Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Just How Hard Is It to Build a Bullpen?

                                                              Sports Illustrated

Coming into the 2011 season, fans all across Boston had expected big things coming out of their bullpen this year. One big reason for this was that the Red Sox brought in Bobby Jenks to sure up the back end of the 'pen. The problem is, the big man is being put in roles that he is not used to. This is what makes building a successful bullpen such a crap shoot. It is widely regarded as the most difficult part of a ball club for a general manager to address. In 2011, the Red Sox and Yankees have two guys who have experience deep in ball games that are being asked to take a different role. 

In Chicago, Jenks was in the closer role for the majority of his career. In fact, 86% of the innings he has pitched in the majors has been in the 9th inning. He is used to the closer role, and he is now being thrown in the 3rd spot in the bullpen. In 2011 so far, Jenks has the following stats in the following innings he has pitched in:

6th inning: 0.1 IP 27.00 ERA .500 OBA
7th inning: 3.1 IP 16.20 ERA .412 OBA
8th inning:  3.0 IP 6.00 ERA .357 OBA
9th inning:  1. IP 0.00 ERA .000 OBA 
10th+ inning: 1.0 IP 0.00 ERA .000 OBA

Forgetting the obvious small sample size, it is clear that Jenks feels more comfortable in the late-inning, high pressure situation. However, the Red Sox already have Daniel Bard (no ER since the second series of the season in Cleveland) and Jonathan Papelbon (5-5 in save opportunities and a 1.74 ERA) in the back of the bullpen. The Red Sox took the risk that Jenks would be able to adjust to pitching earlier in games, and so far in 2011, that hasn't been the case.

You need not look further than New York to see another example of this exact same phenomena. The Yankees recently spent a little under $12 million a year to sign Rafael Soriano, former Tampa Bay closer, to set up Mariano Rivera. That is a hefty sum of money to throw at a guy who you are hoping can readjust to the set up role. However, Soriano, who has always pitched a little better in the 8th rather than the ninth (check out his career splits here), has continued that trend. This year, he has spent 83% of his time in the 8th inning, and has a 6.75 ERA in that inning. For the season, Soriano has  6.57 ERA, and is not playing to the value of his big contract given to him in the offseason.

With all of this being said, I do not fault either team for making these moves. Bullpens have a tremendous effect on a team's success, and it makes sense to always try and get the best possible talent you can. The problem is, finding consistent bullpen help is almost impossible to find. It is why I feel Red Sox fans have underrated Jonathan Papelbon in his time here. In my time of watching baseball (We'll call 1998 the start of that time), there have been virtually no relief pitchers who made a long-term mark on the game. The only two are Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, and they are just about done in their careers. Bullpen help is tough to find, so you can't fault the Red Sox and Yankees trying to adjust their investments into new roles. Its still early, but so far these tranisitions have been shaky.     

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