Constructing the Modern Bullpen: Has the New Conventional Wisdom Become as Narrow and “Conventional” as the Old Way?

conventional_wisdom_7-10-2012

I’ve been thinking about “conventional wisdom” lately.

Baseball is full of it. The stuff that most everybody believes and accepts as true. Then, gradually, new thinking comes along that challenges those long-held beliefs.

For example, “strikeouts bad” becomes, over time, “strikeouts really not so bad after all.” And so on. I draw your attention to two books on my baseball bookshelf, The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin; and the obnoxiously subtitled, Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong. (Leave it to the good folks at Baseball Prospectus, self-annointed “experts,” to annoy me with the very title of the book, a note of condescension right off the bat.)

baseball_between_the_numbersThe-Book

The truth is there are people who think harder and deeper about these topics than I do. It doesn’t mean they are always right, because nobody knows everything. That’s baseball, right, if it hasn’t humbled you already, just wait, it will. It’s why I’ve never liked the term “expert” when it comes to baseball writers. Only a moron or an egotist would accept the label.

The irony to any evolutionary thought process is that after iconoclastic thinking upends the old, calcified ways . . . the once-radical idea inexorably morphs into established “truth,” calcified in its own crust, and unquestioned by most.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

When everybody zigs, there’s your opportunity to zag. To me, in a nutshell, that’s Moneyball. Thinking outside of the box. Commodities become either over-valued or under-valued as tides of opinion ebb and flow. Once you are numbly repeating what everybody thinks, sitting in the box of commonly-held opinion, there’s some trailblazer a step ahead of you (but you don’t know it yet).

It remains to be seen if Chris Perez, a former closer (123 career saves) coming off a horrible year was a good bet at $2 million -- or wasted money.

It remains to be seen if Chris Perez, a former closer (123 career saves) coming off a horrible year was a good bet at $2 million — or wasted money.

The great thing about the sabermetric spirit in its purest form is it’s founded on questions, not answers. And the questions are: Is that really true? And how do we know?

Over the past 10-15 years, a new conventional wisdom concerning bullpens has become entrenched. To wit: We’ve learned to question the efficacy of signing free agent relievers, since various studies have taught us about the unpredictability of relievers in general. In a game where there are no sure things, relievers are the least certain of them all. In addition, we’ve seen examples of extremely effective bullpens (see: Oakland A’s 2013) that were built on the cheap.

But because it can be done, does not necessarily mean it should become the model for every team. Of course not.

Grant Balfour, a stud last year with a suspect wing, is one of the fiercest competitors in the game.

Grant Balfour, a stud last year with a suspect wing, is one of the fiercest competitors in the game.

The dogma we see repeated everywhere is that it’s “a bad idea” for teams to spend on the bullpen. Too risky. I can’t tell you how often I read that sentiment, a dismissal of the notion of bolstering the pen by signing free agent relief help.

To site one example, over at Rising Apple, Danny Abriano recently wrote:

As anyone who follows baseball knows, bullpen arms (with very few exceptions) are extremely volatile year to year.  Signing relievers who are viewed as established contributors guarantees nothing.  For recent examples, take a look at Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, and Brandon Lyon.

I selected this quote from Abriano, but it could have come from dozens of other sources. It’s the kind of thing we read all the time. Everyone knows.

Here’s Mike Smith at Rant Sports on the Mets acquisition of Ryan Reid:

Reid is not a headline-grabbing name, but this move is still a good start, the Mets desperately need depth in their bullpen, going after big name bullpen guys never pays off in MLB, so it is always best to build depth and stick with what works.

Hmmmm, “never” and “always.” Okaaaaay. We’re in the land where certitudes and baseball meet. Good luck with that. Because what’s right for one team might be completely misguided for another. Which in a nutshell is why any conventional wisdom is problematic, there will always be exceptions to every rule.

In fairness, the conclusion might be that when it comes to spending money, which can be in short supply for some teams (cough, cough), there’s simply too much risk associated with spending on relievers. It might also stem from the fact that we love an underdog, so the small market methodology holds greater emotional appeal. We want it to be the best way. And when it works, we dance in circles. Even if, well . . .

What if Billy Beane had spending money in those white walking shorts? I think he’d (gasp) use his resources. (Are we all wearing our bracelets, “WWBBD” bracelets?) My belief is that, as in most things, its not either/or, but a combination, a balance.

To be clear: I don’t have the answers, nor do I have the wherewithal to grok this in fullness (sci-fi reference for you literary types out there). I suspect there is no single answer, since so much of baseball is situational, context-driven.

Currently the Mets have 12 obvious, signed bullpen options, probably more:

Third time's the charm? After two failed, flawed, partial seasons, Josh Edgin is vying for a spot in 2014.

Third time’s the charm? After two failed, flawed, partial seasons, Josh Edgin is vying for a spot in 2014.

NAME, Career IP (MLB)

  • Bobby Parnell (306.1)
  • Vic Black (17.0)
  • Jeurys Familia (23.0)
  • Carlos Torres (181.1)
  • Josh Edgin (54.1)
  • Scott Rice (51.0)
  • Gonzalez German (34.1)
  • Joel Carreno (37.2)
  • Jeff Walters (0.0)
  • Ryan Reid (11.0)
  • Jack Leathersich (0.0)
  • Cory Mazzoni (0.0)

While I realize that the above list of names could work out — that there’s a dream scenario where it does — I also feel there’s a strong chance of nightmares along the way. Bobby Parnell is the only guy I’d personally consider reliable at this point, and he’s coming off a wonky injury. The others come with mixtures of hope, unicorns, fairy dust, and rainbows. Are these unproven players prepared for the long, hard haul of a full baseball season? And does the Collins/Warthen combo offer the best oversight to help this group thrive?

I am saying, yes, the overall methodology appears sound, but it does not at all ensure that it will work with this particular group — not by a long shot.

Manny Acosta had most of the tools -- but not the results.

Manny Acosta had most of the tools — but not the results.

We all remember the sad, bad bullpens of Sandy Alderson’s three-year reign. A few names to jar your memory: Manny Acosta, Pedro Beato, Chris Schwinden, Pat Misch, Blaine Boyer, Josh Stinson, Dale Thayer, Danny Herrera, Mike Connor, Elvin Ramirez, Robert Carson, Justin Hampson, Sean Henn, Greg Burke, Aaron Laffey. Just because a guy “throws hard” or has a “funky delivery” doesn’t mean that he’ll consistently get outs at the major league level.

While a good bullpen does not guarantee a team’s overall success, a bad one can quickly burn it to the ground.

Yet at Metsmerized, Joe D gave the Mets pen his stamp of approval:

I consider the Mets’ bullpen to be one of their greatest strengths in 2014 and certainly one of the best pens we’ve seen since the 2006 season. We have some solid young arms that all seem to be suited for the various roles that comprise a major league bullpen. Parnell is a solid closer who can be counted on, Black looks like he’ll be a dominant setup guy, Rice is the best LOOGY in the NL East, Torres was also among the best swing men in the league. Edgin and Germen lengthen the pen and we’ll see how the final one or two spots shake out in Spring Training. All in all, this should be a bullpen we can all be proud of. LGM.

Maybe Joe’s right, who knows. Meanwhile, Sean Flattery at Mets360 wondered if Terry Collins has his lefty, one-out guy:

Alderson continues to dangle Ike Davis to teams needing a first baseman, mainly Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.  The prospective return for Davis remains an unknown and there have been no rumblings about a big-time lefty reliever available.  After Boone Logan, J.P. Howell, and Scott Downs all signed for elevated money on the free agent market, the remaining lefty relievers wouldn’t blow fans’ hair back if they were to sign with the Mets.  The most reputable free agents LOOGYs left are Mike Gonzalez, Rich Hill, Jose Mijares, and Eric O’Flaherty,  who is coming off major arm surgery.  Of course, there is still Oliver Perez who last year re-invented himself in Seattle as a reliable LOOGY, but one would guess he won’t be wearing the blue and orange next season.

So who will be the LOOGY of 2014? To quote Gary Cohen, it looks like Scott “Every Minute” Rice….until further notice.

I’m not specifically concerned with a LOOGY, but I feel this team may sorely miss LaTroy Hawkins’ veteran presence. And I think Sean’s question speaks to the deeper issue of Terry and his automaton ways (“Get Scott Rice warmed up, the game’s about to start!“). As much as possible, you want to idiot-proof the decision-making process when it comes to Terry and Dan. When Terry starts think, think, thinking — conjuring his old “mix-and-match” magic, then you better buckle your seat belts because trouble’s a-brewing. He hasn’t shown a gift for it; though, again, the talent has been lacking.

So, yes, I wish Sandy Alderson took the risk of signing a veteran setup man or two for the pen to complement the “depth” strategy. Because going cheap with this group, while admirable in theory, might be the riskiest play of all. By my count, we still seem a few arms short.

 

Anthony Recker, anyone?

Anthony Recker, anyone?

 

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26 comments

  1. Couple of notes: Word is that Sandy Alderson will seek to sign a veteran for the pen. However, a distinction can be made between getting the guy you want and shifting through the leftovers.

    Adam McCalvy produced a handy (mostly depressing) list of the guys who are still available through free agency. It does not, of course, include arms that might be available through a trade.

    • Michael Geus says:

      I guess the question is would signing some bullpen arms have been a better use of our money than Young or Colon? Or worth non-tendering Ike. Because to be fair to Sandy I don’t believe he is hoarding any allocated funds from his owners.

      I would have non-tendered Ike and not signed Colon either, but it didn’t go that way. We will have to hope Sandy finds another Hawkins on the scrap heap and that Davis and Bartolo come through.

      But the other way we would have had to hope that we got lucky at the back of the rotation, and we would no longer own an Ike Davis lottery ticket (which may or may not still prove valuable.)

      If the idea is to put a good team together our luck component is now a big factor annually. We will be making hard choices every year.

      Sounds like so much fun!

  2. This is lame, commenting on my own post. But to be clear, I’ve long believed that the Mets need to develop relievers from within their own system. The Braves model. It makes so much sense. But wishing does not make it so. They should do it with outfielders, too, but there’s a point where you have to supplement to get the job done until the troops arrive.

  3. Brian Joura says:

    I know it’s not your comment but I was shocked to learn that Scott Rice was the best LOOGY in the NL East – as if that was a title that meant anything.

    At best he ranks fourth among LOOGYs in the division. I certainly would rather have Luis Avilan, Jake Diekman and Mike Dunn. All three had better years in 2013 and all three are younger, too.

    As for the relievers in general, I worry less about the individuals who comprise the bullpen and more about the person making the decisions about how to utilize the pen.

    I’m convinced that the dozen guys you mentioned could be a strong group of relievers. However, the last three years our bullpen has been a fiasco despite a constant change of characters. Some may view this as some type of bad luck. I view it as a failure in usage pattern.

    Until the mindless chasing of the platoon advantage late in games changes, our bullpen will continue to be below average. It’s one thing to carry Rick Honeycutt and Joe Klink all year long when you have both SP and RP who give you innings. But it’s another thing when you have workhorses in neither the rotation nor the pen.

    Playing the matchups can work fine if your SP regularly give you 7+ IP and your games consistently end in 9. The 1990 A’s had 28 more games where their SP went at least 7 IP. The 2013 Mets played six more extra inning games. It’s easy to see why the 1990 A’s had a little more luck playing matchups than the 2013 Mets.

    Maybe the 2014 Mets have better health with their SP, who in turn give them more innings. But unless that happens, the bullpen will be a mess – just like it was in 2013 and 2012 and 2011 – if they mindlessly chase the platoon advantage.

  4. I agree with everything you wrote, Brian. Probably tried to take on too big a topic to write about successfully in one post, but I did have to include Collins/Warthen in this discussion.

    I actually think the real “Moneyball” play here is for some smart team to rethink the contemporary standards of bullpen usage. Rethink the roles. In Game 6 of the ’86 NLCS, Roger McDowell threw 5 innings, Orosco threw 3, Aquilera threw 3.

    Too many teams are satisfied with getting 60 IP out of their relievers.

    • Michael Geus says:

      Some day a true innovative team will implement an organizational system designed to get all of their relief pitchers back to throwing two or three innings per appearance. The Mets had a great chance to be that team as they just punted away three years, and had the support of the public during that process.

      But this team is being run by a bunch of old guys with old ideas, so another opportunity lost.

    • Patrick Boegel says:

      I don’t foresee that changing, the distribution of bullpen innings, until such time as the myth of 100 pitches and four leaf clover of the complete game are behind us.

      It is actually astonishing to go look back at the 1986 playoffs. Those were the days when you used four starters, one likely only pitched one game even in a 7 game series, and your number five swung to the bullpen, ala Rick Aguilera.

      Essentially the Mets used Orosco and McDowell out of their real pen that NLCS. Doug Sisk pitched a very forgettable 9th in game 4.

      I mean realistically, and I know I am getting older and the noggin is less quick, but does anyone remember an outing that Randy Nieman threw in 1986? He of 30 some games? I have ZERO recollection of him actually participating in that season. But I know he was there and did.

      Fast forward to the next generation of Mets playoffs, 8 pitchers appeared in relief. Two of them were starters during the regular season, Hershiser and Rogers, the latter starting one game in the NLCS. Their pen accounted for over 50% of the innings pitched in that series, as opposed to 33% in 1986. And it was not extra innings that drove up the 1999 usage. Game 5 and 6 were 26 total innings in 1999, 28 in 1986.

      Not saying it won’t be a good idea when someone does it, but I simply don’t see it a world where managers weep openly in a regular season post game conference about letting their starting pitcher throw 134 pitches to complete a no-hitter.

  5. W.k. kortas says:

    Ike Davis for Tony Watson and a low-A body part. You’re welcome, Sandy.

  6. Eraff says:

    My trouble with using multiple relievers—4/5/6— is that you’re kind of betting on all of your guys to be “On” and in succession. I don’t argue with the stats and trends—they’re generally useful, but a guy who is habituated to pitching 1 inning will NEVER make a smooth transition to “an occasional” 2-3 inning run.

    Some of the Stats, especially platoon stats, are self fulfilling and a bit over-weighted because you’ve dictated a limitation to a player via his experience and preparation.

    Bullpen— I like young live arms with good stuff and SIMPLE DIRECTION. Young guys who were and might be future Starters— DO NOT WORK ON YOUR PITCH MIX—- throw hard…throw your best pitch…..throw ONE OTHER PITCH,,,,and most of all, Throw Strikes!!!…gain your confidence to throw strikes and get outs…the 3rd pitch comes “next year”

  7. Patrick Boegel says:

    I guess what I don’t understand is, how you can be reluctant to build a more reliable pen (other than the obvious financial elephant) when they damn well know the following:

    Jon Niese has only thrown more than 173 innings once.
    Dillon Gee had a tremendous bounce back in 2013, but has thrown more than 160 innings once, last year.
    Zack Wheeler, extremely unlikely he will throw more than 190 innings.
    Bartolo Colon, last time he threw 200 innings my son was age 1, he’s going double digits this year.
    Fifth starter as best I can tell is going to be rag tag and mix and match while waiting on Montero and Syndergaard who will not be allowed to throw more than 100 mlb innings I imagine.

    I’d say, in order to get more out of Niese, Gee, Wheeler and Colon, you need something they can rely on behind them.

    • Alan K. says:

      I agree 100% and I think they key is trying to find the 2014 version of Latroy Hawkins. I still think they’re focusing on signing backup catchers who can’t hit and trying to spin their inability to trade Ike and convince us how much they really like Tejada after all.

  8. Raff says:

    I agree with what’s been stated, but I’m struggling with reconciling some of the stats I’ve researched (minimally) regarding the Mets’ Starting pitching with what we all think we see with our eyes. Here goes: In 2013 the Mets Starting Pitching Averaged 6 innings pitched. Right at the league average> which ranged from 6.3 down to 5.4). Additionally, They were 5th in baseball for QUALITY Starts- with 94 (min 6 IP 3 Earned runs or less). perhaps the starting pitching was “steaky”- I don’t know what to make of it. Certainly, their was probably some of this attributable to the blips of losing then regaining Neise , losing Harvey, bringing Up WHeeler- but the stats are the stats. What to make of this?

    • I’m not sure what the question is.

    • Patrick Boegel says:

      I assume what you are getting at is the Mets staff appeared to be good last year?

      Harvey started 26 games. 20 of them were so called quality starts. Moreover, if you really up that ante of what should be termed a QS, say lets call it 7 innings + with 2 ERs or less, Harvey had 14 of those, or 53% of the time he was handed the ball. In short, he was awesomely awesome.

      Remove Harvey, Mets are at the tail end of the list, odds are you replace him with at best an average pitcher, maybe you get 12 QS back. But I think as Aaron Harrang and Dice K showed, that is unlikely.

      • The starting rotation was not one of the greater problems last season. The big thesis here is that a bad pen will burn your season to the ground very quickly, and in heartbreaking fashion. The current group looks very risky. To date, the pen has not been an area of focus for the Mets GM. It could work, I guess, but a lot of these guys look like the pitching equivalent of Kirkkkkk Nieuwenhuis. Next in line, seems like maybe could be okay, homegrown — but might not make it in the major leagues.

        • Understand. I am just saying, last years starting pitching was almost entirely carried by Harvey’s dominance. He gave the bullpen a rest virtually every time he stepped on the mound. Allowing them greater flex for the starters behind him. When you add in that Jeremy Hefner pitched spectacular for a month and a half, they really had the ability to mix and match at will.

          A bad bullpen can certainly hurt a good team. See 2007 and 2008 final days.

          Once in a blue moon you can find a 2012 Orioles that are lifted over the top by an insanely efficient pen.

          To me, when you have so many young guys and what ifs, in which you know they are going to be extremely cautious with, you have to over invest in your pen to protect that plan. Something they should have been doing all along. If there was money. That dreaded problem again.

          • Trading is probably the best option, I think, now that the money’s all gone. He got Ramirez that way, which really didn’t work out (I hoped it would, and was surprised and disappointed by his performance). He traded for Vic Black. But overall, he hasn’t aggressively worked the trade option.

            Aside: I do like that they seem to want to keep Torres in the pen, where I think he’ll be best served.

            It’s hard to build a roster on a shoestring. He’s hamstrung! So little room for bad luck.

  9. Raff says:

    Oh – here’s where I pulled the Stats on Starting Pitching:http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/2013-starter-pitching.shtml

  10. SANTA says:

    Bogie— I’m concerned with the Innings History of each pitcher as well. Perhaps they are about to Invent a ROTATION BY COMMITTEE?

    I actually feel good about their pitchers. I believe they have the 4-6 Market Cornered…maybe a present 2 or 3 sprinkled in. I have a tough time wrapping my head around Bartolo. I simply cannot internalize the concept that he’s going to give us 10 million dollars a year of Innings or Quality—I’ll be happy to be wrong. Any projection on an over/under for Innings Pitched by Bartolo during this 2 year deal?…… I’m Fearful that 220-240 would be the proper bet.

  11. Raff says:

    Jimmy – I wasn’t asking a question, per se… I’m just trying to reconcile the stats against the assumptions- INCLUDING MINE – that the starting pitching didn’t regularly deliver innings, and Quality Starts to support a predictable bullpen rotation, causing the bullpen to fail. So, I’m trying to figure out how the “averages”- which rank the Mets Starter Performance as average to good- jibe with what many of us perceived with our own eyes – as stated by others here> 1) The Starters don’t get deep enough into games, and 2) Strict adherence to “platoon advantages” over-taxed the bullpen. In your latest remark – you land pretty much where I do, and it’s pretty much where the stats I mention point to. The real issue is that the Bullpen Wasn’t Good, and It really isn’t related to either of the two commonly held assumption (mine included). They just stunk.

    • Like I said above, after Harvey, they really did not. But this does not necessarily make a good bullpen bad, maybe by the end of the year. But what killed them is that Collins routinely uses four pitchers to get 9 outs or more.

  12. Michael Geus says:

    Take a deep breath everyone. Francisco is healthy again and still available.

  13. Grove Peate says:

    Have you seen what they have in camp?….outstanding arms.

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