Last year, Grant Brisbee took a look at the best bullpens in baseball. Since bullpen value is a bit more complex and nuanced than simply comparing WAR—a stat that undervalues most relief pitchers—he used an aggregate of different stats: FIP, Win Probability Added, and Clutch. Here are the rankings he came up with.
|23||Red Sox||Blue Jays|
Let's look at the top bullpens from both leagues in 2012 and 2013, limiting the search to a minimum of 20 innings pitched. Anything less just isn't enough to have made a real impact on the team.
2012 Atlanta Braves
|Craig Kimbrel||63||62.2||1.01||14||116||2.01||16.66||0.126||92.8 %||0.78||4.15||0.38||3.3|
|Kris Medlen||38||54.1||2.48||13||36||2.15||5.96||0.232||76.4 %||2.73||0.78||-0.28||0.8|
|Luis Avilan||31||36||2.00||10||33||2.5||8.25||0.206||79.2 %||2.54||0.83||1.16||0.7|
|Cristhian Martinez||54||73.2||3.91||19||65||2.32||7.94||0.272||72.9 %||3.16||-0.54||-1.06||0.7|
|Eric O'Flaherty||64||57.1||1.73||19||46||2.98||7.22||0.225||84.6 %||3.27||2.64||0.49||0.6|
|Jonny Venters||66||58.2||3.22||28||69||4.3||10.59||0.266||82.9 %||3.76||0.04||0.37||0.1|
|Livan Hernandez||18||31||4.94||8||19||2.32||5.52||0.313||75.6 %||4.74||-0.66||-0.37||-0.2|
|Chad Durbin||76||61||3.10||28||49||4.13||7.23||0.227||81.6 %||4.78||0.96||1.07||-0.5|
2012 San Diego Padres
|Huston Street||40||39||1.85||11||47||2.54||10.85||0.128||79.4 %||2.2||2.12||0.02||1|
|Dale Thayer||64||57.2||3.43||12||47||1.87||7.34||0.239||69.5 %||3.04||1.13||0.37||0.6|
|Luke Gregerson||77||71.2||2.39||21||72||2.64||9.04||0.211||87.1 %||3.36||2.49||1.14||0.5|
|Nick Vincent||27||26.1||1.71||7||28||2.39||9.57||0.196||90.9 %||2.87||0.25||-0.09||0.4|
|Joe Thatcher||55||31.2||3.41||14||39||3.98||11.08||0.242||76.9 %||3.06||-0.35||-0.17||0.3|
|Andrew Cashner||28||27||3.67||16||29||5.33||9.67||0.23||77.6 %||4.17||-0.8||-0.2||-0.2|
|Brad Boxberger||24||27.2||2.6||18||33||5.86||10.73||0.22||79.4 %||4.29||-0.25||0.05||-0.2|
|Alex Hinshaw||31||28||4.5||20||36||6.43||11.57||0.215||81.6 %||5.2||-0.3||-0.36||-0.4|
|Miles Mikolas||25||32.1||3.62||15||23||4.18||6.4||0.252||78.3 %||4.86||-0.24||-0.05||-0.4|
|Brad Brach||67||66.2||3.78||33||75||4.46||10.13||0.204||81.9 %||4.56||0.5||0.34||-0.7|
2012 Baltimore Orioles
|Darren O'Day||69||67||2.28||14||69||1.88||9.27||0.199||85.1 %||2.96||3.42||1.58||1.4|
|Jim Johnson||71||68.2||2.49||15||41||1.97||5.37||0.219||75.6 %||3.25||5.35||0.41||1.2|
|Troy Patton||54||55.2||2.43||12||49||1.94||7.92||0.214||84.6 %||3.26||0.99||0.34||0.9|
|Luis Ayala||66||75||2.64||14||51||1.68||6.12||0.268||80.7 %||3.67||1.23||1.04||0.9|
|Pedro Strop||70||66.1||2.44||37||58||5.02||7.87||0.215||83.2 %||3.59||1.23||0.37||0.7|
|Matt Lindstrom||34||36.1||2.72||12||30||2.97||7.43||0.252||76.8 %||3.48||0.31||-0.28||0.3|
|Dana Eveland||12||22.2||3.57||5||11||1.99||4.37||0.239||71.4 %||4.2||0.26||0.54||0.1|
|Kevin Gregg||40||43.2||4.95||24||37||4.95||7.63||0.289||74.3 %||5.04||-0.08||0.32||-0.2|
2012 Texas Rangers
|Joe Nathan||66||64.1||2.8||13||78||1.82||10.91||0.227||78.1 %||2.78||1.78||-0.09||1.8|
|Robbie Ross||58||65||2.22||23||47||3.18||6.51||0.229||77.8 %||3.4||1.58||0.61||0.9|
|Koji Uehara||37||36||1.75||3||43||0.75||10.75||0.157||92.0 %||2.4||1.39||1||0.8|
|Mike Adams||61||52.1||3.27||17||45||2.92||7.74||0.269||78.1 %||3.52||2.61||1.27||0.8|
|Alexi Ogando||57||63||3.43||17||64||2.43||9.14||0.209||75.8 %||3.82||1.55||0.93||0.8|
|Mark Lowe||36||39.1||3.43||13||28||2.97||6.41||0.235||80.5 %||4.31||-0.51||-2.26||0.1|
|Michael Kirkman||28||35.1||3.82||17||38||4.33||9.68||0.18||74.3 %||4.31||-0.06||0.1|
|Tanner Scheppers||39||32.1||4.45||9||30||2.51||8.35||0.333||80.7 %||4.67||-0.47||0.2|
2013 Atlanta Braves
|Craig Kimbrel||68||67||1.21||20||98||2.69||13.16||0.166||92.2 %||1.93||2.34||-0.01||2.2|
|David Carpenter||56||65.2||1.78||20||74||2.74||10.14||0.193||90.2 %||2.83||2.1||0.84||0.9|
|Jordan Walden||50||47||3.45||14||54||2.68||10.34||0.219||72.3 %||2.81||0.75||0.19||0.8|
|Luis Avilan||75||65||1.52||22||38||3.05||5.26||0.174||83.6 %||3.28||3.07||0.8||0.5|
|Alex Wood||20||21.2||2.08||5||23||2.08||9.55||0.221||77.3 %||1.62||-0.31||-1.26||0.4|
|Anthony Varvaro||62||73.1||2.82||25||43||3.07||5.28||0.243||76.8 %||3.47||0.16||-0.11||0.2|
|Luis Ayala||37||31||2.9||13||20||3.77||5.81||0.283||81.1 %||3.43||-0.05||-0.01||0.1|
|Cory Gearrin||37||31||3.77||16||23||4.65||6.68||0.265||78.4 %||4.34||-0.43||-0.82||-0.2|
2013 Pittsburgh Pirates
|Mark Melancon||72||71||1.39||8||70||1.01||8.87||0.222||79.9 %||1.64||2.72||-0.03||2.5|
|Jason Grilli||54||50||2.7||13||74||2.34||13.32||0.213||80.6 %||1.97||2.14||0.87||1.5|
|Tony Watson||67||71.2||2.39||12||54||1.51||6.78||0.195||80.7 %||3.2||2.32||0.71||0.5|
|Justin Wilson||58||73.2||2.08||28||59||3.42||7.21||0.189||84.9 %||3.41||1.64||0.15||0.5|
|Vin Mazzaro||57||73.2||2.81||21||46||2.57||5.62||0.243||78.6 %||3.31||1.09||0.52||0.4|
|Jeanmar Gomez||26||45.1||3.77||17||32||3.38||6.35||0.228||67.0 %||3.47||0.43||0.46||0.1|
|Jared Hughes||29||32||4.78||16||23||4.5||6.47||0.285||72.8 %||4.11||-0.67||-0.7||-0.1|
|Bryan Morris||55||65||3.46||28||37||3.88||5.12||0.238||81.8 %||4.89||0.2||0.25||-1.1|
2013 Oakland Athletics
|Sean Doolittle||70||69||3.13||13||60||1.7||7.83||0.211||70.5 %||2.71||1.36||-0.49||1.6|
|Ryan Cook||71||67.1||2.54||25||67||3.34||8.96||0.234||78.2 %||2.74||0.51||0.01||1.6|
|Dan Otero||33||39||1.38||6||27||1.38||6.23||0.275||85.4 %||2.12||0.07||-0.4||0.8|
|Jesse Chavez||35||57.1||3.92||20||55||3.14||8.63||0.222||66.9 %||3.01||0.19||-0.38||0.7|
|Grant Balfour||65||62.2||2.59||27||72||3.88||10.34||0.204||84.4 %||3.49||2.56||0.9||0.6|
|Jerry Blevins||67||60||3.15||17||52||2.55||7.8||0.21||77.3 %||3.88||0.14||-0.19||0.3|
|Brett Anderson||11||21||4.71||8||22||3.43||9.43||0.272||69.9 %||3.33||0.2||0.14||0.2|
|Evan Scribner||18||26.2||4.39||7||19||2.36||6.41||0.243||69.4 %||3.87||-0.13||-0.51|
|Pat Neshek||45||40.1||3.35||15||29||3.35||6.47||0.247||81.6 %||4.66||-0.41||-0.96||-0.2|
2013 New York Yankees
|David Robertson||70||66.1||2.04||18||77||2.44||10.45||0.211||87.5 %||2.61||3.15||0.4||1.6|
|Mariano Rivera||64||64||2.11||9||54||1.27||7.59||0.236||87.3 %||3.05||2.51||0.11||1.5|
|Shawn Kelley||57||53.1||4.39||23||71||3.88||11.98||0.23||71.4 %||3.63||0.55||0.61||0.5|
|Boone Logan||61||39||3.23||13||50||3||11.54||0.226||85.6 %||3.82||-0.41||0.13||0.3|
|Preston Claiborne||44||50.1||4.11||14||42||2.5||7.51||0.258||76.9 %||4.14||0.15||-0.27||0.2|
|David Phelps||10||21||5.14||11||26||4.71||11.14||0.238||65.1 %||3.67||-0.28||-0.32||0.2|
|Adam Warren||32||69||3.52||27||56||3.52||7.3||0.275||83.9 %||4.34||-0.12||0.12|
|David Huff||9||26.1||2.73||8||17||2.73||5.81||0.165||93.8 %||5.14||0.72||0.57||-0.2|
|Joba Chamberlain||45||42||4.93||26||38||5.57||8.14||0.275||81.2 %||5.64||-0.62||-0.15||-0.6|
By comparison, here are the Mets.
2012 New York Mets
|Bobby Parnell||74||68.2||2.49||20||61||2.62||8||0.243||77.1 %||2.99||-0.41||-0.73||0.8|
|Jon Rauch||73||57.2||3.59||12||42||1.87||6.55||0.205||62.2 %||3.89||-0.66||-0.78||0.2|
|Frank Francisco||48||42.1||5.53||21||47||4.46||9.99||0.267||67.2 %||3.9||-0.31||0.52||0.1|
|Tim Byrdak||56||30.2||4.4||18||34||5.28||9.98||0.17||61.4 %||3.58||0.25||0.04||0.1|
|Ramon Ramirez||58||63.2||4.24||35||52||4.95||7.35||0.24||68.7 %||3.93||-0.92||-0.55|
|Elvin Ramirez||20||21.1||5.48||20||22||8.44||9.28||0.293||72.8 %||4.45||-0.67||-0.45||-0.1|
|Jeremy Hefner||13||24.1||4.44||4||9||1.48||3.33||0.265||70.9 %||4.57||-0.38||-0.63||-0.1|
|Miguel Batista||25||25.2||4.56||21||22||7.36||7.71||0.267||75.8 %||4.96||-0.46||-0.57||-0.3|
|Josh Edgin||34||25.2||4.56||10||30||3.51||10.52||0.2||70.8 %||4.69||-0.53||-0.47||-0.3|
|Manny Acosta||45||47.1||6.46||25||46||4.75||8.75||0.255||57.4 %||4.85||-0.6||-0.7||-0.5|
2013 New York Mets
|Bobby Parnell||49||50||2.16||12||44||2.16||7.92||0.205||68.6 %||2.33||0.04||-0.89||1.2|
|LaTroy Hawkins||72||70.2||2.93||10||55||1.27||7||0.256||74.7 %||3.06||1.34||0.88||0.8|
|Gonzalez Germen||29||34.1||3.93||16||33||4.19||8.65||0.241||70.8 %||2.9||-0.62||-0.57||0.5|
|Scott Rice||73||51||3.71||27||41||4.76||7.24||0.228||70.4 %||3.4||0.35||-0.2||0.3|
|Carlos Torres||24||36.2||1.47||5||25||1.23||6.14||0.201||94.7 %||3.51||1.23||0.71||0.1|
|Greg Burke||32||31.2||5.68||15||28||4.26||7.96||0.305||57.6 %||3.93||-1.37||-0.75|
|Scott Atchison||51||45.1||4.37||12||28||2.38||5.56||0.247||58.4 %||3.75||-0.34||-0.03||-0.1|
|Josh Edgin||34||28.2||3.77||12||20||3.77||6.28||0.241||75.3 %||4.02||0.34||0.15||-0.2|
|Brandon Lyon||37||34.1||4.98||13||23||3.41||6.03||0.307||69.5 %||3.98||-1.5||-0.57||-0.2|
|David Aardsma||43||39.2||4.31||19||36||4.31||8.17||0.252||80.5 %||5.27||-1.01||-0.44||-0.7|
So after looking at the success that these teams have had and the Mets' lack of success, what can the Mets do to field a more competitive relief corps?
A strong bullpen starts from within
A common theme among the top bullpens is the amount of homegrown talent they've had—players who were either drafted by the team or spent significant time its farm system. Almost half of the Braves' bullpen the past two years was homegrown. Half of the Rangers' bullpen listed above is homegrown. More than half of the Yankees bullpen listed above is homegrown. With a strong core of bullpen pitchers developed within the system, money can be allocated to addressing weaknesses elsewhere—including fortifying the bullpen with free agents.
The Mets have been very hit-and-miss in this area. While Bobby Parnell is the most notable success story, and Jeurys Familia is quite possibly another, the Mets' homegrown relief pitchers are few and far between. Since 2012, Elvin Ramirez, Gonzalez Germen, and Josh Edgin are the only in-house pitcher who got considerable playing time in the bullpen, and the trio pitched to mixed results, trending towards the negative side.
The future does look somewhat bright. Relief prospects John Church, Chase Huchingson, Adam Kolarek, Jack Leathersich, and Jeff Walters all are on the cusp of being given their MLB cups of coffee. And, ignoring the need for pitching depth for a moment, pitchers such as Jacob deGrom, Darin Gorski, Cory Mazzoni, and Logan Verrett might be converted into relief pitchers—as Erik Goeddel already was—to get them into major league roles.
Obtain relievers when the opportunity arises
Since Sandy Alderson was hired after the 2010 season, countless relief pitchers have been traded. While many were short-term rentals or a contender looking to address a weakness while gearing up for a playoff run, an equal number were more long-term deals. Some big names have been dealt: Huston Street, Sergio Santos, Jose Veras, Mark Melancon, Sean Marshall, J.J. Hoover, Edward Mujica, Jordan Walden, Joel Hanrahan, Pedro Strop, Carlos Marmol, Matt Thornton, Francisco Rodriguez, Scott Downs, John Axford, Jim Johnson, Heath Bell, Luke Gregerson, and Addison Reed.
Ramon Ramirez and Vic Black were both obtained via trade, but it stands to reason that many more pitchers who could have been obtained for equal value have been available. That is not to say that Alderson should be docked points based on theoretical trade scenarios that might not have been possible, but these markets represent sources of talent and should not be avoided because the players would cost other players. Relief pitching is a fairly fungible commodity within baseball, but avenues of talent should not be ignored.
Need to pay to play
On December 6, 2011, Alderson signed Frank Francisco to a two-year, $12 million contract. To date, this contract—valued at $5.5 million in 2012 and $6.5 million in 2013—represents the largest contract given to a relief pitcher by Alderson's Mets. While it is wise to not sink large sums of money in relief pitchers, the next most that a Mets reliever was paid was Jon Rauch, who earned $3.5 million for one season, and Ramon Ramirez, who earned $2.7 million on a contract that had been negotiated by the San Francisco Giants. In 2012, six of the ten Mets relievers that pitched at least 20 innings made less than $1 million; in 2013, nine of those ten made under $1 million. If virtually no money is being invested into the relief corps, it should come as no surprise when the bullpen fails to impress.
There are extraneous factors to consider here, of course. Though complete details of the team's budget are not public, it is safe to say that Alderson's funds have been tight, relegating things like relief pitching to the bottom of the list of priorities. Likewise, players have minds of their own. Grant Balfour reportedly turned down an offer from the Mets exceeding or very similar to the one that he signed with the Rays, citing things like housing concerns and income taxes in the process.
Gambling can pay off
Relief pitcher value fluctuates so much from season to season that there will be numerous "lightning in a bottle" stories every year. After missing all of 2010 because of Tommy John surgery and posting sub-par stats in 2011, the Texas Rangers took a gamble on 37-year-old Joe Nathan, signing him to a two year, $14.5 million contract. Nathan returned to form over the following two years, saving 80 games and posting a 2.09 ERA and 204 ERA+ in 129 innings with 10.5 strikeouts and 2.4 walks per nine.
The Mets captured some of that lightning in 2013 when they signed LaTroy Hawkins. The veteran went on to post a 2.93 ERA in 70.2 innings with 7.0 strikeouts and 1.3 walks per nin and filling in for Bobby Parnell at the end of the season.
But don't gamble too much!
The 2013 Mets bullpen was composed almost completely of question marks. Parnell and Josh Edgin were the only members of the bullpen who had thrown significant innings in 2012. Hawkins, Scott Atchison, Brandon Lyon, and David Aardsma were all veterans brought in with a chance to boune back, but only Hawkins did. Carlos Torres and Greg Burke had previous MLB experience but very little and certainly not enough to instill any kind of confidence in their ability to get major league hitters out. Gonzalez Germen and Scott Rice were complete unknowns. When virtually the entire bullpen is composed of question marks, the end results are unlikely to be pretty.
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again
At the time, trading Angel Pagan for Andres Torres and Ramon Ramirez was seen as a smart move. In addition to acquiring Torres, Ramirez was coming off of his fourth consecutive year of pitching roughly 70 innings with an ERA between 2.50 and 3.00. As it turns out, his one season with the Mets was his first clunker since 2007, but the rationale behind the trade was fine. A move that is made based on good process but ends up with bad results is just bad luck. The process is fine, and future moves based on it aren't guaranteed to fail.
Likewise, just because high-profile signings like D.J. Carrasco, Frank Francisco, and Jon Rauch didn't work out doesn't mean they should not be made. These particular players failed to live up to their contracts, but that does not mean that free agent relief pitchers should be avoided, as not all such signings are doomed to fail.
Stop the bleeding
In 2012, the Mets had five sub-replacement relievers pitch more than 20 innings. In 2013, they had four. Other than the 2012 Padres, who also had five such pitchers, every other top bullpen had fewer than two. The Rangers did not have a single one.
While WAR is not definitive for relief pitchers, it is sufficient here to establish a very simple baseline as to pitchers that are pitching well and those that are not. A team has to have palatable secondary and even tertiary bullpen options to turn to if a player isn't performing up to par. Pitchers who aren't throwing the ball well cannot be allowed to accrue a substantial amount of innings throughout the year.
This is an amorphous concept, but the fact is, Roger McDowell is among the top pitching coaches in baseball today, and his bullpen in Atlanta has set the standard for two years in a row. Larry Rothschild, the Yankees pitching coach, has experience with excellent pitching staffs, having been a coach in Atlanta in the mid-1990s and Florida after that. Curt Young, Oakland's pitching coach, has been with the team since 2000—aside from his one-year stint with the Red Sox in 2011—and his hand can be seen in many of the young arms the A's have developed over the years. Darren Balsley, San Diego's pitching coach for over ten years, is credited with helping get the careers of Chris Young, Jake Peavy, Akinori Otsuka, and Andrew Cashner off the ground, in addition to regularly coaching the team to league-best ERAs.
This is not to say that Dan Warthen is a bad pitching coach. R.A. Dickey had positive words to say about him, as have a few other pitchers that have played on the team since Warthen was appointed pitching coach. With the exception of Parnell—and much of the progress he's made supposedly can be credited to former teammate Jason Isringhausen—Warthen has not had any particular impact on bullpen pitchers, good or bad.
Frank Viola is highly regarded as a pitching instructor, and his work with Cyclones pitchers in 2011 and Sand Gnats pitchers in 2012 and 2013 is often cited as a big reason why those respective pitching staffs and bullpens thrived. While we won't get to see his effect on pitchers in Las Vegas this year because he underwent heart surgery, his beneficial impact should be felt in both the minor and major leagues come as soon as next year.