Yes, you knew this was coming. And just like you knew this article was coming, you probably should’ve seen the bullpen meltdown coming.
One of the reasons that made the 2008 and 2009 Dodgers so good was the bullpen. Well, it was pitching mostly, but the bullpen was a huge help. This isn’t that enlightening; as the modern era number of complete games approaches 0, a healthy, strong bullpen becomes a necessity. It’s no longer a matter of if the bullpen will be used, but when. It’s possible that the market inefficiency of today is the bullpen.
*I’m sure my dad would’ve gone into conniptions over the use of bullpen in modern times. He used to argue most pitchers are girlymen for not throwing complete games all the time.
**It’s a little shocking with how good pitching has been in 2010 that more pitchers aren’t going the distance, but we’ll have to wait for the season to finish before any conclusions can be drawn up.
In 2008, the Dodgers had 6 above-average bullpen arms: Takashi Saito, Chan Ho Park, Hong-Chih Kuo, Jonathan Broxton, Joe Beimel and Cory Wade. Ramon Troncoso was also in there as an average arm and Eric Stults and Greg Maddux made some impact as replacement starters.
In 2009, the Dodgers had 4 above-average bullpen arms: Jonathan Broxton, Ramon Troncoso, Ronald Belisario and Hong-Chih Kuo. If you want to include Guillermo Mota‘s 115 ERA plus, go ahead. If you want to count the late-season trade deadline acquisition in George Sherrill, feel free to do so. Vicente Padilla had a few above-average starts and Jeff Weaver also did a decent job and filled in for some spot starts. Jon Garland was another late-season addition in a waiver trade and he performed admirably. It was also Charlie Haeger‘s only good year as a Dodger.
The 2009 bullpen almost completely reinvented itself, Broxton aside. Cory Wade was marginalized, probably from bullpen abuse, and Saito, Park and Beimel were not re-signed. Troncoso and Belisario filled a pretty big hole and Mota improbably became the replacement reliever.
The biggest problem Torre always faces is his use of players vs. days of rest. Ideally, bullpen pitchers should get one or two days of rest after each appearance. Sometimes game situations don’t call for that, but pitching a pitcher on no days of rest is something that should be called for very rarely.
On the other hand, 2009 was kind of a special case. The Dodgers had lost Derek Lowe and Brad Penny to free agency and retained only Hiroki Kuroda, Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley. Of those three, Billingsley had the most season with 200 innings pitched: 1. Randy Wolf was signed as a free agent and injuries had kept him from working more than 200 innings in a season since 2003. In 2008, he was able to string together a 190-inning season. And then God only knows what was going to happen with the fifth starter.
So it was pretty obvious from the start that the season was going to depend on the bullpen. And they came through.
Belisario pitched 1,100 pitches in 2009 (plus 73 in the post-season), with only 57 innings pitched in the minors the year before.*
Troncoso pitched 1,337 pitches (plus 58 in the post-season), up more than 800 from 2008.
Sherrill pitched 1,143 pitches, 448 in August and September for the Dodgers (plus 83 in the post-season). Prorated for a 162-game season, Sherrill would’ve pitched 1,230 pitches that year.
*Belisario was also pretty lucky in 2009. High strand rate (81%), low BABIP (.262). You could argue he was the best suited to return to the previous workloads in 2010, but he’s been pretty UNlucky this year, so I guess the universe balances out.
Now why am I focusing on these three? Well, we considered them the Sacred Torre-Trusted Brand Relievers in 2009, particularly Sherrill and Belisario. Cory Wade in 2008 as well.
Here’s what the total usage breakdown looks like, post-season not included even though it should be (I’m lazy, sue me).
Included in all of these is the requisite 99 days rest given to a reliever at the first appearance.
Cory Wade, 275 plate appearances against in 2008 (first appearances was April 24, prorated he would’ve faced ~318 batters just in the regular season; he also missed 19 days on DL; prorated, would’ve faced ~350):
0 days: 16%
1 day: 40%
2 days: 24%
3 days: 5.5%
4 days: 9.1%
5 days: 0.0%
6+ days: 5.5%
1,056 total pitches
19.2 pitches per appearance.
(Prorated: 73 games, 1,402 pitches)
Ramon Troncoso, 357 plate appearances against in 2009:
0 days: 22%
1 day: 43%
2 days: 15%
3 days: 9.6%
4 days: 2.7%
5 days: 4.1%
6+ days: 2.7% (note: the difference here is the first relief appearance was a fill-in for a bad start. He pitched 3.1 innings in his first appearance of the season and then got 7 days of rest before his next one. This accounts for both of his 6+ days of rest.)
1,337 total pitches
18.3 pitches per appearance.
Ronald Belisario, 299 plate appearances against in 2009 (missed 33 days with appearance on DL; potentially missed 14 appearances and 60 plate appearances against):
0 days: 28%
1 day: 35%
2 days: 28%
3 days: 4.3%
4 days: 2.9%
5 days: 0%
6+ days: 2.9% (Note that without the DL appearance and ignoring the first relief appearance of the year, this would be 0)
1,109 total pitches
16.1 pitches per appearance.
(prorated: 83 games, 1,334 pitches).
Jonathan Broxton, 300 plate appearances against in 2009:
0 days: 36%
1 day: 26%
2 days: 11%
3 days: 14%
4 days: 5.5%
5 days: 5.5%
6+ days: 2.7%
1,225 total pitches
16.8 pitches per appearance.
George Sherrill, 111 plate appearances for Dodgers in 2009 (acquired July 30; prorated ~314):
Again, we’re gonna ignore his time in Baltimore, because it seems like he was used sensibly, if not a little more than your average reliever, while there. But again, prorated for a 162-game season, Sherrill would’ve pitched 1,230 pitches that year. In that period, his average days of rest was 1.2 (compare to Belisario’s 1.3 when off the DL).
So by regular-season usage:
0 days: 38%
1 day: 24%
2 days: 27%
3 days: 6.9%
4 days: 3.4%
5 days: 0%
6 days: 0%
448 total pitches
15.4 pitches per appearance.
(Prorated: 79 appearances, 1,230 total pitches)
I forget sometimes how efficient end-of-season George Sherrill was. Also, I wonder if Belisario’s DL appearance saved his arm for this season. His xFIP and FIP are basically at last year’s levels. Retreats to ponder.
Maybe this is just me, but the most amazing thing here is the 0% on 5+ days of rest for multiple pitchers.
I unfortunately don’t have the time to screencap all of this, but the usage for 2008 relievers, Cory Wade aside, is significantly kinder. Even Jonathan Broxton, who by these accounts wasn’t used quite as heavily as other relievers, was still used heavier in 2009 than in 2008. Sure, the 2010 bullpen was bad, but it was good in 2009. There’s a reason for the drop-off.
The biggest downfall to the 2010 season was not recognizing how big of a beating the 2009 bullpen had taken.
Imagine how much different this season would’ve gone with four or five healthy bullpen arms. Imagine if the Dodgers had one extra starter, with Vicente Padilla, and Carlos Monasterios and John Ely in the bullpen in long relief.
But as we know, via the Joe Torre Theorem, as your relief core’s number of effective relievers approaches 0, the bullpen’s ERA approaches infinity.
Such is life when your the GM of a baseball team and your team spending is handcuffed by your owners’ horrifically public divorce.