For too long the modern MLB bullpen has been designed around funneling games towards a save situation, with a closer as the end-all-be-all at the narrowest point of that funnel. After a dominant 2012 season, most Mariners fans felt pretty solid about the man at the end of the funnel, that being Tom Wilhelmsen.
For the traditionalist, Wilhelmsen started out pretty well at the beginning of the season, preventing runs despite walking more batters and striking out less batters than he had in 2012. Nonetheless, through May, Wilhemsen had an xFIP under four, and a K/BB ratio higher than two.
You’ll recall that this narrative didn’t last much longer.
Wilhemsen’s xFIP approached six in June, and remained in the mid-fours for the remainder of the season, save for an August spent mostly in Tacoma. He was walking batters like crazy, and had lost command of the strike zone. By season’s end, Wilhemsen had an xFIP that ended at 4.57, and he walked more than five batters per nine.
But Tom Wilhemsen is one player. He’s a pitcher who had a very bad year, and might just simply be a bad pitcher. The stability of bullpen stats in inherently unclear – both for those who perform well and for those who perform poorly.
People remember bullpen collapses because bullpen collapses are memorable. They’re remarkable events, emotional valleys in a season that was already quite discouraging and distressing. But the now-traditional method of bullpen use is has enormous flaws.
In a manufacturing environment, one of the keys to maintaining consistent quality to is to avoid single points of failure at all costs. In terms of cliches, this is putting all of one’s eggs in one basket. If that basket fails, if that employee fails, if that market collapses, if that closer implodes, it will set an organization, a team, or a person who puts eggs in baskets for some reason back a long ways.
This isn’t to say that single points of failure are entirely unnavoidable in all lines of work. Kanye West is the single point of failure for Kanye West’s career. Kanye West is a single point of failure for many people who make a career from his popularity. If Kanye West continues to separate himself from rationality, it will likely mean career suicide, and the end of many others’ careers also.
The Wu Tang Clan, by contrast, was able to withstand the self-destruction and subsequent passing of one of its most famous members, Old Dirty Bastard, by way of power in numbers.
A big league bullpen, at its most efficient, is much more Wu Tang Clan than Kanye West. Efficiency, however, isn’t the hallmark of Eric Wedge, or any other hyper-traditional baseball manager.
The Mariners have a lot of arms that profile as quality bullpen arms on their roster. Despite Wilhelmsen’s struggles in 2013, the Mariners struck out the second-most batters per nine innings of any bullpen, and had the fifth-highest fastball velocity. Their 3.71 xFIP ranked 12th in the league, and the bullpen pitched the 13th most innings of all teams in baseball. This wasn’t a team whose numbers are skewed by a disproportionate amount of innings from their high-leverage relievers. This bullpen had 37.0 innings from Lucas Luetge and 29.0 innings from Blake Beavan.
One thing that was also true about the Mariners is that they were unlucky. The team’s bullpen ERA was nearly a run higher than their xFIP, in no small part due to a very low left-on-base percentage. The Mariners bullpen left only 70.1 percent of baserunners on base, worst in the big league, matched with a .315 BABIP allowed to their opponents, second worst in the league.
So the Mariners were unlucky because a bunch of random balls dropped into the outfield, or squirted through the infield, right? This is something that is out of the team’s control, right?
The Mariners made an organizational decision last offseason to punt outfield defense in favor of homeruns when they traded for Michael Morse, and signed Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay. This became common rhetoric for stat-nerds throughout the entire 2013 season, but was also the overriding problem that the Mariners had, something that we predicted would have an impact on the rest of the team. One of those other parts, much to the chagrin of Mariners fans, was the bullpen.
The Mariners bullpen was unlucky, but not because they were an outlier from the spectrum of probable outcomes. The Mariners bullpen was unlucky because the organization made a decision to actively reduced the bullpen’s probability of success, in favor of pandering to the fanbase’s lowest rung – those obsessed with the longball.
The Mariners might lose Oliver Perez, and Tom Wilhelmsen may never return to form. Danny Farquhar may not be as good as his peripherals would indicate, and Charlie Furbush may come back down to earth after missing bats and striking out batters at a very high rate for each of the past two seasons.
This team doesn’t have a bullpen problem. The Mariners have a bullpen that is better than average, albeit not elite. The Mariners have an outfield defense problem, an outfield offense problem, and ultimately an organizational philosophy problem, too. Bullpen help may be something the Mariners should explore if the right value proposition presents itself, but it’s not a need.