When Jack Zduriencik and the coaching staff agreed to come into the season with a bullpen built on the cheap, a lot of people were nervous. They looked at the unit, didn't recognize much in the way of shutdown talent, and determined that this group was likely to be a weakness. After 72 games of action, though, that same bullpen is second in the league in ERA and tied for second in saves, having held the fort on countless occasions when the team needed a scoreless inning. Vindication, right?
Kind of. But not really. See, while the bullpen has certainly worked out and done a good job of keeping the opponent off the board so far, it hasn't actually pitched well. At all. A glance:
HR/FB: 2nd (lowest)
Wow. Okay, so according to all that the bullpen looks even worse than I thought it would when I started writing this. The ERA's great, but the unit doesn't miss bats, it doesn't throw strikes, and when you regress everything and look at arguably the most complete single measure of effectiveness, they come out last. Out of everyone. Even worse than the Nationals, who've racked up 11 successful saves and 17 failures. That's...well that's really bad.
What's interesting is that they haven't even been helped by a lucky BABIP. It's been success with men on base and success limiting home runs, and what's bad about those two things is that neither of them are sustainable. The numbers with men on base will rise, and as for the bullpen's HR/FB% of 6.5%, the lowest in baseball last year was 7.8%. Our relief corps to date has been overachieving, narrowly doing the job while treading on the brink of disaster.
This group just isn't very good as currently constructed, and the fact that they've held out this long without hurting the team (Morrow's blow-ups aside) is nothing short of a miracle. Mark Lowe's been a colossal disappointment. Miguel Batista still sucks. Sean White has more walks than strikeouts. And so forth. Only David Aardsma has really impressed among the regulars, and even he has been pitching well over his head.
There aren't enough guys in there capable of throwing strikes, and there aren't enough guys in there capable of pitching to lefties. This is something that's going to have to be addressed over the rest of the season as true talent levels become unpleasantly visible while the team tries to compete.
Fortunately, there's good news. Shawn Kelley is either the best or the second-best reliever in the system, and he's on his way back. With his ability to throw strikes and keep lefties off-balance, he's a perfect fit for the eighth inning. Josh Fields has struck out nine and walked none over his last eight appearances in AA after coming back from an injury. And with lefties littering the big league rotation and RRS getting ready in Tacoma, there are options there to fill a specialist role in relief. The Mariner bullpen isn't very good, but it's far from hopeless. Before long, this has the potential to be a pretty solid unit.
The issue is that this is the group we're going to take with us into LA, New York, and Boston, and while they've scraped by to date, I'm terrified that this will be the point at which things begin to go wrong. I can't imagine many things more deflating than hanging with three of the best teams in baseball, only to fall victim to some sudden regression in the later innings.
Listen up, bullpen. Somehow, some way, you've been good to us through the better part of three months. It hasn't always been easy, but through some sort of black magic, it's been effective. All I ask now is that you muster up the strength and fortitude to help keep this team competitive for just a little while longer until reinforcements start to arrive. You can bend. You can bend until the cows come home. Just don't break. This is your Thermopylae. Make us proud.