The Mariners’ bullpen now and in the future
By Gary Hill
The Mariners suffered their most brutal loss of the season at the hands of the Boston Red Sox Thursday night at Fenway Park. The Sox stormed from behind to plate six in the ninth to sully another brilliant outing from Felix Hernandez.
The bullpen has been an issue for the Mariners this season as they lug the second-worst ERA from relievers to Baltimore. Seattle’s 4.65 bullpen ERA is only better than the lofty 5.12 number for the Houston Astros.
Tom Wilhelmsen only yielded two earned runs during the entire first two months of the season. He limited opponents to nine hits while walking just eight. His first 22 outings were bliss, but his most recent 25 have been the complete opposite. He has yielded 21 earned runs over that time frame, including 25 hits and 18 walks. In his first 35 appearances this season, Oliver Perez allowed only five earned runs. He has coughed up nine runs in his last eight games. Yoervis Medina has allowed four earned runs in his last four appearances. Stephen Pryor has been injured for most of the season and Carter Capps was jettisoned to Tacoma after his ERA ballooned to 6.37.
The short-term condition of the bullpen is alarming. There are not many trustworthy options to summon in close games at this point. Charlie Furbush continues to be impressive. He featured a 2.08 July ERA while fanning 16 hitters in 13 innings. Danny Farquhar has pitched very well as of late. He has not been scored upon in his last five outings while accumulating 15 strikeouts in fewer than 10 innings. Furbush or Farquhar may be asked to close games as soon as this weekend in Baltimore.
What about the bullpen in the long view?
Bullpens are a very interesting animal. They are the most volatile instrument on any baseball team and performance can fluctuate wildly from year to year. Here is a look at the top five bullpens from the last three seasons according to ERA:
1. Atlanta Braves, 2.55
2. Kansas City Royals, 2.90
3. Pittsburgh Pirates, 2.91
4. Milwaukee Brewers, 2.96
5. Minnesota Twins, 3.01
1. Cincinnati Reds, 2.65
2. Atlanta Braves, 2.76
3. Tampa Bay Rays, 2.88
4. Oakland Athletics, 2.94
5. Baltimore Orioles, 3.00
1 Atlanta Braves, 3.03
2. San Francisco Giants, 3.04
3. San Diego Padres, 3.05
4. New York Yankees, 3.12
5. Washington Nationals, 3.20
The Atlanta Braves are the only team that shows up on the list more than once. There are 15 teams listed and 13 of them are different.
The Milwaukee Brewers feature the fourth-best bullpen ERA in baseball this season with a 2.96 mark. They were dead last a year with an MLB-high 4.66 ERA. The Baltimore Orioles finished 2011 with a 4.18 bullpen ERA, which was 27th in baseball. They climbed to fifth best last season with a 3.00 mark and they have sunk to the middle of the pack this year (15th at 3.66). In 2011, the Twins had the worst bullpen in baseball according to ERA (4.51). Minnesota finished 17th last season (3.77) and have risen to fifth best this year (3.01). Tampa Bay was third best last season (2.88), but 17th this season (3.70).
The Tampa Bay case emphasizes a common issue with bullpens. The key pieces from the Rays’ stellar pen returned nearly intact, but the performances have not come close to equaling their production from just a year ago.
2012: 2-2, 0.60 ERA, 74.2 IP, 5 ER, 15 BB, 76 K
2013: 3-2, 3.92 ERA, 43.2 IP, 19 ER, 28 BB, 59 K
2012: 2-6, 3.63 ERA, 67 IP, 27 ER, 17 BB, 84 K
2013: 1-4, 2.96 ERA, 45.2 IP, 15 ER, 21 BB, 47 K
2012: 5-2, 1.95 ERA, 55.1 IP, 12 ER, 11 BB, 73 K
2013: 2-3, 4.46 ERA, 40.1 IP, 19 ER, 28 BB, 59 K
2012: 1-6, 4.00 ERA, 27 IP, 12 ER, 14 BB, 25 K
2013: 2-0, 5.46 ERA, 28 IP, 17 ER, 7 BB, 18 K
2012: 3-2, 3.03 ERA, 62.1 IP, 21 ER, 12 BB, 42 K
2013: 2-1, 3.52 ERA, 46 IP, 18 ER, 16 BB, 44 K
Fernando Rodney is the greatest current example of bullpen performance varying from year to year.
Injuries are always a major factor when it comes to bullpen performance. Jason Motte, Eric O’Flaherty, Andrew Bailey, Jonny Venters, Ryan Madson, Sean Marshall, Joel Hanrahan and Brian Wilson are just a handful of the high-profile back-of-the-bullpen pitchers who have been severely affected by injury this season. There are estimates that nearly 35 percent of relief pitchers will hit the disabled list in a given season.
There is also the burnout issue with relievers, which seems to affect closers in particular. Over the last 10 seasons there have been 116 different pitchers who have saved at least 20 games in a season. Mariano Rivera (10 times), Jonathan Papelbon (nine), Joe Nathan (eight), Francisco Cordero (eight) and Billy Wagner (seven) are the exceptions. Heath Bell (three), Frank Francisco (two) and Rocky Biddle (one) are closer to the rule. As quickly as Matt Mantei, Yhency Brazoban, Chris Ray, Eric Gagne, Danny Kolb, Derrick Turnbow or B.J Ryan burst onto the scene is as swiftly as they fade away.
It is all about the timing
Joel Hanrahan was the All-Star closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates the previous two seasons as he collected a total of 76 saves. His ERA was 1.83 in 2011 and 2.72 in 2012. The Pirates dealt their lock-down closer to the relief-starved Boston Red Sox for Stolmy Pimentel, Ivan De Jesus, Mark Melancon and Jerry Sands.
Melancon struggled mightily with the Red Sox (0-2, 6.20 ERA) last season. He was an effective closer for the Houston Astros down the stretch in 2011, but his struggles in 2012 earned him a one-way ticket out of Beantown. Melancon has been an All-Star this season with Pittsburgh. He has only yielded five earned runs on the season in more than 51 innings. He has fanned 49 batters to go along with his tidy 0.88 ERA. He gave up more runs in his fourth appearance in Boston (six earned runs) than he has in his entire run in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates elected to sign veteran reliever Jason Grilli to replace Hanrahan and he has turned himself into an All-Star as well. Before going down with an injury he saved 30 games and has struck out 66 hitters in 42 innings. His season ERA sits a 2.34.
The Pirates also snagged Vin Mazzaro from the Kansas City Royals in the offseason. Mazzaro spent two years in Kansas City as a not-very-effective starter and reliever. His ERA was near 7.00. He has become an effective part of the Pirates’ pen this year (6-2, 2.92 ERA). Tony Watson and Justin Wilson are two lefties who have come up through their system who complete the pen.
The Pirates finished the 2012 season with the 11th-best bullpen ERA in baseball at 3.36. They proceeded to trade their All-Star closer during the winter. Now they feature a pen with the third-best ERA in MLB at 2.91.
Effective bullpens can be built quickly and the key is to time it with contention. The Pirates are sitting in first place in the National League Central with an impressive 65-43 record. They boast the best winning percentage in the game.
How does it apply to the future for the Mariners?
Despite the excruciating nature of the bullpen failure Thursday night in Boston, it should not affect how you view the overall direction of this team.
This is obviously easier said than done given the crushing nature of late-inning losses, but Tom Wilhelmsen not recording an out has no bearing at all on Kyle Seager developing into one of the best hitters in the American League. If you feel fantastic about Brad Miller and Nick Franklin as the double-play combo of the future then the fact that Oliver Perez struggled should not dim your optimistic view. If you think Mike Zunino is the catcher of the future then Yoervis Medina not being able to put out the fire does not change that. If you felt good about the direction of this team three days ago then what happened in Boston should not change that.
There is nothing more frustrating for fans than a bullpen that consistently coughs up leads and the point of this exercise is not to squelch your anger after a game like Thursday night’s. The bullpen has the second-worst ERA in baseball and all indications are that it will continue to struggle in the near future.
However, the bullpen struggles have no bearing on what will potentially make this team good in the long term. The remainder of this season will continue to be about growing the young core.