The Art of Implosion


Baseball is a game of supposed truisms.

“Hitters peak at age 27 and start declining at 32, meaning expensive long term contracts are a bad idea.”

“Outs are precious, which makes the sac bunt the worst play in baseball.”

“The save rule does nothing but bloat contracts and handcuff managers.”

There are many, many others, some of which I believe and some of which I don’t.

But if there is one truism that I fully, 100% stand behind it is this:

Unless Mariano Rivera is a part of it, the bullpen is the most volatile part of a major league baseball team.

It’s true: yesterday’s junk is tomorrow’s gold. Year over year bullpen performance is like a rollercoaster, up and down and up and down. The best bullpen in the league one year is rarely the best bullpen in the league next. Hell, it’s rarely even in the top-10. All of which makes relying on the bullpen based on past performance futile and unwise.

For proof, look no further than our Toronto Blue Jays. In 2012, the Jays bullpen was atrocious. 28 different pitchers made at least one relief appearance, leading the team to the worst bullpen ERA in the American League. In 2013, just the opposite happened. Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar came out of nowhere to become All-Stars, Casey Janssen remained one baseball’s elite (yet underrated) closers, and guys like Aaron Loup, Neil Wagner, and Sergio Santos pitched like aces. Toronto’s bullpen was one of the best in the game, and the lone bright spot in an otherwise dismal season.

So when fans and analysts alike projected a solid season from the team based on a steady bullpen, it should have immediately raised red flags. Because, true to form, the volatility of a big league bullpen has struck hard, and the Blue Jays ‘pen has imploded.

To summarize just how up and down the pen has been year over year, check out this chart.

bullpen stats

The trend is pretty obvious, but no less disappointing. What is the most disturbing, however, is just how much worse the numbers are so far in 2014. The bullpen ERA, WHIP, and especially walk totals are frighteningly high. To this point, 10 different relievers have

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made at least one appearance, and the two best ERAs belong to Todd Redmond and Neil Wagner. That is bad news, because Redmond is the long-man who only appears when a starter has been rocked and pulled early, and because Wagner is currently pitching in AAA Buffalo.

Of course the above comes with the obvious caveat that we are only one month into the season, so the sample size is small. But just for fun (and to be cruel) let’s shorten the sample size even further, to the past 11 games.

If you haven’t already burned it from your memory, it was 11 games ago when the bullpen fully imploded for the first time, in a game dubbed “The Meltdown”, against the Twins. Jays fans everywhere were hoping that the night in Minnesota was simply a blip, a one time hiccup. Sadly, that has not proven true.

The bullpen numbers for the past 11 games are terrifying:

– 38.1 innings pitched

– 7.75 ERA

– 1.85 WHIP

– 30 Walks

– 7 walks per nine innings

– 5 losses

In nine of those 11 games the Jays turned the ball over to the bullpen either ahead or tied, only to see the ‘pen blow it on six occassions. Six losses from winning positions in a week and a half is a massive number, especially in a division where only a few games separates first from last.

And the worst part is that nobody has been immune – the entire bullpen is struggling. In that 11 game stretch, three pitchers (Cecil, Santos, and Jenkins) have ERAs in the double digits. Five pitchers (Loup, Wagner, Delabar, Santos, Happ) have surrendered more walks than strikeouts. Four pitchers (Cecil, Santos, Redmond, Jenkins) have a WHIP of 2.00 or worse.

It can’t continue to be this bad. The relief corps will turn things around and right the ship sooner or later. Or will they? Toronto’s relievers have thrown 90.1 IP so far in 2014, the third highest total in the American League.

Unless the rotation starts pitching deeper into games, the ‘pen risks burning out.

And if the past few weeks are what a relatively fresh bullpen looks like, we don’t want to see a tired one.

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