Does it Matter Who Else Joins the Brewers Bullpen? | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

Several names are probably locks for the opening day bullpen: Jim Henderson, Brandon Kintzler, Will Smith, Tom Gorzelanny, and Tyler Thornburg. That leaves one or two spots. Does it really matter who the Brewers choose?

We can answer that by continuing last week’s discussion about 2013 playoff teams, this time focusing on the bullpen. Last week, we found that it was sufficient simply to be average in your starting rotation, as long as your position players were above average. The reverse was also true.

What happens when we add bullpens to the mix? Do bullpens need to be anything special in order for a team to contend? The answer seems to be: not really.

Fairly grading the value of relievers is bit tricky. Good old Earned-Run Average (ERA) is one option, but ERA does not fairly grade runners inherited by the reliever. Because all inherited runners who score are fully charged to the starter’s ERA, ERA doesn’t enable us to measure the reliever’s unique contribution to that run.

So, people increasingly are turning to a statistic called RE24 to evaluate relievers. Explained here by Tom Tango, RE24 measures the batting team’s “run expectancy” when the reliever comes in, and compares that to the batting team’s run expectancy (or runs that actually scored) when the reliever departs. If the batting team scores an inherited runner, the reliever is charged for the run, but only that portion which was not already likely from the moment the starter put that runner on a particular base. On the other hand, if the starter pitched into a jam and the batting team already has a very high run expectancy (say, if the bases are loaded), the reliever’s RE24 score improves if he can either minimize the damage or get out of the situation entirely. RE24 more fairly divides up responsibility between starter and reliever. When you when you add up the RE24 figures for all members of a team’s bullpen, you can determine which teams’ bullpens are doing the best job of relieving their starters.

I once again graded the various playoff teams from 2013, this time on the strength of their bullpens, using RE24. I then focused on 2013 playoff teams. Using standard deviations, the teams were again awarded a ranking of “Superb,” “Above Average,” “Average,” “Below Average” and “Bad.” Let’s reprise last week’s chart for the rotation and position players, and this time, we’ll add a column for the quality of their bullpens.

2013 Postseason Team Rotation Hitting Relievers
Athletics Average Above Average Average
Braves Average Above Average Superb
Cardinals Above Average Average Average
Dodgers Above Average Above Average Average
Indians Above Average Average Average
Pirates Average Average Above Average
Rays Average Superb Average
Red Sox Superb Superb Average
Reds Average Above Average Above Average
Tigers Superb Above Average Average

Once again, we can see that while one playoff bullpen was superb, and a few were quite good, everybody else was . . . Average.  To be a playoff contender, your relievers need to be . . . Average.  Provided your relievers are not “Bad” or “Below Average,” your bullpen is probably good enough to compete.

This is good news for the Brewers, because their bullpen last year was “Above Average.” (RE24=28.82).  Although Brewers relievers probably benefited from some good luck, the Brewers’ improved defense also deserves credit.

The bullpen’s 2013 performance matters because team RE24 appears to be somewhat stable from year to year.  If you compare each club’s 2012 RE24 to its 2013 RE24, you get a correlation of .67, which is fairly strong.  So, having been Above Average in 2013, the Brewers have a very good chance of being Above Average again, particularly with some of their best relievers returning, and with Will Smith almost certainly being a major upgrade over Michael Gonzalez.

So, this is why it probably doesn’t matter who the Brewers put in the last few bullpen spots, particularly if they don’t absorb major innings.  If Doug Melvin thinks the bullpen would benefit from a cheap, veteran arm with some big-game experience, then so be it.  And if the Brewers would rather fill out their bullpen with low-ceiling, high floor AAA talent, that’s fine too, particularly since that is the one type of pitching talent consistently generated by the Brewers farm system.  Either way, the bullpen is probably going to be more than satisfactory.

The real pressure on 2014 is on the lineup to be Above Average.  If they can accomplish that, the rotation and bullpen likely will be sufficient to allow the Brewers to compete, regardless of who else Doug Melvin signs between now and Opening Day.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @bachlaw.

Statistics note:

For 2013, by RE24, team rating bins were as follows:

+1 SD              40.89+                             (Superb)

+.5 SD             25.34 through 40.88    (Above Average)

MEAN            -5.78 through 25.55       (Average)

(-).5SD            -21.32 through -5.77     (Below Average)

(-)1.0 SD         <-21.33                            (Bad)

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Tell us what do you think.

  1. SecondHandStore says: February 5, 2014

    Interesting article. Well done. Even though I think Axford was better than some of his numbers indicate, he did contribute the second worse RE24 after Gonzalez. Addition by subtraction.

    I’ve been saying it since Garza pushed Thornburg out of the rotation, this bullpen is going to surprise a lot of people. I expect Henderson to take a step back but otherwise I like what they have. I’m really interested to see what Kintzler will do. If he can improve his strikeout rate I think he’s going to be one of the truly elite relievers in baseball. Let’s just hope Marmol signs with the Marlins.

    • SecondHandStore says: February 5, 2014

      One thing I forgot: I think we can treat additions to the bullpen much, or exactly, like adding marginal wins on a win curve.

      I know that relievers, and by extension bullpens, impact the game less than the offense and starting rotation. Still, they do have an impact and I think it’s become commonplace to undervalue that impact. The bullpen is also the only place left for the Brewers to add wins. Even if we’re just talking about adding 1 win, that can be significant to a team that is borderline. For the Brewers specifically, it could mean the difference between finishing 3rd in the division or securing the 2nd Wild Card.

      However, I’m not sure there is anyone left on the market that can have that kind of impact in the bullpen. Maybe a healthy Ryan Madson. So I guess in a roundabout way I’m agreeing that it probably doesn’t matter who is added to the bullpen this year, but for different reasons.


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