Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bullpen's New, But is it Improved?

Ben Cherington has not done too much this offseason, much to the chagrin of some Red Sox fans. However, he has done a very good job rebuilding the bullpen after the departure of Jonathan Papelbon and possible transition to starting for Daniel Bard. He has also done so without giving up any major pieces of this team's present or future. However, was he able to improve the bullpen from what it was last year? To answer this question, I will assume the team will sign a number four starter (Please be Kuroda or Oswalt, not Saunders), and Bard will join the rotation as Aceves stays in the swingman role.

First, though, we will look back at last season. The group was led by Papelbon and Bard, who threw a combined 137.1 innings. As a whole, the Red Sox bullpen threw 517.1 innings, which was 5th most in baseball. This ranking probably says more about the starting pitchers than the bullpen, but the relievers performed admirably in all of those innings. As a group, they had the most fWAR at 7.7, and their 3.48 FIP was fourth best in MLB, and tops in the AL. As Peter Gammons tweeted yesterday, "Winning 90 games when your starting pitching ranked 2nd to last in innings and quality starts is remarkable". A big reason this was able to happen was that the bullpen was one of the top performing groups.

When comparing this year's bullpen to last year's group, I will first look at the first scenario, in which Bard leaves the back end of the bullpen and joins the rotation. In this scenario, the team must replace those 137.1 innings, as well as 4.8 fWAR, not an easy feat for just two relief pitchers to meet. Papelbon had possibly the best season of his career, and produced three wins all by himself. Firstly, we'll look at how the 8th inning will change. Last year, Bard appeared in 70 games and threw 73 innings, posting a 2.96 FIP. Taking his place will be newly acquired Mark Melancon. Last year in Houston, he put up comparable numbers, though slightly worse. He actually appeared in one more game and threw an inning and a third more, but his FIP was higher at 3.25, mainly due to less strike outs. His games and inning totals were far and away Major League career-highs for him, but if you add in his minor league totals as well, it was his third straight year of at least 68 innings, and there's no reason to think he can't pitch that many innings again in 2012. Next, looking at the 9th inning, the team will need to replace 63 games, 64.1 innings and a 1.53 FIP from Papelbon. Let's be honest, that isn't going to happen. However, Andrew Bailey can be very productive as the team's closer. He has been in the league for three years, and has posted sub-3 FIPs in each season. However, the biggest concern with Bailey is his health, as he has been under 50 innings each of the last two years. If he can stay healthy, he will bring the team about as close of value to Papelbon's 2011 as any closer in the game.

However, in the more likely scenario where he does not stay healthy throughout the 162 game schedule, the team will need its bullpen "wildcard" option, namely Bobby Jenks. The big free agent signing from last winter was either hurt or ineffective last season, but a return to form in 2012 would be a huge boost from this bullpen. Prior to last season, Jenks had been a premier relief pitcher in baseball for two of the previous three years.  Last season he lost all of the abilities that made him great, which was highlighted by his BB-rate skyrocketing to 7.47 per 9 innings, way above his 3.10 career mark. He also gave up a .429 BABIP in an incredibly small sample. If he can manage to stay healthy this year, I am optimistic he could give this team about 0.7 fWAR, which, for reference point, was what Alfredo Aceves contributed last year. Combine that with hopefully a little over 2 wins contributed from Melancon and Bailey, and this back of the bullpen can come close to matching the brilliance that was 2011 from Bard and Papelbon.

Of course, there are still other arms in the bullpen. Last year, in fact, they combined for exactly 370 innings last year. The point being, they are very important to this team. Assuming the team keeps 13 pitches, and five are starters and three were previously named, that leaves five spots for this years bullpen. Firstly, Alfredo Aceves has a definite spot in this 'pen. He isn't due for too much regression, but he probably won't be just as well due to some regression in BABIP and home runs. Overall, though, he should be a very good swingman. Next on the list is Matt Albers. He pitched extremely well to start the year, but faltered down the stretch. Realistically, his true talent is somewhere in the middle of that. His strikeouts spiked last year, and I fully expect those to come down, but he also had a 11.1% HR/FB ratio, so his home run totals should decrease. All of this should even out and Albers can be a solid middle reliever good for about 50-60 appearances. The next reliever on the roster is their current lefty-resident, Franklin Morales. He is substantially better against lefties, but definitely expect some regression. He significantly cut down his walk numbers last year, and I find it hard to believe he figured it out completely. He should walk about between four and five batters per 9 this year, and continue to give up home runs. Because of this, I see Rich Hill possibly making a return to the bigs this year to take over the LOOGY role, which I discussed yesterday. The rest of their bullpen will be built on young arms such as Felix Doubront and Michael Bowden.

As a whole, the bullpen will not be as good as last year. It is almost impossible to make up for two losses as big as Bard and Papelbon, and their middle relief is probably due for some regression. However, this is not all negative. They should still be at least league-average, and Bard's value expands if he can stick in the starting rotation. On top of this, the team should not have to use their bullpen arms as often as last year. Their starting pitching *should* stay healthier this year, meaning less stopgaps consistently throwing five inning starts and wearing everybody out. So although the bullpen may not be as strong as 2011, it is one that should be able to be counted on in 2012.

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