The Bullpen: A Failure to Meet Expectations

This guest post was written by Matt Collins of Red Stockings Thoughts, a blog about the Red Sox. 

When most people look back on this past Red Sox season, they’ll most likely discuss the starting pitching’s faltering down the stretch, John Lackey’s horrid season, or the disappointment that was Carl Crawford. However, to me, when you look at how the team was playing at any given moment during the year, you needn’t look any further than the guys in the bullpen.

Like the entire team, the relief staff came into the year with big expectations, due to a mix of returning talent and new, exciting arms brought in via free agency. The returning talent was Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard. These two had formed one of the elite one-two combos in the back of the bullpen for the past couple of years, and the front office had managed to add Bobby Jenks, two time All Star closer for the White Sox, and Dan Wheeler, who was annually one of the premiere set up guys in the bigs. The combination of these four arms in the bullpen had all of Red Sox Nation dreaming of games being shortened to just six inning games, with this brutal foursome being able to take care of the rest in just about every situation. However, due to injury and just plain poor performance, this feared foursome would only be a figment of our imaginations as the season got underway.

The bullpen was disappointing to start off the year, just like the team, who was picked to be amongst the best in baseball, then stumbled their way to a 2-10 start. In the first game of the year against the Texas Rangers, with the game tied at 5 heading into the eighth, the Sox called upon Daniel Bard, perhaps the guy who held most of the fans’ confidence coming into the year. And in fashion true to the team early on, he proceeded to give up a walk, a single and three doubles en route to a four run implosion that would wreak havoc on his ERA for weeks to come. As for the new additions, Bobby Jenks started off the year pitching well, not allowing a hit or a run in his first four appearances. However, it was all downhill from there, as he allowed four runs in his next game and never looked the same again. The month of April steadied for the team towards the end as they began to find their groove, and the same went for the bullpen. Despite his rocky start, Bard, along with Papelbon, finished the month with a FIP under one. Matt Albers and Alfredo Aceves, two guys who were mere afterthoughts following Spring Training, also provided solid relief early on, which would prove to be foreshadowing for the months to come.

As May rolled in, the team was starting to look like the force-to-be-reckoned with that everyone predicted. Although the bullpen still was not shaping exactly as the fans had envisioned it coming into the year, it was still performing at a pretty high level. The big reason for this was that unlikely heroes were coming out of the woodwork. One of whom was Rich Hill. The deceiving lefty appeared in nine games early on for the Red Sox, striking out 12 guys while walking just three and not allowing a single run. However, after getting hurt on June 1st, he would have to undergo Tommy John surgery, and wouldn’t pitch again this year.

The bullpen still managed to roll on without him for a time, and was red hot by the time the team had hit its stride in June and July. The only disappointment at this time was Bobby Jenks, who would be on and off the DL, and when he was active he pitched horribly. Finally, he was shut down in July never to be seen again. Dan Wheeler also spent time on the DL in May, but once he came back he pitched decently. He finished the year with a 4.38 ERA and a 3.78 FIP. His season was nothing outstanding, but at least it wasn’t the abomination that Jenks’ was.

As the team rolled on, the two unsung heroes from early in the year were carrying middle relief.  After Matt Albers allowed six runs in a game against the Cubs on May 21st, he hit a stride that he would stay in for a long while. In the time following that game until the end of July, Albers allowed just two runs and 17 hits in 25.2 innings, while sporting a 25/10 K/BB. Alfredo Aceves was doing just as well. Although starting didn’t work out so well for the former Yankee, he found his niche in long/middle-relief. During the hot months of the year for the team (June and July), Aceves pitched 35 innings out of the ‘pen, allowing just nine earned runs and holding a 21/8 K/BB, and yielding just a .199 opponents’ batting average. As injuries began to catch up with the team’s starting staff, Aceves saw his value grow. He became to go-to guy as fill-ins such as Andrew Miller, Tim Wakefield and Kyle Weiland couldn’t advance far into games. On such occasions, Aceves was called upon to keep the team in the game long enough for the offense to pull themselves back in. He had seven games in which he came out of the bullpen for at least three innings and didn’t allow a run, and four more in which he allowed just one.

Of course, the story gets sadder in the final month of the year. By this point, Matt Albers had completely lost it. He had a horrible August, with an ERA above 12 and a 6.37 FIP, and his confidence was completely gone by September. The guy was one of the best relievers on the team all year, but, like the team, faltered down the stretch with a 7.33 FIP in the season’s final month. Most of the other guys didn’t pick up his slack, though. Franklin Morales was basically the only left-handed option in the bullpen, and his control issues couldn’t be worked out as he posted a 6.36 FIP and 4.00 ERA in nine appearances in the month.

The only guys who are looking okay after this season are Aceves, Papelbon and Bard. Papelbon had the best FIP (1.53), xFIP(2.16) and HR/FB (4.8%) of his career, as well as a K/9 that was 1.5 higher than his career mark. He also had a career high 3.0 WAR. Bard was the team’s workhorse leading the team with both 70 appearances and 73 IP. While his ERA jumped from 1.93 in 2010 to 3.33 this year, his FIP actually dropped from 3.37 to 2.96. He also had the highest ground ball % of his career.

However, other than those guys, much blame can be thrown at the bullpen. Their runs of successes and failures closely mirror those of the team. They even have a poster boy who, surprisingly to me, hasn’t received a ton of blame from the fans. It’s probably because he wasn’t around for the collapse, but Bobby Jenks deserves more criticism. He was brought in to solidify this relief staff, but instead came in out of shape and couldn’t stay on the field. And when he did make his way to the mound, he was horrible, finishing with a 6.32 ERA, 4.17 FIP and 4.79 xFIP in just 19 games. Having a good Bobby Jenks in this bullpen in September could have made all the difference.

Matt Collins writes about the Red Sox at Red Stockings Thoughts. You can also follow him on Twittter @Red_SoxThoughts

Categories: Alfredo Aceves Bobby Jenks Boston Red Sox Dan Wheeler Daniel Bard Jonathan Papelbon Matt Albers Rich Hill

14 Responses to “The Bullpen: A Failure to Meet Expectations” Subscribe

  1. TroyPatterson October 11, 2011 at 8:44 AM #

    I would still love someone (anyone!) to ask Francona why Dan Wheeler was allowed to face 78 left handed batters in 2011. At least several of those were in close games and likely cost us at least a win. I'm sure there are plenty of ways you could come up with one or two extra win(s), but this one still seems the most glaring to me.

    • ChipBuck October 11, 2011 at 9:19 AM #

      While Wheeler never should have faced LHH, I'm not sure who you'd suggest taking his spot. Outside of Papelbon was great against lefties, and Aceves was alright. Andrew Miller was pretty solid, but he spent most of the season toiling ni the rotation–a place he didn't belong. Other than that, the bullpen was pretty poor against LHH. There weren't a lot of options.

      • TroyPatterson October 11, 2011 at 12:09 PM #

        I agree and that was partly Theo's fault for having Albers AND Wheeler. Both are essentially ROOGY if there ever was one. The options for lefties changed throughout the season. Jenks who Tito denied using against lefties and claimed he had no lefty specialist has a career xFIP of 3.24 against lefties.

        Also just because Bard is your 8th inning guy doesn't mean he has to be used only in the 8th. His numbers are solid against lefties.

        Early in the season Wheeler should have been removed for Jenks and then Hill when either was healthy. Morales was another option when he was healthy.

        I agree they didn't have a clear cut LOOGY, but they should have been going to Bard early or one of the other options with solid lefty numbers.

  2. ChipBuck October 11, 2011 at 9:20 AM #

    @Matt – What do you see for the team going forward? How do you see their bullpen constructed for next season?

    • Gerry October 11, 2011 at 1:59 PM #

      To that end, who of Bard or Acevas would be less replaceable if one of them gets their wish move to the rotation? Wheeler has better #s than Albers but it seems the latter performed at a higher level for 3 months and might get it all together in 2012. Which would you bring back? Any word on Bobby Jenks? Health and in shape (rehab will insure that) he could be his old self? Finally, as both Bowden and Weiland are accomplished closers who were dominant in one inning of work, what might their roles be on the Pen?

      • Matt Collins October 11, 2011 at 2:58 PM #

        Between Bard and Aceves, I'd prefer Bard to stay in the 'pen. He was not great down the stretch, but having him at the back end of the bullpen has been very valuable, and I don't see him trumping that value in the rotation. As for additions, looking at the available free agent market, there isn't much. I'd look for a reliable lefty, such as George Sherrill or Mike Gonzalez. Andrew Miller could also potentially compete for that role. I still think Papelbon comes back as long as some team doesn't make a ridiculous offer. Finally, I take Wheeler over Albers. Those three months were an abberation for his career, and I see Wheeler having more upside.

  3. darryljohnston October 11, 2011 at 3:09 PM #

    Great guest post from Matt!

  4. Carts13 October 11, 2011 at 4:49 PM #

    With the exception of Jenks who was essentially a non factor due to injury, most of the decline in the bullpen can be blamed on the starters inability to even average 5 innings per start. Take away Wheeler's poor start and most of the relievers stats declined through august and September when the sheer overuse started catching up on them. Bard is the poster child for this but Albers, who was a different pitcher from mid august onwards was another prime example, although hid velocity actually went up in august, leading to his fb being much flatter. The big loss was Rich Hill. He looked great in spring training, at AAA and in Boston. He was never really replaced and then us carrying 6 starters didn't help. One person who actually looked useful was Bowden. I'm no big fan of his stuff but he could at least give you 2 innings of 1 run ball and keep the sox in games. Looked far more suited to middle relief than starting

    • Gerry October 11, 2011 at 5:44 PM #

      Glad to bear another positive regarding Mile Bowden. Talk about an erratic route. He was rushed to the Sox as a top starter prospect at age 21-22. He struggled. No surprise. He was then made a reliever, but kept stretched out a a hybrid even as he got calls to Fenway. He expressed his love of relieving, the all out adrenaline rush several times weekly. He was made a closer in 2011 in AAA and he really shone. Yet, he was called up and again asked to pitch multiple innings. He was terrific in inning one. He finally got steady playing time and his last 3 starts were awesome with 0 runs, 1h and 4k's in 4ip. He could be a dominant 1+ inning guy. So could Weiland who holds the all time saves record at Notre Dame and threw great in his first 1+ inning at Fenway. Two guys with closer mentalities who dominated for an inning + in most outings. Despite their conglomerated records at Fenway, they could be dominant relievers if used appropriately.

  5. LarryAtIIATMS October 11, 2011 at 8:07 PM #

    I'm struggling to understand why anyone would throw blame at the Red Sox bullpen. Per FanGraphs, the BoSox bullpen's AL rankings are as follows: first in WAR, fourth in ERA, first in FIP, second in xFIP, and second in SIERA. This in spite of the fact (as Carts13 notes above) that the Boston relief corps was asked to pitch the second highest amount of innings in the AL. Contrast the AL rankings of the Boston starters: ninth in WAR, ninth in ERA, 11th in FIP, 12th in xFIP, 11th in SIERA and next to last (ahead of only the Baltimore Orioles) in innings pitched. The Red Sox starters had the highest walk percentage in the AL,

    If you're trying to figure out who is to blame for the Red Sox missing the post-season, I wouldn't look first at Dan Wheeler.

    • ChipBuck October 11, 2011 at 10:22 PM #

      I don't think anyone's suggesting the bullpen's solely to blame Larry. They did play a role in the collapse down the stretch, and the some of the struggles started prior to September. Overall, their role was significantly less than the starting pitching.

      All that said, the positive numbers the Red Sox bullpen produced were heavily swayed by great seasons by Papelbon and Bard. The rest of the staff (with the exception of maybe Aceves) was pretty inconsistent.

  6. LarryAtIIATMS October 12, 2011 at 12:30 AM #

    Chip, if you're saying that the bullpen sucked except for the top three guys — that's really not a huge problem, is it? But even that is not true, at least not by the numbers.

    Five relievers combined to produce 2/3 of the innings thrown for the Red Sox in relief: in order of innings pitched, that would be Aceves, Bard, Albers, Papelbon and Wheeler. The worst FIP in the bunch was Albers' 4.00, and the worst SIERA in the bunch was Aceves' 3.63. Consider that the Tigers' bullpen as a whole, a group that pitched to about league average, had a 3.98 FIP and a 3.70 SIERA. So if we combine the worst of the numbers produced by your worst and most used relievers, we still have a league-average bullpen. And obviously, Papelbon and Bard pitched a lot better than that.

    Contrast the Yankees. The Yankees had great years from Mo and D-Rob, then the numbers fall off the shelf. Rafael Soriano produced a 3.97 FIP and 3.57 SIERA, slightly worse than Albers. The Yanks' third and fourth biggest inning-eaters out of the pen were Ayala and Noesi, two pitchers with numbers comparable to any "disappointment" you might name in the Sox pen. This is life as we know it: you cannot expect the number 4, 5 and 6 guys in the bullpen to do any better that this.

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