Boy, I am really glad I didn't watch last night's game. I dread to think what kind of emotions it might have provoked, had I watched a 3-0 lead melt away over the final third, as the bullpen allowed six runs in 2.2 innings of work, on five hits and four walks. It wouldn't have been pretty. Instead, when I discovered the final outcome, in between episodes of CSI, my reaction was a snort of derision and a brief thought of "Well, that's a surprise..."
Ten games in, and the Diamondbacks bullpen has an ERA north of six. After the jump, we'll take a look at the causes, the reason why last night hardly came as a shock to me, and what the prospects are for a resolution. Hopefully, this season...
Basically, I think we are dealing with an avalanche of tired arms. This wasn't an issue in the first week of the season, when the bullpen worked 17.1 innings and threw 280 pitches over six games against the Padres and Pirates, with a day off between the series. The results were excellent: 12 hits, four walks and seven runs, for a very acceptable ERA of 3.63. However, in just four games so far on this road-trip, our bullpen has already been called upon to work 15.1 innings - and, perhaps crucially, hurl 326 pitches. They've thrown 16% more since Tuesday than they did over the entire first week, 122 pitches above the 2009 NL avg. bullpen workload of 51 pitches per game. The results have been painful: 24 hits, 14 walks and 15 earned runs, an ERA of 8.80.
It started in the opening game, when Ian Kennedy could only go 4.1 innings, leaving the pen to throw 80 pitches. But Wednesday was obviously a big issue - we may have won, but at what cost? Rodrigo Lopez went five, and as the game ended up providing us with bonus baseball, the bullpen was pressed into service for six frames, with everyone bar Esmerling Vasquez being used. The sixth inning alone took Blaine Boyer, Jordan Norberto and Bob Howry to get through. [You may look at Boyer's eight pitches and Howry's five, and think that should have had little or no effect, you also need to factor in the warm-up tosses before coming into the game. In terms of effort, there's probably not much difference between five and 20 in-game pitches.]
After that, we really needed our ace, Dan Haren, to go deep into the game on Thursday. Despite a heroic effort from Haren, one pitch short of his career high, he had to be lifted after 6.1 innings. That has been the problem this week: our starters have all been infected with "Scherzeritis". They may pitch well, but it still takes just too many pitches to get through an inning. In four contests this week, our starters have thrown 21.2 innings but have needed a total of 431 pitches to do so. The resulting average of 19.89 pitches per frame over that stretch is more than 20% worse than the 16.46 average for the NL last season.
When the game in Thursday then went into extra innings once again, our goose was cooked - we used four relievers who threw a total of 73 pitches. The result was a bullpen that remained badly over-taxed, and so seeing a Padres pile-up at home-plate last night was hardly any kind of surprise. That it was a close game and so we needed to try and keep a small lead made things worse - we had to roll out Heilman and Gutierrez for the third consecutive game, something you rarely want to see for any reliever. It's something Arizona did only seven times all last season, but it has happened three times this road-trip.
That is shown in the chart below, which displays the usage pattern of the bullpen in Los Angeles and San Diego: who threw in which games, and how many pitches they were used for.
I have to say I am quite surprised Esmerling Vasquez was not used at all last night - he would seem to be the freshest of the bullpen, not having pitched since Tuesday. Would he have been better yesterday than trotting out, say, Heilman for the third day in a row? Hindsight is, as ever, immaculate in these areas. Maybe Vasquez was too busy packing his bags for Reno, given the word is that [to mix my gameshow metaphors really badly] the tribe has spoken, Esmerling has been deemed to be the weakest link, and so he has been sent packing from the house. It's nice to know he will be well-rested for the Aces bullpen [/heavysarcasm]
Frankly, I'm surprised he was chosen to go down, rather than 25th man and (I mean this in no real derogatory sense) bench-warmer, Rusty Ryal. After ten games, Ryal has managed just five plate-appearances. I think, at this point, a far greater need would be an eighth relief arm, rather than a third back-up infielder. I wonder if the absence of 1B Adam LaRoche is more serious than we've been told. With him out, Ryal would be the only credible replacement for Conor Jackson at first (other than shifting Mark Reynolds over, and I doubt we want to go there), so his role becomes more important. Still, that's preparing for "what ifs?" and not the immediate and actual issue of the 'pen.
Is there any hope for relief relief, as it were? "Don't count on it," says the Magic 8-Baseball, as the Diamondbacks won't have a day off until next Thursday. A couple of things might help out before then. Firstly: a starting pitcher or two going seven innings. Playing in Petco the next couple of days will help, but I can't say I feel optimistic Kris Benson and Ian Kennedy will be the men to do it. The other hope is for a blowout of some kind from the offense: a thirteen-run inning, such as we had against the Pirates on Sunday, let us keep Jackson out there for seven frames, after he'd allowed four runs in the first three.
But it's important not to panic, with the impact of games like last night being magnified because it's so early in the season. Find a paper-bag, take a deep breath, and think back to the bullpen we had in the first week - the one with the 3.63 ERA. I recall a very similar situation last season in May, where a series of long outings by the bullpen on a road-trip to Florida [including the 18-inning marathon] led to some disastrous results thereafter. Here's a quote from a piece I wrote at the end of the month, entitled More on the Diamondbacks paying the Bullpen Tax. See if any of this sounds familiar.
The deeper we got, the more it became a case of, not "Which pitcher is best for the situation?", but "Which pitcher does not currently have his arm held on solely by a small flap of skin?" The Padres series was the result, where the bullpen posted this line, which only their mothers could look at with anything but revulsion:
Bullpen: 8.2 IP, 16 H, 6 BB, 2 HBP, 6 K, 1 WP, 11 ER, 11.42 ERA
In other words, it's not impossible that the bullpen is going to get worse, before it gets better.