The Bullpen Was Too Much Miss, Not Enough Hit

Unless you take that phrase literally, in which case “miss”ing bats is a good thing and getting your balls “hit” is a bad thing, in which case I hate the title of this post already.

The amount of power a bullpen holds over the quality of your team’s baseball season is pretty obscene.  Granted, every area of a baseball team plays its part – hitting, defense, starting pitching, baserunning – so to get to a point where your bullpen can make or break your year means you need your starters to keep you in the game, you need your hitters to give you a lead, your defense needs to not give the other team extra outs, and you can’t take away outs from your own team by getting picked off or taking an extra base you shouldn’t have.

So, while the hitting for the Mariners wasn’t good for the longest time (mostly during the Jackie Z era), it didn’t really matter if our bullpens were good or not.

But, it’s a new day.  Our hitting is solid, our starters – for the most part – keep us in ballgames (even if they’re not particularly dominating), our defense is good enough (again, for the most part), and while our baserunning is pretty bad, it’s also a pretty small part of the game of baseball, all things considered.  A team like 2016’s Mariners had it all going for them, meaning the bullpen was the most important factor in deciding whether or not we’d make the playoffs.

And, as you can tell by our absence, obviously the bullpen wasn’t quite good enough.

For starters, the Mariners were 30-30 in 1-run games.  This is actually what one would expect.  If you’re significantly better, then it would stand to reason that you’re luckier, as these sorts of things tend to even out over time.  If you’re significantly worse, then it would stand to reason you’re unlucky.  So, we can throw luck right out the window as far as the Mariners are concerned.

The Rangers, on the other hand, were 36-11 in 1-run games, which is, like, an all-time crazy record for 1-run games.  Their dumb ass luck ran out though, when they got swept by the Blue Jays in the ALDS, going 0-1 in the playoffs in 1-run games.

Anyway, here are the records of the A.L. playoff teams in 1-run games:

  • Texas:  36-11
  • Cleveland:  28-21
  • Boston:  20-24
  • Toronto:  21-25
  • Baltimore:  21-16

So, as you can see, there’s a good mix.  Texas, Cleveland, and Baltimore were all over .500; Boston and Toronto were both a few games under.  What I noticed straight away is that the Mariners were involved in significantly MORE 1-run games than any of these teams.  37% of our games were decided by a single run.  Looking at it another way, 73% of our games (119) were decided by 4 runs or less.  So, we played a lot of close games.  I’d wager we were among the league leaders in close games.  As such, the performance of our bullpen meant a lot more than that of the rest of the American League.

The Mariners were involved in 74 save opportunities this season; we converted 49 of them, for a save percentage of 66%.  The league average was only 68%, so that doesn’t put us too far behind the 8-ball.  But, how does that compare to the playoff teams?  Let’s take a look:

  • Texas:  56 of 73, 77%
  • Cleveland:  37 of 48, 77%
  • Boston:  43 of 61, 70%
  • Toronto:  43 of 65, 66%
  • Baltimore:  54 of 68, 79%

So, as you can see, 4/5 playoff teams had superior save percentages than the Mariners.  If we’d just saved 70% of our opportunites – 2% above league average, and right in line with the playoff teams – that’s 3 more wins you could add to our total, which just so happens to be the number of games the Mariners missed the playoffs by.

The story of the 2016 Mariners bullpen kicks right off with injuries.  Charlie Furbush was a guy we’d penciled in for a significant role, but he didn’t throw a single inning.  Ryan Cook was another guy we brought in, at least on a tryout basis, but he’s a guy who’d had success as recently as 2014, and was one of the better relievers out there in 2012 & 2013; he too never pitched an inning for us.  Then, there’s Evan Scribner, who didn’t throw his first Major League pitches until September, when it turned out he’s actually terrific!  So, right off the bat, we were at a disadvantage, meaning guys like Joel Peralta and Steve Johnson were getting extended looks early in the season.

Then, you have Tony Zych, who made the Major League roster out of Spring Training.  He had the best fastball on the team, and arguably the best “stuff” of any of our relievers.  He made it to 10 appearances before he got hurt and was lost for the year (for all intents and purposes; he came back in late August for a couple of innings, but had to be quickly shut down again).  And, of course, there was Joaquin Benoit, who got hurt in April, returned about a month later, but was not the rock we needed out of our 8th inning set up guy.  He ended up being traded to Toronto for Drew Storen, where the change of scenery did both of them good.

It’s really quite remarkable, not just how the bullpen ended up looking compared to how we pictured it at the beginning of 2016, but also how it evolved throughout the season.  On top of those other injuries, Storen, Wilhelmsen, Nick Vincent, and Steve Cishek all found themselves on the DL at one point or another.  When you factor in how the starters weren’t always (or even USUALLY) at their best, this bullpen was continuously taxed nine ways from Sunday, all the way until September, when we were finally allowed to expand our roster.

This, of course, affected how we shaped the rest of our roster the first five months of the season, bringing into question why Major League Baseball limits teams to 25-man rosters, when so much of the game is specialized by way of bullpens and platoons and pinch runners and defensive replacements.  It makes no sense, when you think about it, but that’s baseball for you.  It’s the “neither here nor there” of professional sports.

If you want to know how the bullpen was doing at a particular point in the season, just look at the schedule.  You don’t need to hunt for stats to figure out when this bullpen was rolling vs. when it was sucking my will to live.  In the month of May, for instance, it was on a nice little run (the Mariners just so happened to have gone 17-11 in May); in the month of June, they fell apart (the Mariners just so happened to have gone 10-18 in June).  They were great in early August, terrible in late August, and so on and so forth.  This was one of the streakiest Mariners teams in recent memory, and those streaks almost always coincided with how the bullpen was doing.  They’d go long stretches of scoreless baseball, followed by painful stretches of agonizing baseball.  And, in the end, it all added up to 3 too many blown saves.  Who were our culprits?

Well, the first name that comes to mind is Steve Cishek, who started the season as this team’s closer, but lost that job on August 1st, after yet another meltdown.  Of his 7 blown saves, the Mariners were only able to come back and win 1 of them.  He also cost us 3 other games when he came into the game tied and took it on the chin.  Immediately after ceding control of the closer’s job to Edwin Diaz, he went on the DL, only to return to be a masterful set up man.  He’s also under contract for next year, so bank on him being back.

Edwin Diaz was lights out through his first three months or so.  We started him off slowly, but he quickly earned higher leverage roles when it was readily apparent that he was striking out everybody he faced.  He blew three saves, but we were able to come back and win two of those games.  He took 3 other losses when he came into a tie situation, but two of those games were in his pre-closer days.  He did end up taking the loss in the season-deciding game on October 1st, but he was in his 3rd inning that day, and was clearly over-worked to that point.  Diaz will go into 2017 as the frontrunner for the closer role.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to manage his outings a little better.  He was on pace to make something like 74 appearances over the course of a full season, so maybe we can try to shave off 5-10 next year, since he’s still a growing boy and all.

When you take a look at the actual numbers for our bullpen, one name sticks out like a sore thumb:  Nick Vincent.  Even though he had a spell on the DL, he’s one of those constants you can point to on this team this year.  He was brought in just before the regular season, and almost immediately entered the regular rotation as one of our high-leverage pitchers.  What sticks out is that Nick Vincent of all people was involved in 9 save situations, and somehow managed to blow SIX of them!  One fewer than Steve Cishek, and double the number of blown saves of Edwin Diaz; what in the holy fuck?

As I’ve said before, Vincent isn’t bad, but he’s also not a guy – in an ideal world – you want in there late in the game with a lead.  He’s a guy who should be used earlier in games, when the starter gets knocked out prematurely.  Or, put him in there in the 6th/7th innings, or in games where it’s close but we’re trailing.  I’m not saying he can’t handle the pressure of high-leverage, game-winning situations, but I’m VERY MUCH saying his stuff is weaksauce and I’m surprised guys didn’t smack him around more than they did.  Unfortunately, the 2016 Mariners bullpen was far from an ideal world, so he was counted upon more than he should’ve been.  It’s one of the reasons why he hit the DL in the first place; he simply wasn’t used to pitching that much, and his body couldn’t take it!

His semi-saving grace is that only 3 of his 6 blown saves led to losses.  But, again, he accounted for 4 other defeats in tie-game situations.  Of our pitchers who were exclusively relievers, who threw a minimum of 20 innings this year, Vincent was one of only two who had a negative Win Probability Added, leading me to believe that it’s pretty difficult for a reliever to GET a negative rating for this stat over the course of a full (or even PARTIAL) season.

For what it’s worth, Vidal Nuno is the other reliever to have a negative WPA.  I was about to dismiss his numbers though, as he seemed to be used mostly in mop-up duties, but apparently he appeared in the 4th most high leverage situations of guys in our bullpen at 16.  The only people to appear in more high leverage games were Vincent (24), Diaz (26) and Cishek (37).  Diaz had a whopping 1.9 WPA (meaning he alone was worth nearly 2 wins by himself), and Cishek actually had a respectable 0.7 WPA (or he was worth nearly 1 win by himself).

Most of the guys had their ups and downs, but I’d like to point out a few of the good ones.  Drew Storen was actually pretty great, especially considering Toronto was THIS CLOSE to DFA’ing his ass before they traded him to us for Benoit.  Tom Wilhelmsen, same deal (especially considering his stint in Texas, when he was worth -0.9 WPA in 21 games before they did DFA his ass).  Mike Montgomery was also one of the good ones, which is why it’s so unfortunate that he was traded away to the Cubs mid-season.  He’s a pretty rock solid reliever, and he’s good for the occasional spot start, which in my book makes him invaluable, but in the Mariners’ book makes him worth Dan Vogelbach.  Scribner, as I said before, had the all-world September; and Arquimedes Caminero has some lethal stuff, if only he can harness it.

Going into 2017, there’s a lot to like about this unit.  We’re, unfortunately, going to be without Charlie Furbush again, as he needed surgery that would keep him out ANOTHER year, but hopefully with certain guys returning, we can solidify this part of our team and not have to worry about it so much.

Guys I like:

  • Edwin Diaz
  • Steve Cishek
  • Evan Scribner
  • Tony Zych

If we can get these guys back and keep them healthy, that’s as good a foundation to a bullpen as can be.

Guys I like, sort of:

  • Drew Storen
  • Nick Vincent
  • Tom Wilhelmsen
  • Vidal Nuno

Storen isn’t under contract, so the team would have to go out and re-sign him, but I think for the right price, that could be a nice little move for this team.  The rest of these guys, I could take or leave.  I don’t totally trust any of them in high leverage situations, so I’d PREFER they stick to 6th/7th innings, or in extras; but, I also wouldn’t be devastated if the team traded them away or otherwise got rid of them.

Guys I find interesting:

  • Arquimedes Caminero
  • Dan Altavilla

Caminero I talked about before.  Altavilla is another one of these guys (like Diaz) where the Mariners brought him up straight from AA.  He was called up late in the season for the team to get a look at him, and only 3 of his 15 appearances were in high leverage situations, but he showed good stuff, and if he carries that over into Spring Training, I could easily see him making this roster.  If he proves he’s got what it takes to do well in those high leverage situations, he could find himself quickly climbing into the Guys I Like category.

All the other bullpen guys on the roster feel like Spring Training fodder and little more.  The team is in desperate need of a quality left-handed reliever, so I’d expect them to make a move in that regard in the not-too-distant future.  My way-too-early prediction for next season has our bullpen looking like this:

  • Diaz – closer
  • Cishek
  • Scribner
  • Zych
  • Vincent
  • Altavilla
  • Random Lefty Not Currently In The Organization

Depending on the lefty, that strikes me as a bullpen we can work with!  Again, assuming they’re utilized properly.

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