Contention & Building Through The Bullpen

The notion of market inefficiency flooded the baseball lexicon following the publication of Moneyball in 2003. It chronicled the unlikely success of the Oakland Athletics, a small-market team that built contending rosters through identifying gaps in market value. That is, the Athletics needed to uncover under-appreciated skill sets and construct a roster around them. The Athletics blazed a trail that helped big-league front offices better understand the importance of on-base percentage and avoiding outs — both at the plate and on the base paths.

That eventually shifted to defensive value, as teams across the league began embracing the opinion that the importance defense has been dramatically undersold. The advent of framing statistics for catchers caused the baseball community to re-calibrate their valuations of many major-league catchers. Guys like Austin Hedges, a light-hitting defensive specialist for the San Diego Padres, suddenly became top-100 prospects. As defensive and framing metrics continue to reconstruct the way baseball fans and front-office members understand player value, it’s only natural that we start casting our collective eyes toward the horizon in search of the next market re-orientation.

One may rightly think that health and nutrition, especially in the minor leagues, will get heightened attention over the next few years. Perhaps we’ve seen the beginning of this with Gabe Kapler joining the Dodgers’ front office last winter. More baseball organizations will realize that investing resources more heavily in the minor-league system will increase the success rate (or graduation rate, if you will) of the farm system.

Maybe the next frontier is neurological. More researchers are attempting to understand how neurological changes impact baseball players, and moreover, they’re trying to identify neurological training techniques to improve performance. Any organization that can take massive steps forward in this realm will undoubtedly enjoy a leg up on the competition.

The revolution already upon us, however, is the uplift of the relief corps. For the past decade, the conventional wisdom has been to avoid spending big money on the bullpen, as relief pitchers are, by definition, fungible and unpredictable. Only foolish teams sign relievers to three- or four-year deals worth $10+ million. I know that I ascribed to this philosophy in recent seasons, begging the Brewers to allocate their resources outside the bullpen, viewing relievers as nothing more than unattractive and volatile assets.

At the same time, more big-league teams are beginning to augment their bullpen with elite arms and enjoying better success in the win column. The Kansas City Royals famously outperformed expectations in 2014, making the postseason for the first time in years and almost winning the World Series. Their success in no small part came from the unbelievable trio at the back-end of the bullpen. Greg Holland (1.44 ERA), Wade Davis (1.00 ERA), and Kelvin Herrera (1.41 ERA) combined for a dazzling 201.2 innings and 49 saves. Moreover, the threesome had 98 total “shutdowns” in the bullpen, as opposed to just 16 “meltdowns.” To put that in perspective, there are 19 relievers who already have double-digit meltdowns on their own this season, and over a month remains in the regular season.

Shutdown bullpens are being utilized to effectively compensate for mediocre or below-average starting rotations.

The Yankees are 14-games over .500 and have a starting rotation with a combined 4.25 ERA. The Royals are 28-games over .500 and have the 22nd-ranked starting rotation (4.27 ERA) in all of baseball. The Blue Jays are 14-games over .500 and have the 14th-ranked rotation (4.11 ERA) in the majors. Sticking in the American League, even the Orioles have a .500 record despite a 4.30 ERA from their rotation, which is the seventh-worst in the league.

All of these teams have partly accomplished this because their bullpens have been stellar. The four teams mentioned all have a top-10 bullpen in terms of run prevention, and all four have tremendous back-end options. Whether it’s Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances or Zach Britton and Darren O’Day, an elite relief corps from the seventh to the ninth inning can cover up for many flaws in the starting rotation. Taking this to an extreme, the Yankees actively passed on many free-agent starters this winter — even though they obviously could have afforded them, if motivated — and spent their money on Andrew Miller instead. The Yankees understood that having a lock-down bullpen limits the need for starters to pitch deeper into games.

Take a look at the combined win percentage for top relief corps this year:

# Team ERA Win%
1 Royals 2.35 .613
2 Cardinals 2.37 .634
3 Pirates 2.56 .610
4 Astros 2.63 .548
5 Orioles 2.86 .500
6 Blue Jays 3.13 .556
7 Mets 3.15 .548
8 Yankees 3.23 .556
9 Giants 3.28 .532
10 Indians 3.30 .468

Out of the above top-10 list, only the Cleveland Indians have a record below .500 as of Monday evening, and they rank at the bottom of the list. It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that the elite relief corps belong to the most successful organizations in the league; however, too many people still treat the bullpen as a thrift-store entity, something that should be purchased on the cheap and never relied upon to last.

The Milwaukee Brewers should take note of this during their rebuilding process. As relief contracts remain relatively cheap — though this could admittedly be blown out of the water this offseason — the organization should look to bolster their bullpen in whatever means necessary. It should be a way to increase the win percentage of the club without tying up massive amounts of money over the long-term, thus not impeding the overall rebuilding process. Look at what the Astros did this winter, for example. They had the worst bullpen in Major League Baseball in 2014, but signed Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. They also picked up Will Harris off waivers. All three of those pitchers have been key cogs in the Astros’ quality bullpen, which has been one of the reasons why the club has won so many close games in 2015.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Brewers should solely look to the free-agent market. The club has the building blocks of a solid bullpen — something discussed at length on BP Milwaukee – with Francisco Rodriguez and Will Smith. However, it means the organization should be willing to move some of their fireballing pitching prospects to the bullpen and push them through the system. Stop trying to shoehorn guys like Johnny Hellweg, Damien Magnifico, and Brandon Woodruff into the starting rotation. Let their big stuff flourish in the bullpen. Be willing to do what the Blue Jays did with Roberto Osuna this year, even if it didn’t work with someone like Miguel Castro. Do not pray their command suddenly clicks or their secondary stuff finally develops. Put them in the bullpen and let them fly.

The Brewers no longer have a farm system devoid of talent, especially at the upper levels. The big-league roster is not barren. The club has talent with which to work, and they’re hoping to short-circuit their rebuild and have a competitive team as soon as 2017. While that’s an admirable goal, the front office should recognize the growing trend in the league and fashion a shutdown bullpen. That means spending and developing relief arms. As such, that should help alleviate some of the problems the organization has had finding quality starting pitching.

In short, it’s rare that big-league teams consistently win over the course of a 162-game season without a top-tier bullpen. The Nationals and the Tigers serve as great examples of this. On the other hand, counterexamples (such as the Dodgers) exist, but must compensate through well-above-average offenses and starters. The Milwaukee Brewers would be wise to recognize the growing trend in the game. Elite back-ends of the bullpen can utterly transform a team’s win percentage. This doesn’t mean spending stupidly, but it does mean spending on a bullpen within reason. It means not being afraid to develop a pitcher as a reliever. It ultimately means understanding the value in an elite bullpen and what it does for the remainder of the team.

As the Brewers try to figure out who will play third base and center field and as the club continues their elusive search for a True Ace, the front office should turn to the bullpen as a potential difference maker. It won’t be popular, but teams across the league are showing that it’s effective.

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