The biggest question mark for the Rays entering the season was the bullpen. A group that was the best in the American League in 2010, Andrew Friedman was tasked with executing a complete overhaul this year.
After the defections of key contributors such as Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit, this year’s group is almost entirely new. Of the 87 innings thrown by the bullpen this season, only 19.1 innings have been by pitchers that were with the Rays a year ago. And one of those pitchers (Jake McGee) spent most of 2010 in the minors.
But so far in 2011, this year’s crop of relievers does have something in common with the 2010 group: they lead the AL in ERA.
So are the questions now answered? Has Friedman and Co. performed their typical miracle work with the bullpen? Or is it too much to think this group can keep it up all season?
Let’s look beyond ERA and compare the 2011 bullpen to the 2010 incarnation…
If we look at the 2010 group, we see that they were in the top 3 of just about every key statistic for pitchers. The most important numbers might be Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and Expected FIP (xFIP) which give a more accurate representation than ERA of how well a pitcher pitched.
FIP attempts to remove factors such as park and how good a pitcher’s defense is. xFIP takes it a step further by eliminating home run rates which can fluctuate greatly.
But if we look at how the 2011 bullpen has performed so far (very well on the surface) we do see some red flags.
First of all, the bullpen’s xFIP is almost two full runs higher than the ERA. Why? Because they aren’t giving up any home runs. So far in 2011, only 3.8 percent of flyballs off of relievers are leaving the ballpark. That is the third best rate in baseball and suggests that they have been lucky so far. In 2010, the bullpen’s home run per flyball rate (HR/FB) was closer to the league average which is why the 2010 xFIP and ERA were similar.
In other words, the 2010 bullpen led the league in ERA and it was an accurate depiction of how well they pitched. The 2011 group may not be as good as their ERA suggests.
We can also look at the strikeout and walk rates. This season, the relievers are last in strikeouts per 9 inning (K/9), almost 2.5 fewer per 9 innings than last year. And the walks per 9 innings (BB/9) are up. After leading the AL in strikeout-to-walk ratio (K:BB) a year ago, the bullpen has to dropped all the way to tenth.
And why are pitchers striking out fewer batters? Because their stuff just isn’t as good. A good measure of how good a pitcher’s “stuff” is, is by looking at how often batters swing and miss (SwStr%). Last year relievers were second in the AL. This year they have fallen all the way to eighth.
Finally, the bullpen’s Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is a very low .228. So far, opponents are hitting line drives 16.2 percent of the time. That means the Rays’ BABIP should be closer to .282. Is that luck? Or a sign that the Rays defense is capable of taking away hits even on hard-hit balls? Maybe a little of both?
So far the bullpen has been great. Just like their 2010 counterparts, they lead the AL in ERA. But this group is just not as good. They throw fewer strikeouts, they walk more, and they haven’t given up as many home runs as they probably should have.
The good news is they are pitching fewer innings this season thanks to solid starting pitching. This may allow the bullpen to pitch above their ability since they are being given more rest and are less likely to pitch while fatigued.
But if the Rays become more dependent on the bullpen, don’t be surprised if this group starts to regress a little. They will start to give up more home runs and the ERA will start to rise.
With the 2011 bullpen, it is “so far, so good.” But be careful. So far that has included a certain level of good fortune.