The Beane Era Bullpen
Yesterday when discussing the recent struggles of Craig Breslow, I highlighted how he started this season with two meltdowns - incidentally he made it a trifecta by earning (maybe acquiring is a better word?) another meltdown yesterday. The meltdown and its relative the shutdown are statistics that are meant to truly understand the worth of relief pitchers. A meltdown is a game where the pitcher’s performance results in a -6% change in WPA, whereas a shutdown is a game where a pitcher’s performance results in a +6% change in WPA. The shutdown ends up working on a scale quite similar to that of a save, where a pitcher with 40 shutdowns in a year is one of the better relievers and so on.
Billy Beane notoriously has felt that bullpen arms are overrated – particularly closers – and I tend to agree. The cost is quite high and as was said in Moneyball:
“The central insight that led him [Beane] to turn minor league nobodies into successful big league closers and to refuse to pay them the many millions a year they demanded once they became free agents was that it was more efficient to create a closer than to buy one. Established closers were systematically overpriced, in large part because of the statistic by which closers were judged in the marketplace: ’saves.’ The very word made the guy who achieved them sound vitally important. But the situation typically described by the save–the bases empty in the ninth inning with the team leading–was clearly far less critical than a lot of other situations pitchers faced. The closer’s statistic did not have the power of language; it was just a number. You could take a slightly above average pitcher and drop him into the closer’s role, let him accumulate some gaudy number of saves, and then sell him off. You could, in essence, buy a stock, pump it up with false publicity, and sell it off for much more than you’d paid for it.” (p.125)
Despite the lack of big name high-cost relievers the A’s have had somewhat strong bullpens as of late and during Billy Beane‘s tenure (1998-present) the A’s bullpen’s ERA (3.89) ranks 2nd in the AL, and more importantly their FIP (4.06) ranks 1st. Looking at the year by year numbers for the pen, we see this:
But what I found interesting, is that the A’s have done this without any big time stars both in name but in terms of any guys really standing out from the field either. A measure of relief pitcher effectiveness to me is the ratio of shutdowns to meltdowns. It is pretty obvious who these guys are, the guys who you are happy with and generally you are confident in, versus those that seem ready to implode. It tends to bear out in the results of the shutdown to meltdown and there aren’t too many surprise candidates. What I did find surprising though is the lack of a real shutdown reliever. For perspective’s sake the league’s fifth best reliever in 2010 was a 7.25 shutdown to meltdown ratio. Yet the best for the A’s since 1998 (minimum of 10 “downs”) was Joey Devine who posted an even 5.00 SD:MD (20:4) all in his one year with Oakland in 2008.
So here are the best and the worst SD:MDs over their career with Oakland from 1998-2011 (stats through yesterday).
|Joey Devine||20||4||5.00||Aaron Small||3||9||0.33|
|Octavio Dotel||30||8||3.75||Ron Flores||4||7||0.57|
|Billy Koch||40||11||3.64||Jay Marshall||7||11||0.64|
|Andrew Bailey||47||13||3.62||Chad Harville||4||6||0.67|
|Keith Foulke||42||13||3.23||Keiichi Yabu||5||6||0.83|
So it’d seem given the overall success rate of the bullpen that the way we do it well is by merely having a lot of solid guys as opposed to any really outstanding guys. I am fine with that. As the season goes on I will look more at this valuable tool for assessing the qualities of bullpen arms, Breslow’s recent struggles and three meltdown start to 2011 inspired me to delve a bit more into this subject.