Big news came down today: the baseball season is long. It takes a small army and no shortage of small miracles for the average team to successfully navigate 162 games and qualify for the playoffs. There is no sure way to make it but having a strong bullpen is key.
Managing a bullpen is tricky business as we all know. On top of playing matchups and considering a myriad of possible moves, managers must control the workloads of their relief corps. Even the best reliever can run out of gas if used far too often.
The biggest factor affecting bullpen usage is starting pitching. Starters go later into games? The bullpen compacts and allows lower-leverage laggards to spit seeds and growing beards. A team full of “five and dive” starters puts extra pressure on the pen.
In this respect the Phillies have a huge, huge advantage. Consider the below image, comparing the total batters faced of some competing teams.
Wait, I thought Dusty Baker’s whole thing was leaving starters in too long? Apparently not, as the Reds bullpen leads contending(ish) teams in bullpen batters faced. The NL Central is clearly not a good place to be a reliever as the four clubs within four games of that division’s title all sit in the top 5 of this sample.
The Atlanta Braves inclusion at the top of this list is odd, as they’re baseball’s best bullpen. My assumption was they just mow everyone down. Three up, three down, see you at the bar.
This heavy workload is puzzling when you consider they work in support of one of the best rotations in either league. The Braves rotation is right there with the Phillies in terms of both ERA and FIP. The biggest difference: innings pitched. The Phillies trio of workhorse mutants give the Phillies a huge advantage over the Braves.
The results of which we see above, the Phillies bullpen faced the second-fewest hitters in baseball’s first half. They’re also the only NL team in the lower half of this sample. Despite injuries to the “closer” Brad Lidge, best high-leverage reliever-come-closer Ryan Madson, and designated old guy Jose Contrares, the Phils pen still puts up good numbers due to emergence of Antonio Bastardo and the limited workload of the entire group.
More than just batters faced, the workload of individual pitchers is also a concern. Braves blog Talking Chops posted a worrying study today on the use of Braves relief aces Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel.
An unfortunate offshoot of racking up high number of appearances is working pitchers on limited rest. The Braves send their pen arms out on no rest 30% of the time, or 89 total appearances in which the pitcher worked the previous day.
Good as they are, I can’t see that boding well for the Braves chances as the season wears on. The more high leverage innings means more times up getting loose, which means more wear and tear. The entire thing snowballs if the Braves pull the trigger on a trade to increase the offense.
On the AL side, I was more than a little surprised to see the Angels in such good shape. Scott Downs does good work! He and Jordan Waldin anchor the best bullpen in baseball that gets to face the Mariners and A’s all the time. That’s basically cheating.