The Poetic Injustice of a Bad Season but Good Bullpen

Nothing seems more unfortunate than a great bullpen on an otherwise bad team. After all, relievers are employed to lock down a game in which their team has the lead. When a team is having trouble getting the lead though, the assets in their bullpen are, to some extent, wasted. And a wasted pitching asset, despite relievers typically being inexpensive, translates to wasted dollar assets for the front office.

Of course, this is the case with the 2015 Milwaukee Brewers. With the ninth-best bullpen in the major leagues by fWAR, the Brewers are also the only team with three relievers (among pitchers who have never started even one game this season) in the top 25 by PWARP. In fact, you have to go all the way down to 32nd place by PWARP to find a set of three players on the same team (the Yankees’ Dellin Betances, Justin Wilson, and Andrew Miller). All this is to say, Will Smith (ninth in PWARP among relievers), Michael Blazek (17th), and Francisco Rodriguez (23rd) have been outstanding.

But you knew that already, so what’s the point? During my last article (which I’m still sorry about) I made a quick-and-unfounded comment:

“Sometimes I wonder if bad teams have better bullpens because there are fewer high-leverage opportunities, but that’s for another time.”

Well, welcome to “another time.” I don’t think I’m necessarily alone in thinking this to be true, but how best to measure something built only on narrative? I started by looking at leverage index, to see if the first assumption—that the Brewers’ bullpen has pitched  ‘less intense’ innings—was true. Sure enough, the Brewers bullpen as a whole is 27th in pLI and ahead of only the Athletics, Phillies, and Indians. That four teams with sub-.500 records are all clustered at the bottom there bodes well so far. If this theory is to be true however, one would assume we should see all four of these bullpens in the top half of the league in overall performance. Alas, despite the Brewers and Indians nearing the top (first and eighth, respectively), the Phillies and Athletics sit 17th and 24th. I could stomach one team being barely below the median, but the Athletics’ woes are hard to reconcile.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the narrative is wrong though. After all, pitching fewer high-leverage innings wouldn’t necessarily make all your bullpen pitchers measurably better. One could easily imagine a scenario in which a starter on a bad team gives up a ton of runs, doesn’t make it very far into a game, and the bullpen has to just tidy it up. Those innings, although very low leverage, would still be very taxing. So let’s assume a new scenario: only a team’s best relievers reap the rewards of an under-performing team. In saying this, I’m assuming that a team’s best reliever almost never comes in for mop-up scenarios. In fact, I’ll hazard a guess that I’m definitely right in that assumption. After all, the long reliever is never the closer.

So, how does that stand up to testing? Looking only at the best two relievers by xFIP in each bullpen, we can draw some conclusions. However, these conclusions would quickly be rendered useless because the best relievers in a bullpen are not necessarily the ones deployed in the highest leverage spots either. The reasons for this are two-fold: first, a manager may not pay attention to xFIP when he decides to use a certain pitcher in a certain situation; and second, a pitcher who doesn’t pitch in high-leverage situations might just actually have a better xFIP—the pressure never gets to them.

Now we are starting to understand how difficult it is to test narrative. Let’s try to find another way to look at this. Let’s look at every team’s highest individual pLI out of the bullpen and see which one of those has the best xFIP. This way, we’re narrowing it down definitively to the player who has been used in the highest leverage situations for his team.

Sorting by pLI alone gives some pretty strange results. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a team that is the best in their division to be near the bottom. However, Yimi Garcia of the Dodgers sits in a distant last place, pitching in just 0.16 higher than average leverage situations. But that’s just because Kenley Jansen doesn’t qualify yet.

So, we now have the pitcher that is deployed in the highest leverage situations for his respective club for all 30 teams. Who has performed the best overall? The Brewers’ Francisco Rodriguez sits fifth in xFIP! Just behind the constantly worked Craig Kimbrel of the Padres and David Robertson of the Chicago White Sox. Three sub-.500 teams. Seems like we’re on a roll. Who are the top two? The Orioles’ Zach Britton sits second and the Yankees’ Dellin Betances sits unsurprisingly first. A .500 team and a division-leading team. While this still doesn’t prove anything, maybe it’s a start.

Where are the Athletics, Phillies, and Indians? The Athletics’ Tyler Clippard is dead last, the Phillies’ Luis Garcia (yes, Garcia has apparently pitched in the most high-leverage spots, not Papelbon or Giles) sits 21st, and the Indians’ Cody Allen is 13th.

Of course, what this narrative suggests is that their high-leverage relievers will pitch better in those situations because there are fewer of them and they are better-rested because of that. Having looked at the results, a few things have become evident to me. First, it’s near impossible to actually measure this. Second, great pitchers perform well and poor pitcher perform poorly regardless of rest. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Craig Kimbrel or David Robertson top a list of xFIP leaders, regardless of rest. Third, in order to actually prove this, I think you’d have to narrow it down over multiple years to only teams that are in the bottom percentile for runs scored. That Clippard is at the bottom of the list and also plays for a bad team doesn’t prove anything because he—or the pitching staff in general—could conceivably be the problem for the woeful Athletics.

I’m truly sorry to pose so many questions and offer so few answers, but I think discussions like this that challenge narrative can still be helpful even if they don’t draw conclusions. One conclusion is certain though: K-Rod, Blazek, and Smith are quite the tandem. So it goes.

Lead photo courtesy of Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

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