You don’t need stats to know that the Rays bullpen has been downright hideous recently. And yet, the relief corps, a group many felt were the MVPs of the 2008 AL Champions, still have the 5th best ERA in the AL (3.94). So is this just one of those fluky stretches where it just so happens everybody has gone sour at the same time? In other words, has the bullpen just been unlucky recently, or is there something deeper to all this madness?

In 2007, the Rays bullpen, arguably one of the worst of the last 60 years, allowed an astonishing 41.8% (114 of 273) inherited baserunners to score, worst in the majors that season. In 2008, the revamped bullpen improved to third in MLB at 25.2%. This year, that number is back up to 32.4%, 17th in the big leagues. In other words, when Joe Maddon goes to the bullpen with runners on base, the Rays are just slightly better than the AL average (34.6%*) at keeping those runners from scoring.

Let’s break it down further and take a look at the biggest culprits. The following is every relief pitcher that has faced at least 10 inherited runners this season. Notes on these numbers follow the table…

Notes on the table…

  • Just like ERA for a relief pitcher can be flawed, so can just looking at inherited runners. Like all stats, they are best at deciphering and interpreting trends. When looking at individuals, one must keep each stat in context as each player represents a unique situation. Take Randy Choate and Brian Shouse. They have the Rays best rates at stranding runners. However, both pitchers are specialists and often come in to a game to face just a single batter. That minimizes the chances of an inherited runner scoring. For example, if Shouse comes in to face a lefty with a runner on 2nd and no outs, there is less of a chance of that runner scoring while Shouse is in the game, than if JP Howell came in to face the same batter. Howell is more likely to face several batters giving the runner several chances to score.
  • Despite a season that paled in comparison to 2008, you can see Maddon leans most heavily on Grant Balfour in the most important situations and The Mad Australian is still stranding runners at a better than league average rate.
  • Lance Cormier and Chad Bradford, two pitchers JoeMa uses a lot in crucial situations, have been horrible. Both pitchers have exceeded the rate Shawn Camp displayed in 2007 when he allowed 40.7% (22 of 54) of the runners to score. And we thought Camp was the worst we ever saw**.

Now let’s take a closer look at the same numbers for the 2008 squad in a side-by-side comparison…

Notes on the table…

  • On the 2009 squad, only Randy Choate has allowed fewer than 25%. In 2008, 6 pitchers were at 25.0% or less including JP Howell’s ridiculous 11.4%.
  • We can’t quite figure out Chad Bradford. Runners on base is supposed to be his expertise. He is a double-play specialist. And yet, in each of the past two seasons, he has allowed inherited runners to score at an alarming rate***. In fact, Bradford led the 2008 Rays with 10 inherited runners scored despite only being on the team for less than two months.

So, has the Rays bullpen just been unlucky of late? Maybe. After all, it seems that inherited runners are scoring at a close to 100% clip recently. But on the other hand, the bullpen pales in comparison to the 2008 squad despite several other indicators that suggest otherwise.

*The AL average is fairly consistent from year-to-year. Over the last three seasons it has been 34.6%, 34.4%, 31.3%. Also consider that the Rays 2009 rate may actually be worse than appears. Joe Maddon leads the AL in pitching changes this season and is wearing a path between the dugout and the mound at a higher rate than last year. Take a hypothetical situation in 2008 where James Shields gives up a lead-off single in the 8th and gets pulled for Grant Balfour. Balfour then strikes out 3 straight batters to retire the runner. The Rays rate for that inning is 1 inherited runner, none scored. Now let’s take same situation in 2009, only JoeMa uses three different relief pitchers to get the next 3 outs and strand the runner. Each time the Rays bring in a new relief pitcher, it counts as a new inherited runner. The Rays rate for the 2009 example is 3 inherited runners, none scored, even though in reality it was the same runner the entire inning.
** As hard of a time as we have always given Shawn Camp, we are aware that it wasn’t entirely his fault. He was just the worst possible relief pitcher for the way that team was constructed. He was a groundball pitcher on a team with an infield that played defense as though they were wearing cement shoes. And we still have not forgiven Joe Maddon for continuing to use him in crucial situations all season.
*** Bradford’s 2008 numbers are just in his time with the Rays. He was much better with the O’s prior to being traded, allowing only 8 of 29 (27.6%)  runners to score.
 
 

6 Comments

  1. Beth says:

    Thanks for undertaking this research. The current collapse of the pen can’t help but color our perceptions of who has been effective over the long run. Some trends are clear: e.g. Bradford has never helped; Howell truly was awesome last year. I guess Balfour’s decent 2009 numbers show that he’s been streaky — some good stretches followed by a slew of game-changing home runs. And of course, Balfour’s problems are further reflected in his ERA — e.g. even if he hasn’t been bad with inherited runners, he hasn’t been great with the runners he puts there himself.

    But why no Percival? Did he face so few inherited runners last year?

    And even if it wasn’t Shawn Camp’s fault, the sight of him still raises my blood pressure just reliving the memories. In my nightmares, he returns to the 2010 Rays.

    • In 2008 Troy Percival appeared in 50 games and faced a grand total of 2 inherited runners. This shows exactly how much “value” Maddon puts on the term “closer.” Percival’s role last year was to come in to the game at the start of the 9th inning with a lead of 3 or less. You never saw Percy enter the game in the 8th. And Maddon would not use Percy if the opponent started to rally in the 9th.

      By the way, both of those inherited runners scored. In one game, Shields was going for a complete game with a 2-run lead but gave up a 1-out double. Percy got last 2 outs but alloed runner to score. In the other, Maddon used Miller to face a lefty at start of inning in 1-run game. Percy would blow the save by allowing that runner to score on a wild pitch.

  2. Don says:

    Stats are Stats and you can come to many different conclusions most of the time from them…
    But from my personal observation the AL hitters (esp east) have caught up to our relievers…Meaning Balfour’s 94 mph fast ball down the middle is not going to get them out, and Howell’s bull shit delivery and 84 mph fast ball does not fool them anymore…I could go on but the idea is there!

  3. Sam A says:

    I’ve said this before, but I think the bullpen is worn out.

    It makes sense that a guy like Balfour who gets more strikeouts would strand more runners as opposed to a pitcher who gets his outs via balls in play.

    I actually think Maddon has used Cormier appropriately for the most part. When you consider how many innings he’s thrown, he hasn’t come in with that many runners on. One reason Joe is using him in close games lately is because everyone else is burned out. I’m not defending his numbers, but he is more likely to come in for more than one out and since he isn’t a strikeout pitcher there is more opportunity for a runner to score.

    Bradford and Springer have been dreadful when you consider how many innings they’ve pitched. Bradford is often called on to face one or two batters with poor results. Hopefully the Rays have learned their lesson about claiming expensive relievers off waivers.

  4. lari says:

    We have a saying in Durham… “All inherited runners must score.” It’s like a Murphy’s Law type deal…

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