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
- 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
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.