Bullpens: How consistent? How important?

By Tom Tippett
May 13, 2003

For the past couple of years, I've had a sense that bullpens are inherently inconsistent. That it's hard to know before the season starts which teams are going to have strong pens and which ones are going to struggle all year. I know how this got started:

  • In 2001, the Phillies acquired a bunch of middling relievers (Jose Mesa, Ricky Bottalico, Rheal Cormier, and Jose Santiago) and went from having the league's worst bullpen to being respectable enough to challenge for the division title until the final weekend.
  • Also in 2001, the Red Sox bullpen struggled mightily after being one of the AL's best in 2000.
  • Last year, I expected very little from the bullpens of two teams (Atlanta and Minnesota) whose relief arms helped propel them into the postseason.

Were these isolated events that just happened to catch my eye because they involved contending teams? Or do a lot of teams wind up being surprised by what they do or don't get out of their relief corps in any given season?

Last winter, while preparing our 2002 position rankings article, I noticed that the pinch hitter rankings seemed especially volatile, and I wondered if the same would be true of relief pitcher rankings. So I decided to rank the bullpens based on OPS allowed for the past five full seasons and for the current year through May 9th:

Team           1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 
Anaheim 4 3 8 5 1 2
Baltimore 5 9 12 12 4t 3
Boston 1 2 1 9 8 13
Chicago 6 8 4 6 4t 10
Cleveland 10 7 7 4 10 9
Detroit 7 6 3 13 12 8
Kansas City 12t 14 14 11 14 7
Minnesota 11 12 9 10 6 1
New York 3 1 2 2 3 12
Oakland 9 5 10 3 7 5
Seattle 14 13 6 1 2 4
Tampa Bay 2 11 5 8 13 6
Texas 8 4 13 14 11 11
Toronto 12t 10 11 7 9 14

Team 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003
Arizona 10 6t 7t 2 13 6
Atlanta 2 1 3t 1 1 12
Chicago 15 15 15 6 15 2
Cincinnati 9 2 7t 5 6 10
Colorado 11 16 10 16 16 16
Florida 16 13 9 12 12 13
Houston 1 4 14 3 7t 2t
Los Angeles 7 10 2 14 4 1
Milwaukee 13 14 3t 10 9 14
Montreal 6 8t 11 15 11 8
New York 14 3 6 7 5 11
Philadelphia 12 11 16 8 7t 4
Pittsburgh 4 8 12 9 10 5
San Diego 3 5 1 11 14 9
San Francisco 5 6t 3t 4 2 7
St. Louis 8 12 13 13 3 15

If you're looking for inconsistency, you can certainly find it in these tables. Tampa Bay, Oakland, Arizona, the Cubs, the Dodgers, and St. Louis have made big moves up and down these rankings at various times over the past five years.

But if you're looking for consistency, you can find that, too. The Angels, Yankees, Braves and Giants have been good season after season, while Kansas City, Toronto, and Florida have spent almost every year in the bottom half of the table.  (Colorado has also been in the bottom half every season, but a lot of that is the park.)

Overall, I didn't see much in these rankings to suggest that bullpen performances are especially volatile.  They change from year to year, but you'd expect that in the rankings of any element of baseball performance. And some of those changes followed directly from personnel moves.

What intrigued me more is the correlation between a strong bullpen and overall team success:

  • Of the ten teams that led their league in bullpen OPS, eight made the postseason, three reached the World Series, and two won it all.
  • Of the ten teams that finished second in their league in bullpen OPS, six made the postseason, four made the World Series, and two won it all.
  • Of the ten teams that finished third in their league in bullpen OPS, seven made the postseason, two made the World Series, and one of them won it all.
  • Twenty-seven of the last forty postseason teams finished in their league's top five in bullpen OPS.
  • All five World Series winners since 1998 finished in the top three of their league in bullpen OPS.
  • Only seven of the last forty postseason teams were in the bottom half of their league in bullpen OPS, and none of them made the World Series.

I'm not saying that the quality of a team's bullpen is the most important factor in determining team success. You need good starting pitching and an offense that can score, too. But if relief pitching was much less important than these other things, we'd see more mediocre-to-poor bullpens carried into October by their offenses and starting rotations.

How do bullpen rankings compare with those of starting pitchers and offenses? Quite well, as it turns out.

As I noted above, of the 30 teams that finished in the top three in their respective leagues in bullpen OPS, 21 made the playoffs. If we look at starting pitchers the same way, we find that 20 of those top 30 teams made the playoffs. And 18 of the top 30 offenses were still alive in October.

If anything, that suggests that bullpens might be slightly more important than the other two elements, though the sample is small enough that we cannot jump to that conclusion. Besides, there's some evidence that points in the other direction, too. A few more below-average bullpens (7) made the postseason than did below-average rotations (5) or offenses (4).

Overall, these rankings tell me that all three facets of the game are very important, and it's hard to argue that any one of them is more important than the other two. And that comes as a surprise to me.

I would have predicted that bullpen rankings were less significant than the other two, if only because of playing time. Starting pitchers work twice as many innings as relievers, and a team's offense is on the field for the entire game, not just part of it. You'd think starters and offenses would carry more weight simply because they have a lot more opportunities to affect the outcome of a game.

Nevertheless, for the past five seasons, it has been every bit as important to finish in the league's upper echelon in relief pitching. That must mean that relief innings have a disproportional impact on winning and losing in today's game.

There was a time, much earlier in baseball history, when relief pitchers were used mainly to mop up after a starter failed to do his job. A starter with a lead was expected to go the distance, so relievers got most of their work in losing efforts.

Thirty or forty years ago, complete games were less common but still plentiful by today's standards. You'd see a lot of games where the starter closed it out on his own or handed the ball directly to the closer.

Now, with hitters being more patient and pitch counts being monitored so closely, teams rely more and more on their bullpens to close out their victories. And it's not just the closer any more. Bullpens need to be deeper than ever because they are now tasked with both the traditional mopup role and the ability to take the ball from the starter in the 6th or 7th inning and hold a lead to the end.

If relief pitching really has become as important as starting pitching and run scoring, this may create an opportunity for teams with smaller budgets to gain a competitive edge. Middle relievers tend to get paid less than players in other roles, and some of the teams that rose to the top of the relief rankings did so without spending a lot of money. And some of those teams were still playing in October.

This also has some implications for the remainder of the 2003 season. Several contenders -- the Red Sox, Yankees, White Sox, Braves, and Cardinals -- currently sit near the bottom in bullpen OPS. It's still early, so their low rankings may be a fluke, and even if they're not, there's still time to get things straightened out.

But recent history suggests that if you're counting on a strong offense and a solid rotation to carry a subpar bullpen, your chances of making the postseason (and succeeding once you get there) are not good.