It seems as though every offseason, virtually every team is attempting to upgrade their bullpen. With baseball having evolved into a gave seemingly driven by matchups, having reliable pieces to call upon in the latter innings has become almost vital for preseason dreams of contention to be realized. As with any other element of roster construction, there are a multitude of approaches that a team can take when attempting to piece together a bullpen. In fact, such differences can be seen without travelling outside of the American League East.
Between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays, the Charles Dickens line ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ could apply to the state of their bullpens. The Rays finished with the lowest bullpen ERA in the American League, while the Red Sox finished eleventh. The Rays had the best opposing batting average, while Boston finished ninth. Tampa’s bullpen gave up the fewest baserunners in the American League, while the Red Sox were tenth. In fact, in virtually every metric, the Rays bullpen was vastly superior to the bullpen employed by the Red Sox in 2012. These results were achieved although the Red Sox have spent considerably more resources, both financially and in personnel, in attempting to build their bullpen.
The Rays have done an excellent job over the past few years in locating pitchers that struggled elsewhere and turning them into serviceable, and often time much more than that, pieces of the bullpen. Pitchers such as Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, and Fernando Rodney may have been on their last chances at a major league job, yet produced far beyond their expectations. Rodney, in fact, may be the poster child for the Rays low risk/high reward approach to free agent relief pitching, as he comes off a historic 2012 season.
This philosophy appears to extend further than the mere acquisition of middle relievers or potential set up men. Despite conventional baseball wisdom that places a higher value upon the closer position, the Rays have had 29 different pitchers record a save over the last eight seasons, including Matt Garza, who picked up a save in his only relief appearance of 2010. To further display the Rays apparent disdain for such thinking thinking, eight different pitchers have led the team in saves over the last eight seasons, culminating with Fernando Rodney this past year. In fact, the last pitcher to lead the Rays in saves in consecutive years was Danys Baez in 2004 and 2005.
Meanwhile, up north, the Red Sox continue to chase the elusive closer. Since allowing Jonathan Papelbon to depart via free agency, they have traded for Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey prior to last season, while recently trading for Joel Hanrahan. Unlike the Rays, the results for the Red Sox were disastrous. Bailey got injured in Spring Training, and was unable to get on track, posting a 7.04 ERA in only 15 games. Melancon put together a terrible 2012, going 0-2 with an ERA of 6.20 in his time in Boston, and was sent to Pittsburgh as part of the package for Hanrahan. However, even though Hanrahan’s 2012 season looks superior to Melcanon’s at first glance, they both actually had a very similar fielding independent pitching numbers, as Hanrahan came in at 4.45 for 2012, while Melancon was at 4.58.Even though Hanrahan looks superior according to traditional statistics, he may end up just being another in the recent line of disappointments in the back end of the Boston bullpen.
According to reports, both the Rays and the Red Sox are still looking for pieces for their bullpen. While the Rays are likely to look at under the radar candidates they can sign for one or two years at a low cost, the Red Sox are far more likely to attempt to make a larger offer to a pitcher considered to be one of the better relievers available by conventional thinking.
Even though sabermetrics have become more mainstream and accepted in the front offices of baseball, teams still appear to hold on to the antiquated concept of chasing saves. The Red Sox have now made three trades in the past thirteen months in search of a closer, while the Rays keep finding players to fill the role. Given the Rays track record of success, they may prove to be more successful in constructing their bullpen again this season.