker, and Donn Roach. It’s worth noting that Roach may be viewed as rotation depth by the organization, but he does have relief experience. Also, right-hander Adrian Sampson, who finished the season with Tacoma has been invited to camp.
Seeing so many unfamiliar names and unproven performers may frustrate the Mariners fan base. But, there are plenty of examples of teams who’ve turned around their bullpen in just one offseason. It happens every year.
Here’s a look at the five most improved bullpens from last season. Several of the ball clubs listed below had a far worse WPA in 2014 than Seattle’s tally from last season (-1.4) and went on to reach the postseason.
|Five Most Improved Bullpens (2014-20015)
|Chicago White Sox||-5.3||1.3||6.6|
The Pittsburgh Pirates made the biggest improvement last year and maintained the best WPA in the majors too. It’s worthwhile noting that their 2014 bullpen was also solid – their 2014 WPA would have ranked number-10 last season. The Pittsburgh relievers were good and then became much better.
Two of the Mariners’ divisional rivals – the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros – were on the list and reached the postseason. Despite their success last year, both clubs have added key relievers during the offseason. The Rangers added Wilhelmsen, while the Astros acquired closer Ken Giles from the Philadelphia Phillies.
Houston’s 0.5 WPA doesn’t seem that impressive on the surface, but their late season bullpen collapse (-2.0 WPA in September) is the reason for the low season total. Since WPA is cumulative throughout the season, a bad stretch can significantly influence the overall tally.
In the Astros’ case, their WPA was 2.4 on September 1. If their season ended on that day, they would have ranked tenth in the majors rather than where they finished the season – number-19. That explains their eagerness to strengthen the back-end of their bullpen with Giles.
The Kansas City Royals have avoided dramatic swings in bullpen performance during recent years – they’ve sustained their success through four seasons. The following table identifies every Royals pitcher who was used exclusively as a reliever and pitched at least 30 innings for the club during that span. I’ve also included WPA ranking and the reliever’s combined salaries for each season.
|Kansas City Royals Bullpen (2012-2015)|
|Greg Holland||Greg Holland||Greg Holland||Greg Holland|
|Kelvin Herrera||Kelvin Herrera||Kelvin Herrera||Kelvin Herrera|
|Aaron Crow||Aaron Crow||Aaron Crow||Luke Hochevar|
|Tim Collins||Tim Collins||Wade Davis||Wade Davis|
|Jose Mijares||Luke Hochevar||Louis Coleman||Ryan Madson|
|Louis Coleman||Francisley Bueno||Franklin Morales|
It’s important to note that Luke Hochevar missed the entire 2014 season due to Tommy John surgery. So, his 2014 salary of $5.21 million wasn’t included above. If Hochevar’s pay was included in the 2014 total, the 2015 jump in salaries wouldn’t appear as dramatic. Either way, it’s clear that the cost of maintaining a strong bullpen has become increasingly expensive for the Royals.
Although there are Royal relievers who’ve been with the team for several or all four seasons, names changed in each season. Going into 2016, Kansas City will experience more turnover. The club non-tendered former closer Greg Holland after he suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament last season. Plus, Ryan Madson and Franklin Morales became free agents when their deals expired. Just today, the club designated Louis Coleman for assignment after he spent most of 2015 with Class-AAA Omaha. The Royals’ primary offseason bullpen addition to date has been free agent Joakim Soria.
I’m sure some Seattle fans will see the amount of money that the Royals obligated for their bullpen and lament that the Mariners should follow suit. But, it’s not that simple. Two pitchers – Holland and Wade Davis – accounted for 61-percent of the $24.8 million used on relievers listed above.
The lone reliever with a long-term deal is Davis, who signed a six-year/$27.6 million contract when he was a starting pitcher with the Tampa Bay Rays. The only other multi-year deal for a reliever is Hochevar’s two-year contract. Both Davis’ and Hochevar’s pacts expire after next season. Everyone else is either arbitration-eligible or on a one-year contract. That means that the Royals can walk away from any of these pitchers – as they did with Holland – if they don’t perform or become injured.
Obviously, the Royals enjoyed bullpen success by having talented relievers on their roster. However, the sustainability of that success is at least partially due to the fact that the organization hasn’t over-committed years or dollars to an individual reliever. That’s why amassing inexpensive, live-armed relief pitchers – who have minor league options remaining – makes sense for Seattle in 2016.
Optimally, relievers will provide value for the entire season. But, if a big leaguer under-performs or regresses, having replacement arms stockpiled at Class-AAA Tacoma will afford the Mariners the flexibility to interchange pitchers until they find a suitable substitute or while they wait for the demoted hurler to get back on track in Tacoma.
As Jason noted during a recent edition of the Sandmeyer and Churchill podcast, Dipoto and team president Ken Mather are intent on the team being “competitive” in 2016, but the club hasn’t taken a “win-now at any cost” approach that would jeopardize the organization’s future. By not over-committing resources to a veteran reliever in the offseason, Seattle has maintained the financial and roster flexibility to add talent from outside the organization – if they find themselves in a pennant race at-or-near the all-star break.
This practical approach won’t sit well with playoff-starved Mariner fans. Nevertheless, it’s a logical strategy for a ball club that’s trying to become viable, while restructuring their organization into a sustainable winner.