Imagine that an old-time baseball player — from, say, a hundred years ago — has somehow traveled to the present. What characteristic of the modern game would shock them the most? Perhaps the increased emphasis on reaching base would come as a surprise, since batting average had dominated for most of baseball history. Or maybe the incredible velocity increase would blow their socks off. If it doesn’t top the list, the rise of the bullpen as an important team piece would probably capture their attention to some degree. (One player of yore, who truly seemed to dislike relievers, might react especially poorly to this phenomenon.)
In the modern era, relief pitching matters more than ever. The 2016 offseason has seen many clubs pay exorbitant prices for late-inning players, many of whom would have gone for much cheaper just a few years ago. This is likely because, as my colleague J.P. Breen observed back in August, teams with the best bullpens will often succeed, while those who lack in this area may struggle. When you consistently hold onto leads, you will generally net a lot of close wins, leading to more wins overall. In other words, you’ll outperform your run differential.
As we know by now, the 2015 Brewers didn’t collect many victories, despite possessing one of the best bullpens in baseball. The cause of this? Their atrocious starting rotation, which sapped any advantages that their relievers might have offered, helped to sink their record to 68-94. While top-notch players such as Will Smith, Michael Blazek, and Francisco Rodriguez ensured that most games ended well, the likes of Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza stunk up the beginnings of too many contests. The starters didn’t act alone, though; we’ll soon discover another factor that held them back.
In any given year, a fair amount of clubs will feature starting pitching that can’t live up to the relievers’ standards. The 2015 Brewers’ 4.79 rotation DRA and 3.87 bullpen DRA yield a run difference of 0.92 per nine innings. In the 30-team era (i.e. over the past 18 years), only 24 squads have surpassed that gap:
|Rank||Year||Team||Rotation DRA||Bullpen DRA||Difference|
The Brewers begin to separate from the pack when we add some context. Take, for instance, the 2007 Cardinals, who narrowly top them in this regard. That team certainly had an awful rotation — placing 29th in the majors in starting DRA — but its relievers didn’t fare much better, with the 15th-best DRA among their competitors. By comparison, Milwaukee’s starting and relief pitching ranked 26th and 4th, respectively, meaning the former truly excelled and the latter truly stumbled.
When we look for teams with similar finishes — in the bottom five among rotations and in the top five among bullpens — we get a much smaller sample, of just 12 total:
|Year||Team||Starter DRA||Starter Rank||Reliever DRA||Reliever Rank|
You might notice something about this group, especially the most recent member before Milwaukee: As a whole, they didn’t play that poorly. The 11 non-Brewer clubs averaged 76 wins, eight more than the 12th club accumulated. Interestingly enough, they also pitched much better overall — whereas the Brew Crew ranked 25th in total DRA last season, these teams placed 19th on average. How did they make it to respectability without a decent rotation?
It’s simple: They gave their relievers more time to shine. Milwaukee’s bullpen accounted for 36.9 percent of its 2015 innings, whereas these teams allotted 38.0 percent of their frames to non-starters. This meant that those 11 clubs ranked an average of sixth in relief innings, compared to eighth for the Brewers. They didn’t make monumental changes, but by capitalizing on their strong relief corps and pulling starters earlier, they managed to comparatively succeed.
The bad-rotation-good-bullpen combo doesn’t necessarily spell doom. If a club adjusts its strategy accordingly, it can go far — perhaps even win a World Series. Obviously, the 2015 Brewers lacked the talent to accomplish that, or to even post a winning season; still, they could have notched a few more victories by turning their bullpen loose. Hopefully, as the rest of the league begins to value relief pitching, Milwaukee will follow suit.