How Good Was The Diamondbacks A-Bullpen?

Jennifer Hilderbrand-US PRESSWIRE

The next report card will be out tomorrow, with John Baragona taking a look at the front end of the Diamondbacks bullpen: J.J. Putz, David Hernandez and Brad Ziegler. However, as a taster, thought we might want to look at where about our trio stand, when compared to the top relievers on other teams.

To find out, I took the stats for the three best, most commonly-used bullpen arms on each team. The basic cutoff for "commonly used" was 43 innings, because that gave me four or more players for 28 of the 30 major-league teams. The exceptions were the Blue Jays, who had three, and the Phillies, who only had two. Since I needed three, for Philadelphia, I added in the next-highest number of innings (Michael Schwimmer's 34.1 innings). At the other end, the Rockies - thanks, I think, largely to their four-man rotation experiment - had eight relievers who reached the mark. I used the standard B-R.com measure of 80% appearances or more in relief, to exclude starters.

That gave me a total of 159 pitchers, but I excluded the eighteen who played for multiple teams over the course of a season. I then picked the three for each team who had posted the lowest ERA over the course of the year, and combined their statistics to provide an overall number for each franchise's "A bullpen". Here are the stats for that part of the bullpen, for all 30 teams, sorted by ERA+. The full spreadsheet, including the players included for each team, and their individual numbers, can be seen here.

Tm G W L W-L% SV IP H R ER BB SO ERA ERA+
TBR 199 10 4 .714 48 200.3 124 42 36 55 236 1.62 346
ATL 203 10 2 .833 43 181.0 126 46 39 61 211 1.94 256
BOS 135 7 3 .700 2 145.3 138 43 41 29 132 2.54 223
CIN 177 13 12 .520 48 193.7 155 53 47 61 248 2.18 208
BAL 193 13 3 .813 3 189.0 146 50 50 63 176 2.38 178
TEX 185 14 8 .636 38 181.7 166 65 55 53 170 2.72 172
OAK 209 14 5 .737 39 213.3 128 59 56 80 206 2.36 170
TOR 174 5 6 .455 24 164.0 129 51 51 48 172 2.80 164
CHW 158 14 4 .778 4 190.0 150 59 58 95 204 2.75 162
ARI 206 9 9 .500 36 191.3 147 60 55 54 205 2.59 162
NYY 193 5 10 .333 44 174.3 153 55 52 60 182 2.68 160
WSN 195 12 6 .667 3 211.3 185 65 59 67 185 2.51 159
SFG 180 7 5 .583 17 162.3 128 49 42 45 164 2.33 156
LAD 178 15 7 .682 34 181.0 124 53 50 74 205 2.49 154
MIN 201 10 7 .588 21 204.0 169 79 63 58 169 2.78 152
KCR 215 16 11 .593 19 221.0 192 75 70 89 261 2.85 147
COL 203 8 14 .364 35 226.3 229 95 83 73 180 3.30 147
STL 215 9 9 .500 42 192.0 151 65 62 55 177 2.91 141
SEA 168 11 9 .550 29 170.0 130 59 52 60 185 2.75 138
HOU 178 8 11 .421 11 164.7 163 65 61 44 146 3.33 136
CLE 203 10 11 .476 41 194.7 155 72 65 65 188 3.01 132
PIT 193 8 10 .444 40 194.0 150 68 61 80 207 2.83 132
DET 180 13 11 .542 3 183.7 147 74 68 62 212 3.33 130
PHI 170 9 12 .429 39 156.3 126 66 61 60 208 3.51 124
SDP 208 6 6 .500 16 196.0 160 71 69 66 194 3.17 120
NYM 205 11 15 .423 12 190.0 168 85 72 67 155 3.41 119
CHC 218 13 10 .565 24 202.3 186 84 77 89 181 3.43 115
LAA 156 7 5 .583 11 136.0 126 56 52 48 101 3.44 113
MIA 179 13 7 .650 15 193.3 198 95 81 75 169 3.77 111
MIL 220 13 16 .448 6 207.3 204 107 97 91 206 4.21 99

The Diamondbacks trio, of J.J. Putz, David Hernandez and Brad Ziegler, came in equal ninth in the overall rankings, with an overall ERA+ of 162. That's certainly not bad, yet actually feels lower than it seemed - particularly in the latter half of the season, they were remarkably reliable at preserving leads in the late innings. But their achievements pale in comparison to the Rays. Tampa's trio, Fernando Rodney (0.60 ERA), Jake McGee (1.95) and Wade Davis (2.43) combined to go 10-4 with a 1.62 ERA in over two hundred innings of work. Rodney, with five ER in 74.2 IP, has the lowest-ever season ERA with 50+ innings of work, beating Dennis Eckersley's 0.61 mark from 1990.

A little lower, something stands out about the third-placed Boston Red Sox - a near-total lack of saves. That's a result of the team not using their best pitchers in save situations, and they paid the price. With Jonathan Papelbon gone, and Andrew Bailey on the DL, Boston turned to Alfredo Aceves, who sucked. He put up a 5.36 ERA and blew eight saves: Aceves became the first pitcher since Yhency Brazoban for the 2005 Dodgers, to put up double-figures in both saves and losses, going 2-10. There's little doubt the Red Sox would have been better off turning to Junichi Tazawa (1.43 ERA) or Scott Atchison (1.58 ERA) to protect late-inning leads. But they persevered with Aceves until late August, when Bailey returned - to post an ERA north of seven down the stretch.

You might think a similar situation was the case for the Orioles, who you see were also credited with only three saves from their A-pen. However, that's more due to their remarkable depth. Jim Johnson's 2.49 ERA made him only their fourth-best reliever, going by that stat. They became the first team since 1969 - coincidentally, also the Orioles - to have four bullpen arms with 50+ IP and ERAs below 2.50. Throw in Luis Ayala's 2.65, and they were the first team in history to have five relievers that good. In total, they threw 332.2 innings with a 2.46 ERA: a large part of why Baltimore went 29-9 in one-run games and made the post-season for the first time in 15 years.

On the other hand, a decent bullpen is no guarantee of a good record in close contests. We needn't look far for a counter-example. Good relievers, used in high-leverage situations - yet the D-backs went 15-27 in one-run games, tied with the Cubs for the worst in the majors. For us, the problem was less stopping the opposition from scoring, and much more putting anything up ourselves: We hit below the Uecker Line in late and close situations, Arizona's .199 batting average being fourteen points below the next-worst National League team, and a whopping forty below the NL mean.

Interestingly, the Rays were even worse, hitting .197: such ineffective clutch hitting largely undid their great bullpen, a mediocre 21-27 one-run record contributing to their demise as much as the Orioles' great results, Tampa finishing three back in the wild-card. So, if there's any conclusions to be drawn, it's that great bullpen arms alone are not necessarily enough. Yes, they can certainly help, as the Orioles show, and four of the top five bullpens were on teams which reached 90 or more wins. But they need to be used when the team really needs a zero to be put up, and you still need to score in order to win, so must also be combined with at least a certain degree of offense.

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