On twitter the other day, I asked for some article ideas and a friend of mine asked me to analyze the bullpen and lament all of the blown saves. After all, Franklin blew four saves in the first month of the season… take those away and the Cardinals would be right in the thick of the NL Central race, right? Well, not exactly… but it’s probably fortunate that Albert is holding the sniper rifle in the picture to the right instead of one of 3 million fans that will walk through Busch Stadium’s gates this season.
A quick glimpse at FanGraphs’ leader board pages confirms that the Cardinals’ 2011 bullpen has been disappointing. Their ERA/FIP/xFIP leave them ranked 18th, 15th, and 17th against all MLB teams respectively.
Their 9th place ranking in SIERA is a little more promising, however. In case you don’t know much about the newest ERA estimator, it was originally developed by Matt Swartz and Eric Seidman at Baseball Prospectus. You can read all about it at FanGraphs where it’s been made available for free. There’s probably not a simple way to explain why it’s better than xFIP, but it favors pitchers with higher strikeout rates since they tend to induce weaker contact on balls in play (meaning they allow fewer hits and home runs per fly ball). No doubt, SIERA is a complicated model, but it does account for factors previously ignored by xFIP, and it is slightly more predictive of future performances when dealing with smaller sample sizes, so it warrants mentioning, especially since it views our bullpen in a more favorable light.
Cardinals’ relievers have graded out better with this metric because they’ve been able to rack up strikeouts at a respectable rate. In fact, if they can sustain their 8.12 K/9 rate throughout the rest of the season, it would easily be the highest rate of the LaRussa era. The previous high was 7.51 K/9 in 1999. So while the pen has been underwhelming in many regards, the results could have been worse had this particular group not possessed the ability to strike out hitters. Better yet, their 2.37 K/BB mark is good for 6th best in MLB. It’s not all doom and gloom here. Just mostly.
In order to do away with saves and holds that are often awarded in unimportant situations, superior metrics have been developed to gauge bullpen performance. At the oft-cited Tom Tango’s Book Blog, spirited discussion and a little math gave way to Shutdowns and Meltdowns. These two statistics don’t glorify the “save” since they only award pitchers with a shutdown when they increase their team’s odds of winning by .06 WPA (win probability added). Also, all relievers can rack up shutdowns, not just those deemed closer. This eliminates relievers from being awarded for succeeding in relatively easy game situations such as getting three outs in the bottom of the ninth when their team is leading by three runs. One way to evaluate a bullpen’s overall performance, then, is to look at their ratio of shutdowns to meltdowns (SD/MD).
Let’s take a look at how the Cardinals stack up against the rest of the league. Click on the graph for a larger image. Numbers were gathered on 8/13/11.
Only two teams (Rays and Astros) have been worse in terms of SD/MD ratio (though the Rangers have been just as bad). To break things down a little further, let’s take a look at the individual members of the bullpen. Numbers were gathered on 8/16/11. I used full-season stats for the new guys (e.g. Dotel’s numbers include his time as a Blue Jay).
There have been a lot of moving parts this season… and for good reason. Franklin, Miller, Tallet, and Batista were absolutely horrible. Their 25 meltdowns were good for 38.9% of the team’s total blow-ups. Even more sobering, the Phillies have only suffered 32 meltdowns all season. The Red Sox? 37. The Yankees? 40.
Last season, our very own Erik Manning had some fun with shutdowns and meltdowns at FanGraphs. He looked at three seasons (2007-2009) worth of data to get a profile of the best and worst relievers. Premier relievers (Marian Rivera, Joe Nathan, and Joakim Soria) had shutdown percentages around 50% to go with very low meltdown percentages (8-12%). Salas has nearly met that standard (of course, I had written this before he suffered another meltdown last night). The next best shutdown percentages belong to Lynn and Sanchez but they’ve both been bitten by the injury bug, and their timetable for return is unclear.
Beyond those three guys, however, there’s a plethora of mediocrity. Out of the new relievers, Dotel has probably had the best season. But at this point in his career, he’s well-documented as a right handed pitcher who gets out right handed hitters (otherwise known as a ROOGY). And Rhodes probably isn’t much of an upgrade over the other LOOGYs we’ve endured to date. He’s already suffered two meltdowns in his three game appearances.
Some have blamed the rotation for failing to consistently pitch deep into games. There is some logic to this position. Lesser pitchers are in the bullpen for a reason. In general, they weren’t good enough to stay starting pitchers. In a sense then, the more innings that are shouldered by a bullpen, the more innings a team is handing over to their inferior pitchers. But then again, three of the four teams with the highest SD/MD ratios (Phillies, Giants, Braves, and Red Sox) have accumulated just as many innings as the Cardinals, so that theory doesn’t exactly hold up.
The Cardinals rank near the bottom of the league in UZR. Defense has surely played a part. The metrics seem to like Jon Jay better than Colby Rasmus (2009 aside) in CF. And to say that Rafael Furcal is a better defensive SS than Ryan Theriot is a serious understatement. So defensive improvements have been made, but as long as Berkman is patrolling RF and Schumaker is manning the keystone, adventures will abound.
When you think about it though, even the rose-colored view of the relief corp has wilted… at least for 2011. Yes, this bunch has shown a knack for dialing up hitters at a pace we haven’t seen in awhile, but even those peripherals were being propped up by guys now on the disabled list (Sanchez and Lynn).
Honestly, the bullpen was one aspect of the team that concerned me very little coming into 2011. And, at times, it’s looked like a competent bunch. They strikeout quite a bit more than they walk (only five teams have been better in that regard). Its right-handers regularly dial up 95-99 mph heat. Its left-handers… are left-handed, and one of them can even supposedly retire opposite handed hitters. But they just haven’t been able to find any traction. As soon as answers have emerged from triple-A, injuries have derailed them. Consequently, the bullpen’s been in a constant state of flux all season long. And the team has suffered because of it.
As mentioned earlier, the Rangers’ bullpen has been similarly ineffective this season, but they’re sure to improve with the additions of Mike Adams and Koji Uehara. Adams has a shutdown percentage of 57.89% and meltdown percentage of 12.28% while Uehara’s game appearances have featured 38% shutdowns and 6% meltdowns. That’ll get it done. The Cardinals’ acquisitions, however? Don’t be so sure.