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Arizona Diamondbacks 2017 Preview: Bullpen

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This season brings new faces in the bullpen!

San Diego Padres v Arizona Diamondbacks
Archie Bradley fields and throws to first
Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Last Season’s Bullpen

How did our Dbacks’ bullpen do last year? Last place. 29 teams ranked better in bWAA. Pitching was made worse by four factors – poor game calling, poor pitch framing, non-outfielders in the outfield, and inherited runners. Closing pitchers inherited 290 runners in 2016 – which was 25% more than the National League average. And 106 inherited runners scored – which was 53% more than the National League average.

It couldn’t get worse, could it? Think again. Closer and ‘fireman’ Brad Zeigler became a free agent and was lost to the Marlins. Daniel Hudson became a free agent and was lost to the Pirates. Closer Tyler Clippard was traded to the Yankees. Jake Barrett was great last year, but will not start the season because of an inflamed shoulder.

It will be better, won’t it? Yes. Positive changes were made within apparent budget constraints. Dbacks have an attitude of ‘never give up!’

Creatively Remade Bullpen

Dbacks signed free agent closer Fernando Rodney. In 2016, Rodney pitched very well when he entered the game in the ninth inning as a closer, and pitched less well when he entered earlier. This season the risk is that Rodney is 40 years old. Factors that mitigate the risk are 1) he has a solid off-season conditioning program, 2) he eats healthy, and 3) he has a good attitude. For example, he said “I’m a young 40-year-old.”

Dbacks moved Archie Bradley from starter to the bullpen. In the last two years, Bradley’s most frequent pitches were his four-seam fastball and his curveball. And those two pitches work well together because they are hard for batters to tell apart. By moving to the bullpen, Bradley does not need to develop a plus-quality third pitch, and can instead focus on his best two pitches.

Dbacks made spring training an audition for bullpen spots. They invited Major League pitchers who wanted to prove they still had the right stuff to earn a spot on the roster. This approach worked! Two, and maybe three, non-roster invitees will be added to the roster: Tom Wilhelmsen, Jorge De La Rosa, and JJ Hoover.

Before we look at the bullpen in more detail, let’s look at an overview chart. The caveats are 1) the Dbacks have not yet announced all their bullpen decisions, and 2) The Dbacks will likely go with a 7-man bullpen, one less than the chart. The two pitchers competing for the seventh spot are Silvino Bracho and JJ Hoover.

Bullpen Roles

Role in 2017 Pitchers Backups
Role in 2017 Pitchers Backups
26-Man Roster 40-Man Roster
Long Relief Archie Bradley  
Zack Godley
Matt Koch
Closer Fernando Rodney
Jake Barrett
Enrique Burgos
Lefties Andrew Chafin
Jorge De La Rosa
Steve Hathaway
Righties Randall Delgado
Tom Wilhelmsen
JJ Hoover
Silvino Bracho
Jimmie Sherfy
Bullpen Roles

Bullpen Pitchers

Long Relief. Some days the starting pitcher can’t hit the side of a barn. Yikes!

  • Archie Bradley. The Dbacks drafted him as the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft. In 2014, he was a top-10 prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com. With such high expectations, his 2015 and 2016 games in the majors were disappointing. Quite possibly, Archie Bradley will excel in the bullpen. This season will be his first as a reliever. Let’s see what happens!
  • Possible backup long-relief pitchers on the 40 man roster are Zack Godley and Matt Koch, although they are possible backup starters, too. I look forward to seeing Zack Godley play because of my signed baseball card.

Closer. Watching the end of the game is like paddling an outrigger on the ocean; I prefer smooth paddling.

  • Fernando Rodney. Although Fernando Rodney was near the top of his game as closer, the rebuilding Padres traded him to the Marlins for a prospect. For the first month with the Marlins, Rodney was an eighth inning setup pitcher – and he had a difficult time. After that month, Miami had 18 great results in the 20 games when Rodney entered in the ninth inning or later. As far as his closer abilities, the other games mean nothing to me.
  • Two possible backup closers are on the 40 man roster. Enrique Burgos. He has a great fastball. In 2016 he had closer experience, although he pitched better in low leverage situations. Jake Barrett. In 2016, he had 14 great results out of 16 games that he entered in the ninth, including 4 times with inherited runners.

Lefties. Can a balanced bullpen keep hitters off-balance?

  • Andrew Chafin. He was a relief pitcher for the Dbacks in 2016. May was a bad month for him when he pitched in away games in 4 cities. In June he improved. In July, he went on the disabled list with shoulder tendonitis. The good news is that an MRI showed no structural damage. In spring training, Chafin has 10 strikeouts and 2 walks in 9 innings pitched (thru 27 March). Will this be a breakout year for Chafin?
  • Jorge De La Rosa. After 8 years as a starting pitcher with the Rockies, Jorge De La Rosa was a free agent. Eight years ago he pitched 60% fastballs. His pitch mix evolved until now it’s about 35% fastballs, 35% splitters, and 20% cutters. His numbers show a trend of slow decline over the years. This will be his first year as a reliever. Because the Dbacks need another left handed reliever, Jorge De La Rosa has found a good fit.
  • Possible backup on the 40 man roster is Steve Hathaway. He pitched 14.2 innings in 2016 with a FIP of 3.21. This spring, he is recovering from shoulder bursitis.

Righties. Can the bullpen keep wins within reach?

  • Randall Delgado. He is out of options, so he has to make the 25-man roster or risk being claimed by another team. Happily, he had an excellent spring. In spring training, he has allowed 2 earned runs in 7 innings pitched, with no walks and 10 strikeouts (thru 27 March).
  • Tom Wilhelmsen. After the worst 2.5 months of his career, with an ERA over 10, he was granted free agency in June 2016. He bounced back with a great spring – one earned run in 9.1 innings pitched (thru 27 March).
  • J.J. Hoover. After the worst 3 months in his career by far, he was released in August 2016. He bounced back with a great spring – zero earned runs in 8.2 innings pitched, with 1 walk and 11 strikeouts (thru 27 March).
  • Silvino Bracho. His good 2015 was followed by 24.1 not-so-good innings pitched in 2016. He relies on his four-seam fastball (60% of pitches). He also has a slider and a changeup. He injured a hamstring this spring. He may be recovered because he pitched one inning on 25 March and again on 27 March; with great results. He allowed zero earned runs and earned four strikeouts.
  • Possible backup on the 40 man roster is Jimmie Sherfy. In 2016 Reno, he had 27 strikeouts in 23.1 innings pitched. Rubby De La Rosa is rehabbing and is likely to get a roster spot when back at full capability.
  • Possible non-roster backups in the minors are: Erik Davis, Daniel Gibson, Jared Miller, and Yuhei Nakaushiro.

How Much Better This Season?

Back of Envelope Calculation

ROLE 2016 2017
ROLE 2016 2017
long relief -0.4 1
closer(s) 1.6 2
lefties -0.5 1
righties -4 -3
impact of catchers & defense -2 -1
TOTAL bWAA(wins above average) -5.3 0
Back of Envelope Calculation

This season, my reasonable back of envelope calculation shows the bullpen will contribute zero wins above average (bWAA), a significant improvement over last season. That improved performance would have ranked 16th in the Majors last year. With Arizona’s continued strength in scoring runs, and with an anticipated improvement in starting pitching, the improved bullpen could be enough to make the Dbacks a contender instead of a pretender.