If anybody remembers the AL Central season’s retrospectives I posted back when the weather was equally cold and wet but leaves were falling rather than sprouting, you’ll remember that I labelled the 2010 Tigers’ chief failings relative to the White Sox & Twins as a weak bullpen and terrible back end of the rotation. We still need a lot more time to see if 2011 Porcello will be a significant improvement over 2010 Porcello, or if Penny and Coke will give us much more than Bonderman & Galarraga did, so I’m not going to be looking at that here.
In the ‘pens, however, there has been a lot of turnover here and in Chicago and Minnesota (and Cleveland and KC, to some degree). The Tigers, Indians and Royals kept solid closers – but have different guys setting up – the Twins have a new (old) closer in Joe Nathan, and an almost entirely new crew behind him and the Sox, well, we’ll get to that in a minute. We’re only 1/8 of the way through 2011 – but we’ve had enough innings pitched to get some idea whose bullpen changes seem to be paying off. Did we get better? Did the Twins fall off a cliff when they let all those arms go? Were the Sox bloody fools to cut ties with Bobby Jenks?
Let’s start with some reference points from 2010: The Tigers, in terms of total WAR, actually had the worst bullpen in the AL Central at 2.0. Then came the Indians at 2.4 and the Royals at 3.3. The Twins and White Sox had much better bullpens, 6.0 WAR for the Twins if we take half of Duensings 3.1 and 6.3 for Chicago. That means that about 4 wins worth of the gap between Detroit and the two front runners came down to bad relief pitching. For those of you who aren’t too fond of newfangled stats like WAR, here’s how the 2010 Central breaks down using conventional metrics:
So… why do we have less WAR than KC if we have a better ERA? Well, for one thing WAR isn’t rate-based so they get more by pitching more innings. But mainly it’s that part of the WAR calculation tries to strip out (or at least limit) the combined influence of defense and luck on the final tally. Look at our K/BB rate, something clearly under the pitchers’ control, and you get some idea why our bullpen might come out of the process looking bad.
Fast forward to 2011: the Tigers have added Joaquin Benoit and Brayan Villareal, lost Coke (and Zumaya & Perry, for a while at least). The Twins lost, for all intents and purposes, everyone but Matt Capps. The White Sox lost Bobby Jenks, J.J. Putz and Scott Linebrink, filling the gaps with Will Ohman and Jesse Crain. KC and Cleveland kept stellar closers and sifted through more replacement level talent underneath. And here’s were we stand as of Saturday:
Some of this should obviously be taken with a grain of salt… but some things stand out: Cleveland’s bullpen is looking pretty good – the White Sox have excelled at a lot of other things this April, but 6 blown saves in 7 opportunities will drag down your record. KCs bullpen looks most improved, especially when you consider that Joakim Soria hasn’t been all that great thus far, but their DIP and ERC numbers don’t look so good. The Royals bullpen has been getting lucky along a number of lines so far, balls-in-play, sequencing, even defense, but their peripherals look pretty weak.
Those peripherals look particularly strong for Chicago, so it’s hard to imagine that early returns will be indicative of a big dropoff from last year’s bullpen, nonetheless they seem to have at least left the door open for the Tigers in that respect. Minnesota’s decline, though it’s obviously early, looks real at any statistical level I can dig to. It’s just one of the reasons why the Twins have started 9-12, but the bullpen has made a contribution. Beyond the rise in the headline ERA, the Twins OPS allowed has risen from .703 to .757 without an influence of what we statheads would call ‘luck’. In other words, it isn’t a difference in BABIP or HR/FB, etc… the Twins ‘pen is striking out fewer people (5.26 K/9 instead of 6.74) and walking more (3.4 BB/9 instead of 2.95). That looks a lot like what you would expect if talent gets replaced by spare parts.
If only the Tigers were able to capitalize… Thankfully, the top 2 in the Tigers bullpen (Jose Valverde & Joaquin Benoit) have been every bit as good as we could hope – but the rest, by-and-large, are looking terrible. So terrible, in fact, that our bullpen ERA has risen by more than Minnesota despite their offseason defections. To give you some indication – Valverde and Benoit have allowed 2 runs in 18 1/3, with 15 strikeouts and 3 walks. The rest of the bullpen has alllowed 29 earned in 37 1/3 (an ERA a hair under 7) with 22 walks and 26 strikeouts. That strikeout rate is perfectly acceptable for middle relief, but 5.3 BB/9 is obviously not. Good Lord, where would we be if Illitch hadn’t written that check to Benoit? There may be a little luck to blame as there seems to be for Chicago, so I don’t mean to beat the drum of doom, but the walk rate is not good enough and we’re getting hit hard around the stretch too often. The Tigers bullpen is looking marginally worse than last year, and that’s not going to make up much ground no matter how the Twinkies might struggle.
The Tigers management has already made some moves, and some of the guys ‘responsible’ aren’t around at the moment, but Alburquerque’s 4 BB in 4 1/3 doesn’t seem like much of an improvement over Enrique Gonzalez’s 6 in 5 1/3. Robbie Weinhardt got knocked around a little in his (extremely) limited cup of coffee, but at least he didn’t walk anybody. Ryan Perry’s return from that short stint on the DL should help to bridge the 7th in a handful of close games, but with Zumaya’s permanent emergency it is looking like the Tigers may need to make some more aggressive moves – Villareal, Alburquerque, Thomas and (dare I say it) Daniel Schlereth aren’t looking like guys who should be pitching in close games. A short drive away Adam Wilk and Charlie Furbush are tearing up the International league (and pitching better than Andy Oliver, if anyone has noticed): if the Tigers think of them as nothing more than emergency starters (8th and 9th on the shadow depth chart behind Oliver and Turner) – what is there to lose by giving them Thomas’ innings? For that matter, what about Fu-Te Ni?