SnakePit Round Table: The Diamondbacks Bullpen

The 2010 AZ bullpen. Soon to be a major motion-picture. Directed by Uwe Boll. Probably in 3-D.

The Diamondbacks bullpen wasn't just the Achilles heel of the team last year. It was the Achilles heel, foot, ankle, shin, knee and most of the thigh, finished off with a bulls-eye helpfully painted on for the opposition, and a neon arrow pointing to it, with the word "Vulnerability" flashing alongside in red. Yeah, no lead was safe from the 2010 Arizona relief corps. They posted a record of 16-32, becoming the first NL bullpen to lose twice as many games as they won since the 2004 Rockies went 19-39, and their ERA of 5.74 was more than a whole run worse than the 15th-ranked Brewers.

The resulting demolition, led by the dumping of Chad Qualls on the Rays, was no surprise, and it's a largely-revamped bullpen which we will see in 2011. However, will it be any better? That's one of the questions for this week's round table as we discuss... The Diamondbacks bullpen. Rated R for strong scenes of terror, blown leads and explicit fan angst.

The 2010 Diamondbacks bullpen was so bad... How bad was it?

 

 

soco: It was the Atlas Shrugged of bullpens.  

Jim: We were the masters of self-destruction. We had sixteen games last year where the Diamondbacks entered the ninth inning tied. Arizona won two of them. We were also 6-18 in games that were tied after seven. From the 7th inning on we conceded an average of two runs per game, compared to the NL average of 1.4. That’s how bad it was. Giving up runs late is a real problem, because there’s little or no time to come back.

Kishi: How bad was it? I kept expecting to find out that our bullpen coach was Uwe Boll.

Jim: Only if it was an adaptation of a video-game. Probably Home Run Derby.

DbacksSkins: It was even worse than in 2009 or late 2008.

Overall, what do you think of Kevin Towers’ efforts to rebuild the bullpen?

soco: As long as JJ Putz remains healthy and performs, then I think that’s a large step.  It won’t be historically bad anymore, but too bad the rest of team likely won’t be good enough for it to matter much.

Jim: How do you rebuild a nuclear crater? Complete the demolition work and start again. I think I regard this as a beginning, rather than anything else. And, to extend the building metaphor, we start with a solid foundation, which I think was the point of acquiring Putz for the ninth. Going back from there, we have some promising pieces, particularly David Hernandez.

Kishi: It’s a step forward. I mean, granted, since last season was about the equivalent of a boiling pit of acid, being able to merely set foot on land is a bonus. If J.J. “Inappropriate Term” Putz can give us a more solid presence in the ninth inning, and we can get merely an average showing from the rest of our bullpen, it’ll be a good step. Yeah, this is the advantage of last year’s terrible, terrible outing- “average” is a big step up! Optimism!

DbacksSkins: JJ Putz as closer is good. As for the rest, who cares? It’s not like we’ll be scoring enough runs to have a late lead anyway.

Wailord: I certainly hope it turns out. Purely looking at the question as an evaluation of what he’s done for the bullpen, I’m pretty happy (what we gave up can still be debated...). Two relatively young bullpen members under control for a long time, and a pretty solid Putz closing for us. His history of injury worries me, but I still love the signing.

How concerned are you, that new closer JJ Putz has spent a total of 197 days on the DL over the past three seasons?

soco: I was Jenny Slate after her first SNL episode.  

Jim: I’m afraid I had to Wikipedia that one, but it probably says more about SNL than anything else. It appears I’m slightly less concerned because, while there have been multiple stints on the DL, it’s been for a variety of causes: I’d be more worried if there was one recurrent problem. The big one is, of course, the bone spur in his elbow, which wiped out much of 2009 - though there were suggestions that whole incident was badly mishandled by the Mets.

After the bone spur surgery, an MRI revealed “fraying and a slightly torn ulnar collateral ligament,” and I did see some suggestion that an elbow bone spur could be caused by looseness of the UCL, leading more play in the joint. “If the problem is stemming from the UCL, it must be reconstructed.” That would be Tommy John surgery, and I didn’t see any sign Putz underwent this. So were the UCL issues a result of the bone spur, slicing into the ligament?

Kishi: A little concerned, yes, but not much more concerned than I am for soco after that simile. What’s the worst thing that’ll happen, the bullpen fails again? ...okay, so I’m a little nervous.

soco: I believe I used a metaphor.

DbacksSkins: Not really all that concerned. It’s been for different causes.

Wailord: Considering that the bullpen is still better than last season’s without Putz, the worst case scenario won’t be too shocking... seriously, though, it’s always a bit scary watching injury-prone players. You never know what it is that’ll put them out for the season...

While his position in the ninth seems assured, there’s no apparent front-runner as a set-up man. Who do you think should fill the role?

soco: If Heilman doesn’t get a starting spot, then I think it’s his to lose.

Jim: Whoever pitched best. I’d rather not see Heilman, to be honest. His record in high-leverage innings has been strikingly bad over his entire career.

Split          G   PA  AB HR BB  SO SO/BB   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
High Lvrge   229  776 633 22 90 149  1.66 .281 .377 .455 .832
Medium Lvrge 240  729 638 22 70 139  1.99 .266 .346 .418 .764
Low Lvrge    286 1059 961 20 85 226  2.66 .214 .284 .329 .613

I think Juan Gutierrez will get first shot at the eighth inning, but I think Kirk Gibson and Kevin Towers will have a quick hook, and are ready to throw David Hernandez in there.

Kishi: I think we’ll see Gutierrez out there. He’s shown some stretches of good work out there- if he can put those together for longer, he’ll be very useful.

DbacksSkins: If Heilman doesn’t make the team as a starter, give him the 7th. I’d think either Hernandez or Gutierrez in the 8th.

Wailord: I agree with Phil. I’d like to see either Hernandez or Guti (depending on which Gut we end up seeing in 2011). There’re so many wild cards on this team that projecting much of anything is a crapshoot. But, hey, that’s why I get paid the big bucks to do this gig, right?

Juan Gutierrez. ERA in his first 28 innings: 8.04. ERA in his last 28.2 innings: 2.20. What happened, and which Juan do you think will show up in 2011?

soco: The latter.  I have no reason to believe that, but I choose to.

Jim: I don’t know if it’s significant, but he did have a DL stint at the start of August, for a shoulder issue. When he came back, he was lights-out. We could certainly do with the latter version - Juan Two, if you will - appearing for all of 2011.

Kishi: Maybe Guti is just a second half guy? His pre-All Star ERA in 2009 was about 2.50 points higher than his post. Either way, I think we won’t see the home run explosion he gave up in the start of last year, and while we may not see him posting an ERA near 2, I think we’ll see something closer to 3 this year from him.

DbacksSkins: For whatever reason, we always seem to think that Gutierrez will just put it all together and be that second half guy for the full year. While I doubt his first half of 2011 will be as bad as 2010, at what point do we have to look at the pattern and admit that it might be more than a coincidence?

Wailord: It was such a stark difference last year that it’s hard for me to believe he’ll just revert to Bad Juan so quickly. Sure, the conversion to Good Juan in 2010 was pretty quick, but I think he just has that confidence now. I know it’s sort of a sin to cite non-numerical reasons for success... then again, I’m only slightly biased, as I’d love to see lights-out Guti next year.

How important do you think it is to have a lefty specialist in the pen, and what odds do you give Rule 5 pick Joe Paterson of being able to stick with the team?

soco: I’m not a savant, but one thing that is concerning to me is the jump in WHIP the two times he’s been in AAA.  Having a guy with poor control coming out of the bullpen doesn’t exactly thrill me, but maybe he was just trying new pitches or some other spurious factor.

Jim: We don’t have a great record of Rule 5 picks succeeding - see James Skelton and Zach Kroenke, who both failed to last through spring training, never mind the regular season. That said, a LOOGY might be the easiest spot on the roster to “hide” a prospect. The question is, can Paterson get lefties out at an acceptable rate? The only splits I can find are from his work in the AFL, where in five innings against LHB, he allowed two hits, walked one and struck out ten. Those are good numbers, but at the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious... It was a tiny sample in the AFL.

As for how important it is, probably less so than previously in the NL West, with the departure of Adrian Gonzalez and what looks like the end of Todd Helton. Of the 25 lefties to post an OPS of 120 or better in 400+ PAs last year, we only face three in the division - Carlos Gonzalez, Aubrey Huff and Andre Ethier.

DbacksSkins: For someone who gets out, like, one guy, LOOGYs seem to be a big waste of a roster spot. Personally, I’m not particularly oldskool like that. Give me a lefty who can get righties AND lefties out and a righty who can get righties AND lefties out.

Last year, our collective bullpen ERA was 5.74; league average was 3.97. What number are you hoping to see in 2011?

soco: 0.00, obviously.  I think we’ll regress towards the mean, but whether we go beyond that remains to be seen.

Jim: I’d be deliriously happy with a park-adjusted league average, which would be about 4.25. As noted above, we were 2-14 in games where we were tied going into the ninth. If we can simply get back to .500 there, that’d be six extra wins in the bank, which is a heck of an improvement for the bullpen.

Kishi: I’d like to see something in their neighborhood of 4, but I think a more realistically hope would be something closer to 4.75. If we can get three or four guys who end up with an ERA below 4, it’d be a nice start.

DbacksSkins: Call it a raw 4.40 ERA if we’re lucky..

Wailord: Definitely an improvement over last year - under 5, but above the park-adjusted average that Jim quoted above. How about 4.50?

Finally, who’ll be our best and worst reliever - measure that however you want! - this season?

DbacksSkins: Best - JJ Putz

Worst - Everyone else

Wailord: I judge my bullpen members on Tweetitude, and because JJ recently got one, I’ll go ahead say he’ll be our best. Worst? The rest’ll be tied with 4.00 ERA’s, so I’ll say the rest... #dreaming

Jim: Worst? It appears no-one else wants to offend anyone, but you have to favor the guy without any big-league experience, in Paterson. Putz will have the best ERA, but a stint on the DL means he won’t throw as many innings. I’ll go out on a limb and say Hernandez has the best WAR. But I’m not saying whether I’ll go with the Fangraphs or BR version!

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