Writing about the Astros’ terrible bullpen of 2013 in a previous post inspired me to do a little research on how historically bad the pen was. Before long this morphed into this post based on a couple of recent examples, about how far back can an improved Astros’ bullpen lead this young team?
A quicky review – the 2013 Astros bullpen was last in the majors in ERA (4.92), wins (14), losses (40), walks (252) save % (52%), and OPS against (.816). They were tied for the worst in saves (32) and blown saves (29). They have invested in 3 solid veterans, Chad Qualls, Matt Albers and Jesse Crain to lead a bullpen Renaissance in 2014. But does a bullpen matter that much?
In researching recent bad bullpens – I discovered that there were some really bad bullpens in the last 15 seasons – but found the examples of a couple of them to be very interesting, because two of them turned around in a hurry….and so did their teams.
2010 -11 Arizona Diamondacks
The 2010 D’Backs’ bullpen was every bit as putrid as the 2013 Astros’ pen.
- Their pen was 30th and last in the majors in ERA (5.74), losses (32), and OPS against.
- They were 28th in wins (16), 23rd in saves (35), 29th in save % (59%) and 28th in blown saves (24).
- The team ended up 65-97 – last in their division and 28th in all of baseball.
During the 2010 season, the D’Backs traded one of their vets from the bullpen at the deadline , Chad Qualls (yes, that Chad Qualls) who was having a horrendous season. After the season they waived a couple other of the offending relievers and started rebuilding the bullpen. The 2011 bullpen was built with smart trades – David Hernandez and Brad Ziegler, veteran FA pickups – JJ Putz and Micah Owings, a Rule V pickup – Joe Paterson and a rookie Bryan Shaw.
The 2011 D’Backs had a resurgence led by the bullpen.
- Their ERA improved by 2 runs to 3.71
- They were suddenly 3rd in save % (82%) and 1st in saves (58)
- The bullpen improved from 16W – 32L to a 23-14 record and….
- The 2011 team finished 94-68, first in the division.
The D’Backs also improved their starting pitching (about 0.5 run improvement in ERA), but their offense was basically a wash (17 more runs scored for the season). I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that the bullpen with the huge improvement in runs allowed and saves held was responsible for about 2/3 of that 29 game improvement.
2007 – 08 Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays
Yes, they were the Devil Rays in 2007 and the Rays in 2008. And they were an awful team in 2007 with the sports’ worst bullpen and a great team in 2008.
I’ll quickly summarize the improvement for the Rays:
- They went from a mlb worst 66-96 to a 3rd best record of 97-65 and an appearance in the World Series.
- The bullpen went from a 6.16 ERA!!! to a 3.55 ERA, improved an unbelievably bad .875 OPS against to a fine .661, and went from converting 57% saves to converting 78% saves.
- The offense was almost exactly the same – they scored 8 less runs in 2008 than 2007.
- The starting pitching showed dramatic improvement also. They lowered their ERA from 5.20 to 3.95 and dropped the OPS against from .798 to .737 in one season.
I would judge that the bullpen improvement accounted for about 1/2 of the 31 game improvement with the Rays.
Looking closer – I find something interesting in examining the bullpen’s improvement. Some of it was addition by subtraction as they rid themselves of some of the worst offenders. They also brought in two veterans Troy Percival and two-time Astro Trever Miller, who were decent but not spectacular with 4+ ERAs. The biggest difference was the improvement for 3 pitchers who were horrendous in 2007 and the core of the pen in 2008 – JP Howell (ERA improved from 7.59 to 2.22), former Astro Dan Wheeler (ERA from 5.30 to 3.12), and Grant Balfour (ERA from 6.14 to 1.54).
So what happened? My theory involves the pitching coach. The Rays had 6 pitching coaches in 9 seasons. In 2007 they hired Jim Hickey (yes, the guy who was probably the Astros greatest pitching coach ever). He rode out the horrible 2007 season, but when 2008 rolled around – his way of teaching took hold on the Rays starters and bullpen and the staff gave up 1.7 less runs / game.
So the question is this: am I crazy to think the Astros could have a 20 game or more turn around based on improved bullpen personnel plus the addition of new pitching coach Brent Strom?