Anatomy of an effective bullpen

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Melky is just glad to be here

In 2007, the Padres and the Red Sox topped their respective leagues in bullpen ERA and batting average against. Thing is, entering the season, neither team had much to boast about in that department. In fact, the Sox pen was in such shambles that Jonathan Papelbon told Tony Francona that he wanted to move back to the closer role (or at least that’s how Boston tells the story). So how did these two teams come out ahead?

Skilled closer

Obviously, the first step in building a bullpen is creating a viable endgame. Both Trevor Hoffman and Jonathan Papelbon qualify as such. They keep things relatively stable at the end — Papelbon more than Hoffman, though, as he blew just three saves last year (and we remember a couple of ’em), while Hoffman was the goat in seven games, including the most important one for the Padres.

There’s not much else to say about this. We have it in Mo, who I think we all can agree is better than Hoffman at this stage of his career.

Superb setup man

This is what Yankees fans have been clamoring for since the days of Stanton and Nelson. Yeah, we had a viable 8th inning arm in Tom Gordon, but there were problems further down the ladder that hindered the Yanks success while he was around. But I digress.

Both the Padres and the Red Sox got sub-2.50 ERAs from their setup men, who both pitched predominantly in the 8th inning and secondarily in the 7th. Yet, neither expected to get such production from these players.

Okajima was acquired after the Daisuke Matsuzaka signing. Many in the press thought that this was to give the star a companion. Yeah, they figured, having a quality lefty in the bullpen was a nice benefit of this arrangement, but surely no one expected Okajima to post a 2.22 ERA in 69 innings.

Heath Bell was acquired from the Mets in the Xavier Nady trade (Correction by Mike: Bell was acquired from the Mets along with Royce Ring for Ben Johnson and Jon Adkins. Nady, as you may recall, was dealt straight-up for Mike Cameron). He always had good peripherals with the Mets — just shy of a strikeout an inning, low walk totals. He had a home run problem in 2006, which is possibly why the Mets weren’t so keen on him. But in any case, Bell was a career underachiever who moved to a new park and watched his WHIP plummet below 1.00.

No one expected this out of Bell in 2007. No one expected this out of Okajima in 2007. So how did they perform to this level? We’ll explore that a bit more later.

Veteran solidity

Think guys lost a bit once they turn 40? Okay, that could be an understatement. But both the Padres and the Red Sox got serious production from guys aged more than four decades. For the Sox, Mike Timlin stepped up after a poor showing in 2006. Though he only pitched 55 innings — his lowest total since 1995 — he was effective, walking just 14 batters and posting a 1.084 WHIP for a 3.42 ERA. He wasn’t a world-beater, and might have been suspect in a strict 8th inning role. But he did his job — keeping other teams at bay — very well.

The Padres got their veteran help in the form of Doug Brocail. He hadn’t been overly effective since coming back in 2004, posting ERAs of 4.13, 5.52, and 4.76 heading into 2007. But he came through in a huge way, posting a 3.05 ERA over 76.2 innings. Though Brocail’s history is a bit spottier than Timlin’s, they’re both veterans who, for at least one more season, managed to get guys out. And their contributions to the bullpen were huge.

Half a season of a mid-aged vet

This appears to be total coincidence, but it works out. The Padres got a quality half-season of Scott Linebrink in before dishing him to Milwaukee. The Red Sox saw Brendan Donnelly post a 3.05 ERA over 20 innings before going in for elbow surgery. Clearly, Linebrink’s contribution was greater — he logged more than double Donnelly’s innings. But hey, if you paste in J.C. Romero’s 3.15 ERA over 20 innings, you have basically the same thing. Some decent quality veterans for limited innings — kinda like the Yanks and Proctor in 2007.

Moving on to more important matters…

Smattering of young guys

After their closer, set-up man, and vets, the Padres decided to throw some youngsters against the wall and see what stuck. Cla Meredith, Justin Hampson, Joe Thatcher, and Kevin Cameron all had limited or no major league track records. Yet they combined to pitch 212 innings, and all posted excellent ERAs — Meredith was the worst of the bunch at 3.50, while Cameron was at 2.79, Hampson at 2.70, and Thatcher at 1.29.

The only one of them who had thrown more than 15 big league innings before 2007 was Meredith — though he was rather good and deserved his 79.2 innings. But no one had any idea what to expect from the other three. But they were given a chance, and they came through.

Couple of vets and a youngster

The Red Sox did things a bit differently, opting for veterans Javier Lopez and Kyle Snyder to round out their bullpen, and filling 25-year-old Manny Delcarmen in for 44 innings. So they used undervalued vets in addition to a well-rated youngster to kill the remaining innings.

This actually brings up a strong point about Boston’s bullpen. They only pitched 447 innings, third lowest in the AL — and the lowest was the White Sox, whose bullpen pitched so few innings because they really really really sucked (5.47 ERA). So one huge key to their bullpen was having starters who consistently go deep into games.

But in any case, both teams had similar ideas for the tops of their bullpens, and because of their respective situations, filled out the bottom half in different manners. However, the overall scheme was similar. No team overspent on bullpen cogs, which lowered expectations. And when they saw that a player wasn’t living up to his billing, they jettisoned him (Padres with Linebrink, Sox with Romero, despite their pretty-looking ERAs).

That the two teams acted in similar manners should shock anyone. Theo Epstein worked with Kevin Towers in San Diego.

How this works for the Yanks

As I said, we’ve got the closer role filled with Mo. The setup role we shouldn’t be totally worried about. As you saw, the top two bullpens in the majors had surprise setup guys last year. We shouldn’t expect that from the Yanks, but there are a couple of candidates.

I’m going to get lynched when I say this, but…Brian Bruney. Dude has nasty stuff, but has never been able to harness it. Maybe his snub last last season was a wakeup call. Maybe he’ll make the transition that Bell made. We can only wish.

Other than him, we have Ohlendorf and his nasty sinker. Chris Britton hasn’t been dominant, nor is he nasty, but he can be a candidate for that role, though less likely than Bruney and Ohlendorf. Jose Veras comes to mind, but only because the Yanks seem to like him so much. He does have a good fastball and slider, so we’ll see if he can fit in.

In the veteran department, we’ve got LaTroy. His track record is kinda like Timlin’s and Brocail’s, so while we can’t completely expect him to have a solid season, he does fit the profile.

With mid-aged vets, we have Kyle Farnsworth heading the list. He’s going to need a quality season — it is his contract year after all. While he could easily end up as the 8th inning guy, the best strategy might be to deploy him at other opportune spots.

Smattering of young guys? You bet. We have the aforementioned Bruney, Ohlendorf, Britton, plus Edwar, Jon Albaladejo, Jeff Marquez, Darrell Rasner, Steven White, even Alan Horne — all guys who haven’t really contributed at the big league level, but certainly could this year.

The Yanks hold an even greater advantage here: Sheer numbers. Here are all the guys on the 40-man roster who could end up in the Yanks bullpen this year at some point or another: Albaladejo, Britton, Bruney, Farnsworth, Hawkins, Henn, Igawa, Karstens, Marquez, Ohlendorf, Scott Patterson, Edwar, Mo, Humberto, Veras, White, and Chase Wright. That’s not even counting the non-40-man players like Horne who could get a shot.

This is why I get irritated when people say Cashman hasn’t addressed the bullpen. He has, and in the best way possible. The top bullpens in the league aren’t built around attractive free agent signings — just ask the Orioles, who inked three relievers (Walker, Baez, Bradford) before 2007 and ended up with jack shit.

The top bullpens in the league are built by amassing a number of players who can do the job, and letting them have at it. Not everyone’s going to work out. The Red Sox had to boot Joel Pineiro because he sucked. The Pads had the same problem with Mike Thompson. But they had enough moving parts that they could replace them with little risk.

No, I’m not saying the Yanks bullpen is set and ready to go as-is. But I’m saying that we have a wealth of talent. Combine that with a degree of luck, and you could see one of the best bullpens in the league this year (or, obviously, one of the worst, depending on how far that luck extends). We don’t need to go find that shut-down setup guy — he might already be on the team, and his name is not Joba Chamberlain.

Who's next at the top?
Melky is just glad to be here
  • Zack

    And now, of course, the really interesting thing will be to see if Okajima is capable of even remotely reproducing those #s this season. Other than perhaps more young faces, the Sox bullpen hasn’t changed at all…

  • ny2ca2dc

    ya forgot to mention Melancon. If he’s recovered from the TJ, he’s nasty.

  • Old Ranger

    Great blog, only one thing wrong with it…
    A few (very few) of us have been trying to get this through the heads of some of the nay sayers. “Cash didn’t get this guy or that guy, he is BadCash”. The team has many good young power arms.
    Thank you for writing it much better than I ever could. 27/08.

  • mooks

    I’m not so sure San Diego was surprised.

    Towers has an outstanding track record at building bullpens, probably the best in the league.

    San Diego always has a solid bullpen (at low cost no less), and they do it year after year, even with retooling.

    That said, I think the Yankee strategy right now is to make do until around the all star break, and then wait for the reinforcements from the minors to show up and hope they thrive into october.

    Look for guys like Melancon, Cox and Sanchez to pop up to “ride in and save the day”, or at least thats what the yanks are hoping for.

    Survive as long as you can, wait, and then call for back up towards the end.

  • steve (different one)

    great post. you basically summed up in a much better way the argument i was having here last week: the Sox did NOT have a good bullpen on paper going in to the season. the veteran guys that were being counted on to carry the load did not, and they were released or traded.

    Okajima was a somewhat lucky pickup, because he did not learn the grip to his change until someone pointed it out to him in ST. he was not an elite pitcher in Japan.

    the rest of the load was picked up by young guys and averagish veterans.

    the yankees have tons of internal candidates who have the chance to contribute.

    and i don’t think the effect of Girardi can be understated. you are not going to see a situation where a guy like Chris Britton dominates in AAA all season but is left there to rot because he’s not in Torre’s “trust tree”.

    on September 13th, Britton came into the 9th inning of a tie game. he gave up a single to a great hitter, Alex Rios. Rios then stole 2B and Frank Thomas hit another ground ball up the middle to win the game. so Britton gave up 2 singles to 2 great hitters, and he wasn’t used again for another NINE games.
    the next time he was used was that crazy see-saw game against Toronto when Torre inexplicably used nine relievers in 5 innings. Britton was given ONE batter, whom he retired, then was pulled for Kei Igawa. he didn’t pitch again for 3 days.

    so Britton was essentially given ONE batter in 12 days after he lost the first game in Toronto.

    it is exactly that kindof crap that i will not miss at all this year.

    • Joseph P.

      Exactly. And through all the Britton stuff in September, we forgot that he pitched marvelously earlier in the season against the White Sox. Gave up two well-hit balls, both to Paul Konerko, one of which cleared the fence. But he one that cleared the fence was after 2 2/3 innings of scoreless work, more than he was used to.

      You knew Britton wasn’t in favor with Torre when he was brought in for one game of a doubleheader against Texas. He was there for the first game, and was being sent down before the second, so using him made all the sense in the world, since he would be replaced with a fresh arm. Alas, he was not. Thank you, Mr. Torre.

    • Whitey14

      Steve, I know we’ve argued points to no avail in the past, but you’ve just brought up something that interests me greatly and I’d like to know you’re thoughts further. I never knew there was a large faction of yankees fans that were not thrilled with joe torre. It seemed like he could do no wrong and every time georgie spoke out publicly against him the fans rose to defend him. From what I’ve read over the past few months, and capped off by your post today, it seems there are many yankee fans that were happy to see him go.

      As a redsox fan, Francona’s mismanagement of the Sox bullpen is something I speak to quite frequently. I’m not a big fan of him pulling a guy because he gives up a hit, or forever going L-R-L-R for a hitter at a time. Were these some of the same things you were seeing from torre? I ask because not having the YES network here in Maine doesn’t allow us to see more than about 25 yankee games a season and 19 of those are against Boston so many of the late inning match-ups are predetermined. Mike Myers vs. David Ortiz for example…

  • BombersGM

    I think one of the main ingredients of a successful pen is the success of the teams starters. Both Boston and San Diego were in the top ten in quaility starts and starters ERA. A successful stating staff sets up the pen but if any pen is used too often they get exposed and their numbers suffer.

    This is the one area were the Yankees will be hurt this year. With the three young kids and the innnings limits expect some tired, overexposed arms out of the pen.

  • E-ROC

    The Yanks bullpen could be nasty this year. Most of the players serving in the ‘pen this season haven’t been seen MLB hitters, which usually gives the advantage to the pitchers, barring any Posada game-calling mistakes.

  • Moshe Mandel

    Did you see what Pecota projects for Edwar? 60.2 IP 76 K 31 BB 3.61 ERA 1.31 WHIP If he pulls that off he will be a major factor in the pen.

    • Joseph P.

      While I find PECOTA fun as a recreational activity, I don’t buy into predictions at all. But yes, I’d gladly have 60 innings eaten at 3.61 ERA.

  • jon

    Comparing Bruney and Bell isn’t valid. Bell never had anything remotely resembling the control problems that Bruney has. Bell was hurt by horendous luck in 2005 and 2006 (.374 and .394 BABIPs!) and Towers correctly saw that. Minaya was blind to it – he saw the high ERAs and gave him away for pennies on the dollar.

    Bell didn’t make any kind of major transition – he just pitched the way he always did.

    For Bruney to make a similar improvement, he’d have to cut his walk rate in half. And sorry, that ain’t happening.

    • iYankees

      Agreed. Mets fans were actually livid about giving up Bell, everyone expected him to put up big numbers (everyone except for execs working for the Mets).

  • Moshe Mandel

    To me, the age of the relievers make no difference. I’m willing to have a pen of all young guys if they pitch more effectively than the vets. That was the major problem with Joe Torre, that he kept sending the vets out there while using the youngsters sparingly.

  • Realist

    I want to thank the posters who spoke of Britton! He was a player I liked 2 seasons ago while an Oriole. His stuff can be nasty and when the Yanks traded for him , I was elated.

    Torre sat his ass on the bench and never let him get into a groove. It was my major gripe with Torre , he had a full pen only to use 3 guys with any consistency (sp)….

    I would like to see him get a legit shot and prove his worth…good or bad :-)

  • Jon W.

    An overlooked factor to the pen this year could be a renewed sense of confidence and competition, knowing that Girardi will give guys the opportunity that Torre did not. It’s hard to pitch well, and with confidence, when your manager repeatedly shows he has little or no faith in you

  • zack

    The other thing to count in is that reliever performance from year to year tends to be very unpredictable and up and down. There are those consistently good relievers (few and far between and most get turned into closers), but counting on any one reliever for more than say, two seasons, can be hazardous. Heck, just look at the vaunted Stanton/Nelson/Mendoza trio. Their #s varied fairly extensively over the years. Thus, the advantage in the “throw as much against the wall and see what sticks and don’t give out any long expensive contracts” theory makes a ton of sense. One year you have Okajima, the next great thing, and the next year he’s a guy throwing 88 with no bite…

    • Rob_in_CT

      “Heck, just look at the vaunted Stanton/Nelson/Mendoza trio. Their #s varied fairly extensively over the years.”

      I did that a while back. Each of those guys had down years. The key was that the starting rotation was really strong (so, like Boston last year, the bullpen wasn’t overly stressed) and the relievers really kicked it up a notch in October (probably a good dash of luck in there).

      The Yankee bullpens 2004-present have been overexposed because the starting staff has been weak. That’s the main difference. Imagine the 2004 Yankee bullpen if you subtract 50 innings from its workload. Tom Gordon setting up Mo? Great combo. But Gordon was gassed by October and it showed.

      • steve (different one)

        I did that a while back. Each of those guys had down years. The key was that the starting rotation was really strong

        very good point.

  • Bo

    WHo is in the pen in April may not be who is in the pen in August.

    Who would have thought Joba would be the 8th inning guy last spring?

    You never know what young kid develops.

    And thanks to Cash we got a ton of young talent.

  • Mike A.

    So how long before the naysayers bash Cashman for leaving Mike Gardner unprotected in the Rule V draft, only to have Towers scoop him up…

    • steve (different one)

      no doubt this will happen.

      however, one thing we do have to keep in mind is that the exact same reliever who succeeds in San Diego would probably NOT be as successful pitching in Yankee stadium in the AL East.

      the two teams operate in different offensive environments.

      that’s not even getting into the difference between pitching in front of Khalil Green and Derek Jeter.

  • ColoYank

    Thanks for the insightful and thought-provoking post.

    I am another Yankee fan looking for a very different approach to bullpen use this year. As said above, with very few exceptions, relief pitching performance varies quite a lot year to year. After last year, let’s face it, that factor is a positive for the Yankee bullpen. I wonder who the pleasant surprises will be. My money’s on Farnsworth and Britton.

    Sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make (Vizcaino, Mahay, maybe others we don’t know about).

  • Mike A.

    Tandem starters! Four tandem rotation with the starting pitcher throwing the first 4 innings, reliever throws the next 4, closer/misc reliever for the 9th.


    Farns, LaTroy, Igawa (for those annoying extra inning games) and Mo in the pen.

    The 8 pitchers in the tandem system each throw 162 IP on the season, which keeps Andy, Wang and Moose fresh, and the kids on track with their IP limits.

    • dan

      I like the idea, but I’d rather Horne than either Rasner or Ohlie starting. If one half of the tandem gets rocked, Ohlendorf comes in to pitch the remaining 3 innings since he’s capable of it. Not that this scenario would ever even be considered.

      • steve (different one)

        if you want to use Rasner, you would use him first and then Joba.

        Joba is so awesome he can actually subtract off any runs Rasner would give up.

        i’m predicting a -3.65 ERA. that’s being conservative.

        • dan

          Pecota predicted him to win the first ballot HOF award this year. His induction ceremony is scheduled for just prior to game 1 of the world series.

    • Jake

      No way it’ll happen, but it sure would be fun to see.

  • iYankees

    The Yankees have a lot of different looks this year. Using guys like Edwar Ramirez (changeup) and Farnsworth in succession or combining the two to throw back-to-back innings would help them out. Ramirez’s fastball needs work but Farnsworth’s is top-notch. Farnswoth has a slider that he falls in love with too much (hell, it’s a good pitch) but he doesn’t locate well. Using Farnsworth’s fastball primarily in the 7th inning, then falling back to Edwar’s changeup (or vice versa) can really help Girardi out. Stuff like that actually works.

  • eric from morrisania



    All jokes aside, I like our pen, but I’d still like to strengthen it by subtraction. I have no faith in Kyle Farnsworth to not repeat his douchebaggery and I’d love to deal him to a pitching-starved team in exchange for another outfielder, like a Rajai Davis, Reggie Abercrombie, Alfredo Amezaga, or Joey Gathright… a useful part that could play all three outfield spots with plus defense and have some speed on the basepaths as a pinch-runner.

    Farnsy sucks, so let’s get something that will help us this season, because it won’t be him (and we have about two dozen other options who would all be equal to him, at worst, and likely better…)

    • steve (different one)

      Farnsworth, who i share your animosity towards, did seems to respond successfully to the change in his delivery late in the season. using that wind-up seemed to help him throw strikes.

      Girardi seems to like him and he does have a fantastic arm. i wouldn’t be above trading him, but i also would NOT be all that surprised if he had a good year.

      depite the hatred from Yankee fans, Farnworth was actually not *that* bad in 2006. he wasn’t the elite setup man he was being paid to be, but if Farns gives the Yankees his 2006 performance this year, i would be happy with that.

  • Lanny

    Anyone that says we should have signed a free agent for the pen should be forced to go back and check the stats of all the free agents who signed multi yr deals for the pen for the past 4 yrs.

    After that horror show you can see why going with live arms ie a lot of them is the way to go.

    • JCP

      umm, that Wagner fella hasn’t worked out too shabbily

      • steve (different one)

        i can’t speak for Lanny, but i would imagine his comment was made towards middle-reliever types. most people concede that there are 2 tiers of relievers, closers and everyone else. closers are closers because they are consistently good.

        it’s the second class of relievers that have proved to be poor investments time and time again on the free agent market because of the inherent volatility in their performance.

        i *think* that’s what the discussion is about here.

      • steve (different one)

        also, just a general comment: just because you can find one example otherwise does not mean you have disproved the argument.