Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE
It's pretty hard to complain about the numbers from the back end of the Dbacks bullpen in 2012. Just perusing the numbers below most teams would ask, "Where do I sign?" to finish the season with this kind of production. But there were a couple of bumpy spots that always seemed to happen at the most inopportune times, especially early on. But the team had such a small margin for error due to the inconsistent starting pitching that the the bullpen failures were often magnified. In any case, let's look back at the performance of the back end of the bullpen.
J.J. Putz was coming off an outstanding 2011 season and certainly expectations for 2012 were for more of the same, although I do seem to recall fear expressed around the boards that Putz could be a candidate for regression. There were also concerns whether J.J. would hold up physically given his history of injuries. In any case he headed into the 2012 campaign as the unquestioned closer and at a fairly acceptable price.
David Hernandez entered the season as the closer-in-waiting and there was plenty of comfort around that if something happened to Putz that Hernandez was more than ready to step in and fill the void. He had done so admirably for several weeks in 2011 and he has never been shy about stating how much he would embrace being a closer. Though to be fair he has never complained about his role and has always been nothing but a consummate team player. There were no fears that the set-up job wasn't in good hands.
Brad Ziegler on the other hand was not exactly penciled in as one of the back-end guys. He was secure in that he would have a job in the bullpen, but it wasn't entirely known what that was going to be. Heading into the season it was presumed that Takashi Saito was going to be the primary 7th inning guy and someone who could be promoted to an even more prominent spot if Putz or Hernandez went down. So Ziegler was initially viewed as "just a guy" and mostly as a right-handed specialist.
If you simply look at the end-of-year numbers the initial conclusion is the bullpen was somewhere between very good and great. But that wasn't entirely the case. Putz started out the year in a bit of a funk and his numbers for April and May were downright awful. He blew several saves in spots that seemed like such crucial losses at the time. He deserves some of the blame for the team's inability to get on any kind of a consistent run through the first few months of the season. Thankfully Putz snapped out of it and from June on he was one of the best closers in baseball. He allowed four home runs in April and May and none for the rest of the season.
Hernandez had pretty good numbers through the first half of the season but those first couple of months were just a tad short of what we'd come to expect from him. I recall Miggy calling for a lot of breaking balls early in counts over those first two months and less reliance on his fastball. Consequently, Hernandez had three blown saves over the first six weeks that when added to the struggles from Putz had fans really questioning what was going on with our once dominant bullpen. Those 6-7 losses in which Putz and Hernandez were instrumental had a lot to do with digging the deep hole the team never found a way to climb out of. But as with Putz, from June on Hernandez was outstanding and finished the season with an excellent performance line. Had the team performed better collectively, the few games in which Hernandez wasn't perfect might not have stood out so glaringly.
Ziegler on the other hand was the model of consistently and in some ways he was the glue that held the bullpen together. He had an uncanny ability to enter games with runners on base and induce inning-ending double-play grounders. In just 68+ innings Ziegler induced a mind-boggling 21 double-play balls. It wasn't long before he took over a key spot in the back-end of the bullpen pitching primarily in the 7th and 8th innings in tons of high leverage situations. He posted a sub-3.00 ERA in every month of the season and was a definite bright spot all season long.
Looking forward to 2013
All three guys from 2012 are set to reprise their roles once again in 2013. The team picked up J.J.'s option for 2013 and he is currently scheduled to close once again. Hernandez is also on board to be the primary set-up man again and he's also available to move into the closer's spot if anything should befall Putz. Ziegler will also be back but the team's signing of Heath Bell might move him back to the 6th inning, or as a right-handed loogy, or as a late-inning filler when the other three need a rest. The addition of lefty Matt Reynolds and Bell might actually allow Ziegler to pitch more often but more exclusively against right handers, against whom he is much better. Left-hand hitters recorded an OPS 250 points higher than righties against him. In any case, the new bullpen additions give Gibby the option of using a more specialist approach on occasion that should make the back-end of the bullpen that much better in 2013. It will be a major disappointment if the back end of the Dbacks bullpen doesn't prove to be one of the best in the National League.
J.J.'s rough start prevents him from landing a really high grade because he helped dig the team's hole. His spectacular 2nd half though actually gives me more confidence going into next year than he did this year. Grade - B
Hernandez did not have any slumps as bad as Putz but he doesn't get a top of the line grade because he lost a handful of games early on that also contributed to the team's hole. Grade - B+
Brad Ziegler exceeded expectations and was a rock during some of the turbulent times. His ability to induce game-saving double play balls was simply incredible. And he pitched a lot against lefties as well, which is not his forte, and he at least held his own there. Grade - A
Overall the numbers ended up looking really good for the bullpen, but I can't overlook their inconsistency early on and how they didn't really come through when we needed them the most during the first two months of an underwhelming season. Grade - B
soco: Grade - B. It's hard to have much to complain about when it comes to the A bullpen. There were some bumps along the way, and Putz certainly had some struggles. It never felt like the weakness, though, and if we went late with a lead then I generally felt like we'd keep it.
Clefo: Grade - B. Putz had the early season yips (medical term), but he calmed down. Like soco said above, you can't really complain about the performance of those guys. They had a good beat and I could dance to it.
Jim: Grade B+. It's interesting to see how little Putz's early season struggles affected the team overall. Through June 22, he had a 5.73 ERA. After that point, it was 0.84. But our records to the same date were 35-35 before, and 46-46 after. Still, I liked the latter version much better. Hernandez's promotion to closer may have been put off by a year, but it's great to have had him as a backup, and Ziegler's ability to conjure up double-plays, almost at will, was near mystical. Hard to speal ill regarding any of them.