Narratives of Bullpen Woes | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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Narratives of Bullpen Woes

By on September 12, 2013

One of the beacons throughout the 2013 season has been the Brewers’ bullpen. GM Doug Melvin‘s lightly rebuilt pen added a layer of stability to an otherwise struggling ballclub. Of course, watching a fine bullpen work through a losing season also provides frustrating evidence that, at best, one can flip a coin on their club’s bullpen in any given season. Yet, Melvin’s assemblage of warm bodies with live arms to sit beyond the outfield fence has been particularly successful. The Brewers’ bullpen is nearly 20 runs better than the league average for relievers, and their combination of 35 saves and 72 holds — against 20 blown opportunities — helped to convert a solid percentage of leads of three-or-fewer runs. In the grand scheme of 2013 Brewers question marks, from starting pitching to the offense to fielding, the bullpen follows in a distant last place.

Yet, the bullpen has encountered a rough stretch of performances over the last 30 days. Last night’s loss to the Cardinals is one such example, as Brandon Kintzler and Mike Gonzalez allowed series of inherited runners to score, erasing the Brewers’ slim 1-0 lead. In fact, of their five runs allowed last night, four of those runs were scored by Cardinals baserunners that a Brewers reliever inherited. Kintzler allowed one of two inherited runners to score, while Gonzalez allowed all three of his inherited runners to score. All things considered, a 5 IR / 4 IS performance (over less than two innings pitched) is not good (although, allowing five baserunners in 2 IP in the first place is also problematic).

As J.P. Breen noted earlier, this type of contextual performance shows that while the Brewers’ bullpen has done a solid job limiting runs, they have contributed to the team’s general inability to win ballgames. I highly recommend reading J.P.’s analysis alongside my following narrative; for, through these areas of analysis and narratives about the bullpen, long-term and short-term portraits of the bullpen emerge. While J.P. used shutdowns and meltdowns over the full season to analyze the bullpen, I am focusing on the specific types of outings the bullpen pitched over the last 30 days.

In the last 30 days, the Brewers have played 26 games. During those games, the bullpen’s woes can be isolated to eight particularly gut-wrenching losses:

Game IR / IS BS L
September 11 5 IR / 4 IS BS L
September 10 4 IR / 1 IS - -
September 3 - / - - L
September 1 3 IR / 1 IS BS L
August 31 - / - BS L
August 24 1 IR / 1 IS BS L
August 14 5 IR / 3 IS BS L
August 10 3 IR /2 IS BS L

In six of these losses, the bullpen not only accepted the decision, but they also blew a lead of three-or-fewer runs. On the other hand, in the Brewers’ 11 wins over the last month, the bullpen boasts 12 holds, eight saves, and three decisions:

Game IR / IS H / BS / SV W
September 8 - / - H / S -
September 7 - / - H / H / S -
September 4 2 IR / 0 IS H -
August 29 - / - - / – / - -
August 27 2 IR / 0 IS H / S W
August 25 - / - H / S -
August 23 - / - H / S W
August 20 - / - H / H / S -
August 17 1 IR / 0 IS H / S -
August 16 1 IR / 0 IS - / – / - W
August 13 6 IR / 0 IS H / H / S -

Of course, one of the issues with measuring bullpen work is that some of MLB relievers’ most important appearances occur when there is neither a save nor a hold to be had, and a decision hangs in the balance. These types of scenarios include tie games (a reliever that simply holds a late tie game, with no change in decision, is credited with nothing), and one could also argue that one-run deficits fall into this category. Even though bullpens hardly ever blow leads — save+hold percentages usually run somewhere between 83% to 86%, or so, and even some “bad” relievers convert 80% of their leads — there are some leads that are easier to blow than others.

A bullpen’s ability to hold a one-run deficit for several innings means that their offense also has several chances to scratch together that run. While two or three run deficits can be overcome, a one-run deficit is significant because a set of batters can use small-ball strategies and have a larger range of options to get that run across the plate (here, even a solo HR is an especially effective weapon). By contrast, even in a two-run deficit, getting one runner on base and bunting that runner over doesn’t necessarily help the offense; in a one-run game, getting that runner over with one out is beneficial to that set of bats and their options for tying the ballgame.

In this regard, there are a few other games in the last month that underscore the recent woes of the bullpen.

Game IR / IS R Note
September 6 - / - 1 Blazek allows 1R during 2-run game
September 2 2 IR / 1 IS 3 Figaro allows 3R HR during 1-run game
August 30 2 IR / 2 IS 2 Wooten allows 2 IR and 2 R during 1-run game
August 28 2 IR / 0 IS 3 Badenhop allows 3R HR during 3-run game
August 21 1 IR / 0 IS 1 Bullpen allows 1R in 5+ IP work
August 18 1 IR / 1 IS 2 Bullpen allows 2R in 4+ IP work
August 15 - / - - Kintzler and Wooten maintain 1R deficit

In two of these losses, Brewers relievers allowed inherited runners scored, or allowed their own runners to score, when the game was within one-run. In two other games, the bullpen expanded a two or three run deficit, including Burke Badenhop‘s outing that turned an opponent’s pending save opportunity into mop-up time (in a series of games, this can also be an important chain of events, for if a manager can shift from reasonably expecting to use his best relievers to being able to use any reliever he pleases, those best relievers are effectively saved for another ballgame, one where they might be needed even more).

Category of Games IR / IS Bullpen Holds / Blown Leads Bullpen Decisions
Wins 12 IR / 0 IS 20 SV + HLD 3 W
“Blown” games 21 IR / 12 IS 6 BSV 7 L
SP losses 8 IR / 4 IS 1 1-R deficit held / 2 1-R deficit blown -

Overall, in the last month, we can note that the Brewers’ relievers are 3-7, with at least 20 leads converted (against a dreadful six blown leads). Beyond that, the club’s relievers have also blown two one-run deficits, while holding another loss within one run. Perhaps that 2-1 loss to the Reds on August 15 shows that even when a set of relievers holds a game within one run, their bats do not always return the favor with a win. On the other hand, every single lead should not be penciled in as a victory. That said, the toughest aspect of the Brewers’ last month is that the club could have won as many as 17 games, or, at the very least, gone 13-13 since August 12. Not only did those one-run deficits blown open take away a potential small ball rally from the Brewers bats, but those six blown saves impacted the club’s chances at 70 wins.

Ultimately, looking at a 62-win club and saying, “This club should have at least 64 wins,” or, “This club could have as many as 68 wins,” seems to be a futile exercise. After all, baseball seasons are not really judged on “could haves” or “should haves.” In this case, with this current Brewers roster, those lost chances feel daunting because this is a young club that is competing with players looking to make their mark at the big league level. Successful strides by Scooter Gennett, Wily Peralta, Khris Davis, or even Marco Estrada and Tyler Thornburg don’t necessarily look as great without wins; even a higher draft pick doesn’t replace the importance of young players competing and winning. We saw this in 2012, where a series of players seizing their jobs accompanied a hot streak (and subsequently impacted the Brewers’ building strategy). In 2013, one must ask, to what extent does this series of close losses and blown saves impact the assessment of these youngsters’ ability to compete — and win?

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