On Bullpens (Part I)

I want to elaborate on something that I briefly mentioned in my Damaso Marte post last week: there is never a need to go out and sign a reliever to a multi-year deal.

I think guys that pitch out of the ‘pen, with the excpetion of closers, aren’t really consistent for a long period of time.  Look at the Yankee bullpen this year: Phil Hughes, Brian Bruney, Phil Coke, Alfredo Aceves, David Robertson, Edwar Ramirez, Jose Veras, Mark Melancon, Damaso Marte and a few other scrubs that have either been on the Scranton Shuttle or DFA’d pretty quickly.  I like to think the Yankee bullpen this year has been pretty good, but which guys on that list have been consistently good relievers?  If you want to argue Marte, he has a career 3.43 ERA and has worn four uniforms in the last 10 years.

For comparison, Baseball-Almanac.com lists the 1998 Yankee pitching staff as featuring guys like Graeme Lloyd, Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton, Darren Holmes, Ramiro Mendoza, and Mike Buddie as guys who logged decent innings in the bullpen.  Lloyd was the lefty specialist who pitched 37.2 innings in 50 games and bounced around to 7 teams in 10 seasons.  Holmes was on eight teams in 13 years.  Mendoza (who had the Aceves role) somehow squeezed 10 seasons out of his right arm.  Mike Buddie.  Well, let’s just say he finished with 131 career innings pitched.  Nelson pitched for 15 seasons and has a career 3.41 ERA, striking out 829 in 784.2 innings and only walking 428.  Stanton pitched for eight teams in 19 seasons and earned a 3.92 career ERA with 895 strikeouts and 45 walks in 1114.0 innings.

The fact that all these guys bounce around should be a clear indication of how inconsistent relief pitching can be.  Sure, for a couple of years there in the late 1990s, Nelson and Stanton put up decent numbers in the Yankee bullpen.  Fast forward to the 2000s as the Yanks threw money at Chris Hammond, Kyle Farnsworth, Felix Heredia, Steve Karsay, Tom Gordon, and Paul Quantrill, among others.  I think it’s nearly indisputable that the only worthwile investment there was Gordon, who earned a 2.38 ERA in two seasons setting up for Mariano Rivera.  The other guys all bombed and were promptly dealt or released.

The big successes, if you can call them that, of the 2000s have been guys like Tanyon Sturtze and Scott Proctor, who each had a couple of years where they were Joe Torre‘s favorite (and eventually overused) reliever.  It was never more than a couple of years, though, and this isn’t a phenomenon just for the Yankees.

Who are the consistent middle relievers?  There aren’t any.  There are no middle relievers that teams dread facing year after year like teams dread facing a consistently good closer.  Since this is the case, a team’s best bet is to take a few decent and/or good pitching prospects and put them in the bullpen to continue to develop.  Among the successes in this situation are Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Tampa’s David Price, Texas’ Neftali Feliz.  These guys are all earning (or have earned) valuable experience pitching in high leverage situations and are getting good major league hitters out.  This is much more valuable than getting hitters out in AAA ball.

If it were up to me, I would change the way bullpens are used entirely.  More on that another time.

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