The 2016 Toronto Blue Jays season will be remembered for many things, and among those things to be remembered (or maybe forgotten) was the emotional rollercoaster that was their bullpen. Local media was certainly quick to point out the failures of the bullpen, and in loss, fans would concentrate anger and frustration on a singular issue; and that issue was often the bullpen.
Musings on pitching in the bullpen
Pitchers in the bullpen understand that they are tasked with the impossible. Fans, a lot of the time, do not. For a relief pitcher, your successes in the eyes of the fan are measured in “not failures”; i.e., how many times you are tasked with a near impossible feat and you don’t fuck it up.
We never watch the first pitch of a game thinking okay, Stroman, don’t fuck this up. But that is almost always the sentiment I have when a relief pitcher enters the game. Okay, Loup, don’t fuck this up; followed sometimes by Okay, good, you didn’t fuck it up, sometimes by okay, you didn’t fuck it up too badly, or, in other cases, I can’t believe you fucked it up (and occasionally) … again.
Let’s remember that nearly all relief pitchers are pitchers that couldn’t quite cut it as starters. When a starter has exhausted his pitch count, or begins to falter, that’s when you’ll see a relief pitchers enter the game. These are the guys who aren’t quite good enough to get 18+ outs a game, and yet are frequently given the highest-leverage, most precarious situations of the game, and are often facing the best hitters in the opposing team’s lineup.
I know I’m not stating anything new; I’m just reiterating that pitching in in the majors is hard, and pitching in relief is even harder. As fans, we tend to notice and remember bullpen failures more so than we would a poor start by a starting pitcher. It’s the difference between watching an explosion versus a slow deterioration; one is definitely more memorable.
I’m saying all of this because pitching in relief is hard, and because of that, having a good bullpen is rare. And the Jays may just have one.
The bullpen myth
The myth of shutdown bullpens is that they’re filled with seven or eight guys who can come in at any point, in any game, in any situation and shut an inning down. The truth is that you really only need three or four solid arms to have a highly-competitive bullpen.
Think back to some of the dominant bullpens from recent history:
Are you thinking of the Yankees’ three-headed monster of Betances-Miller-Chapman [attorneys at law]?
And what about the chapter written on bullpen usage in this year’s playoffs, authored by Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, et. al. These are types of bullpens that people remember; the three-to-four really good guys that you can lean on in high-leverage situations to help your team secure the win. So using that example, would you count the Jays’ Biagini-Grilli-Osuna among them?
The reality of postseason bullpens
If you were to guess which bullpen led the postseason in OBP against with .160, would you guess it belonged to the Toronto Blue Jays? If I told you one team led all postseason bullpens with a .339 OPS against, would you guess it was the Jays? (I’ll pause for effect here on how ridiculous a .339 OPS is – for context, Ryan Goins‘ career OPS is .595. Jon Lester‘s OPS this year was .337, so the Jays relief pitchers basically turned every hitter they faced in the postseason into Jon Lester with a bat.)
2016 Postseason - Combined Relievers By Team
|Toronto Blue Jays||0.67||0.56||0.160||0.180||0.339||94||26.2|
|Boston Red Sox||1.35||0.83||0.224||0.267||0.491||50||13.1|
|San Francisco Giants||3.60||0.93||0.241||0.315||0.556||58||15|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||4.00||1.29||0.319||0.413||0.733||192||45|
|New York Mets||13.50||3.00||0.545||0.875||1.42||12||2|
The Jays had many identities over this past season; a lineup stacked with mashers, a-top-of-the-league rotation. But an elite bullpen? Nah. A bullpen that allowed an ERA of 0.67 over 26.2 innings in the playoffs? Certainly not what any of us would have expected. By the way, those two runs were surrendered by Francisco Liriano, who was literally knocked out of the game. Who knows if they’d have even allowed a run at all.
Mind you, in the regular season, the Jays bullpen’s .734 OPS against was 23rd best in the majors; and the 3.88 xFIP they posted was 22nd in the majors. So no, in the regular season, the Jays relief pitchers were not very good at all.
Now, I will completely admit here that I’m cherry-picking from a small sample size of 26.2 postseason innings. It is likely that had they been tasked with more than 26.2 innings, the bullpen would have likely been the victim of some regression. Still; those are 26.2 innings pitched in high-leverage moments, with a relatively small margin for error, against some of the best teams in the American League. So yeah, I’m going to cherry-pick.
That’s the thing about the playoffs, though, is that once you get there, you’re likely to only really use your best relievers anyway. The postseason is structured in such a way that because of the increase in days off between games, it allows for more rest for relief pitchers on. Like cutting off a diseased limb, the Jays were able to use off days and extra rest to use the best parts of their bullpen when needed and mostly shun the lesser parts. And when you have a rotation as good as the Jays do, you only need your starters to get you to the 6th inning, and after that, you can hand the game over to your four best guys.
Postseason bullpen success formula = (SUM:Guys) + Guy 1 + Guy 2 + Guy 3
Remember the Royals in 2015? They leaned heavily on their best four guys, who pitched to 61.9% of all batters faced by relievers. That remaining 36.9%? Spread out among some other guys.
Cleveland basically did the same thing this year, except they were less particular about sequencing; Andrew Miller would usually come in to the game during the highest leverage situations, and then finished the game with Bryan Shaw or Cody Allen. And when it wasn’t any of those three, it was some other guys.
Miller, Shaw and Allen as a trio faced more batters than the rest of the Cleveland bullpen combined.
This postseason, Cleveland decided it was going to slightly modify the formula to be =(SUM:Guys) + excellent guy + good guy + excellent guy. And if that’s the model to follow, the Jays right now have three pretty damn good guys right now in Biagini, Grilli and Osuna, and leaned pretty heavily on them in the postseason.
You’ll notice Brett Cecil did contribute to that total (more so than Grilli), but with Cecil being a free-agent, it remains to be seen whether or not he will be around in 2017 to contribute to the Blue Jays’ bullpen. Biagini and Osuna faced more than half of the batters, and they rewarded John Gibbons‘ use of them by pitching some pretty terrific innings.
So what does it all mean?
Before you go around spouting that the Jays have the best bullpen in the league (and quoting this blog post), hold on. The upside I’m trying to point out here is that the Jays have that can hang with the best of ’em in October/November. The problem is that they first need to get to October. And you need more than three guys to do that. The Blue Jays were strongest when they had five solid guys, complimented by three weaker arms (who don’t need to be as strong), in their bullpen.
Now, that’s not to say everything is rock-solid certain for 2017. Roberto Osuna has had Tommy John surgery, so who knows if his arm holds up next year. Joe Biagini has just completed his only season in the majors, so who knows if he can continue the success next year. And Jason Grilli is 40; and if the Jays lose any of those three to injury next year, the bullpen all-of-a-sudden looks a lot less solid.
This offseason, they’ll need someone to replace the role that Joaquin Benoit filled as the third/fourth guy to pitch the sixth/seventh inning. There are a few really solid options out there (Boone Logan, please). They’ll also need a guy to replace Brett Cecil, and, as it turns out, that guy may very well end up being Brett Cecil. But you won’t see them overspend to get Kenley Jansen or Aroldis Chapman.