Tuesday, January 30, 2007

MLB Preview 2007 – AL Bullpens

Today’s post focuses on the quality of the AL bullpens. Ranking bullpens, especially this early in the offseason, is tricky business for three reasons:

1. Relief pitchers are the most volatile and difficult to project species in the MLB universe.
2. Major league bullpens are where you will most likely find reclamation projects, guys given a second chance, and career minor leaguers. Going into the season, teams may only have four or five of the seven bullpen spots assigned, with the last two comprising a rotating group of whoever looks in spring training.
3. All bullpen roles are not created equal. The top three relievers in the bullpen typically pitch the most important innings, led by the putative closer. Thus, the quality of only three pitchers will dominate the overall bullpen ranking.

Fortunately, the last point also allows us to get a general idea of bullpen quality without the benefit of spring training outcomes, because most teams (I’m looking gloweringly at you Boston) already have an idea who the top three relievers are. Still, all these numerical projections should be taken with a grain of salt. I’ll provide comments when the numerical rank may not be providing a true view of reality.

As with the previous posts on starting pitchers, the following projections use PECOTA’s EqERA, with appropriate weighting applied for expected workload. In addition, a multiplier is applied to each relief pitcher’s EqERA that accounts for the importance of the situation he pitches in.

Top 2
Minnesota Twins: 3.20 EqERA
Texas Rangers: 3.23 EqERA

In the first grouping, we already see why the reliever ranking process is so difficult. Minnesota is a legitimate #1 on this list, with six quality relievers. Joe Nathan was the most dominant closer in the game last year, and PECOTA expects that to continue. The Rangers, on the other hand, are ranked here largely on the strength of the Eric Gagne projection (2.17 EqERA). Take out Gagne, and their bullpen EqERA increases to 3.64. This is not to suggest a flaw in the methodology, but rather to suggest that the performance of an entire bullpen can be transformed by the addition of a single player.

Strong to…quite strong
Oakland Athletics: 3.52 EqERA
Anaheim Angels: 3.56 EqERA
New York Yankees: 3.58 EqERA
Toronto Blue Jays: 3.62 EqERA

All of the teams above are characterized by a relief ace (which I’ll define as a top-10 closer) and at least two additional quality relievers. The thing that separates them from the top two is generally weakness in the 4-7 spots of the bullpen.

Baltimore Orioles: 3.77 EqERA
Cleveland Indians: 3.82 EqERA
Detroit Tigers: 3.84 EqERA
Chicago White Sox: 3.92 EqERA
Seattle Mariners: 3.98 EqERA

Continuing with the theme of AL pitching dominance, a full ten AL pens come in below the league average EqERA of 3.96, with the Mariners close at 3.98. The five pens listed here in general have closers of a caliber below that of the previous groups, and thus receive a lower ranking. Cleveland is a tough bullpen to decipher because it is not clear who will be pitching the important innings. PECOTA likes Keith Foulke and Rafael Betancourt a lot, and this projection assumes they will be pitching key innings next year. However, both struggled last year. Additionally, Cleveland has imported “proven closer” Joe Borowski, who projects as quite poor. Plugging him into a critical role drops the Indians out of this grouping entirely.

Late inning losses are our specialty
Boston Red Sox: 4.12 EqERA
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: 4.21 EqERA
Kansas City Royals: 4.31 EqERA

The bottom ranking contains two teams you would expect to find here, and one surprise. Tampa Bay and Kansas City are not surprise cellar dwellers, as it does not make sense for a team to devote resources to the bullpen until the have developed starting pitching assets. The Red Sox, by contrast, have the best projected starting pitching in MLB. However, the bullpen looks like a mess at this late date. They have some average-ish pitchers in Brendan Donnelly, Mike Timlin, and Manny Delcarmen, an unknown in Japanese import Hideki Okijama, a rookie with upside in Craig Hansen, and a converted starter in Joel Pineiro. PECOTA is not high on any of these players. Much like the Mets in the starting pitching department, the Red Sox had a clear need this offseason (bullpen), and found the available options unpalatable. Perhaps history will vindicate them for not overspending on risky free agents like Eric Gagne, but I think the Red Sox will regret having such an obvious hole in the team.

1 comment:

JLo said...

WTF Red Sox! Ok, true Sox fans stick with their team through the good seasons and the bad...I'll just keep waiting for another good season. Also, Yankees SUCK!