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How to Build a Playoff Bullpen in Seattle

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It’s like Build-a-Bear, but they only get one outfit.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Kansas City Royals
For maximum effectiveness, every bullpen needs 1.2 Quadzillas
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

No matter what baseball piece you write in the first two weeks, you are obliged to say “it’s early” at the very beginning, before proceeding to disregard the fact that it’s early and make some analytical hay. What else are you going to do? It’s not like we’re just going to not talk about baseball. So let’s talk about the bullpen, and look at this year’s (currently projected/in use) bullpen compared to some past Mariner bullpens and see what shakes out.

Lately I’ve been interested in the varying philosophies teams use to construct bullpens. There’s the obvious angle for the Mariners, who carry situational guys like Marc Rzepcynski, but there’s two other types of relievers teams generally seek out. Obviously, with all pitchers, a high-strikeout, high-ground-ball pitcher is going to be one of the most sought-after players; in the bullpen, however, you can get a lot of value out of a guy who does just one of those things. This does ignore another key bullpen element, walks, but if you can strike guys out and get them to hit the ball on the ground, even walks take on less importance as you can more easily escape potential disaster. Let’s walk through the last few years of Mariner bullpens with an eye to their ground ball and strikeout generation.

fangraphs.com

Last year’s bullpen was a mixed bag; they got middle of the road performance and you can sort of see why here. Ideally, your pitchers live in that upper right corner; most teams will struggle to achieve this, especially with relievers, but it’s the dream. The players who logged the most innings last year were not particularly adept at generating groundballs (bad timing, given the fly ball revolution) but they were good at getting strikeouts. Edwin Diaz turned into a flyball pitcher after his debut year, James Pazos was effective enough (but very prone to split struggles), but the rest of the bullpen was just ok; in a different hitter’s era, they’d look a lot better, but in this one they had their share of struggles.

Bullpen rank: 16th (fWAR)/20th (FIP)

fangraphs.com

The 2016 bullpen was extremely high on the fun quotient; a midseason Edwin Diaz debut, Good Steve Cishek, the last of Mike Montgomery; personalities and performance abounded in some corners. Then again, you also had, well, Joel Peralta and Vidal Nuno. Also, “fun” isn’t one of the axes on this chart, so it’s not all that helpful. Add it all together, and another middle of the pack year for Jerry Dipoto. In his debut year, Edwin Diaz was a slight groundball pitcher, which combined with his through-the-roof K/9 made him the closest thing the Mariners had to the strikeout/groundout machine everyone wants. Unfortunately, he only pitched an inning at a time.

Bullpen rank: 16th (fWAR)/18th (FIP)

fangraphs.com

About all I can say is, “That sure was a bullpen.” Jack Zduriencik’s last bullpen wasn’t the final nail in his coffin, but it didn’t help. It also demonstrates the volatility of bullpens; as we will see in a moment, it relied on some of the same key cogs as 2014, yet turned in a 25th-in-the-league performance that would have been even worse had they not been able to squeeze so much performance out of Carson Smith. I mean, it was bleak.

Bullpen rank: (I am sorry): 25th (fWAR)/22nd (xFIP)

fangraphs.com

My feeling is 2014 was the last truly good Mariner bullpen—and you can really see it compared to 2015. As I said, essentially every pitcher in the 2015 bullpen who returned from 2014 was higher into the “good” quadrant in 2014, as the Mariners had four guys with above-average ability to generate strikeouts and ground balls. Additionally, in the pre-juiced-ball era, Danny Farquhar, Brandon Maurer, and Charlie Furbush were able to use elite strikeout ability combined with flyball tendencies to provide great support for the bullpen in the middle innings. Strangely, this also turned out to be a very good (but not elite) bullpen.

Bullpen rank: 8th fWAR/5th FIP

fangraphs.com

Of course, we don’t have any usable data yet this year; instead, I took the members of the Mariner bullpen (plus Tony Zych and David Phelps; RIP in peace) and dropped them in here on the basis of their career numbers. This is hardly going to be confused with perfect process—guys like David Phelps and Juan Nicasio converted from starting to relief in the majors, which messes with the strikeout numbers in particular, but it gives us an idea, and hey, like I said, it’s early.

As in 2016 and 17, the Mariners lack any elite or even especially good strikeout AND groundball relievers; however, they also have a cluster of guys who can muddle along well enough, avoiding 2015’s problem (at least on paper) of guys who suddenly couldn’t pitch. It’s probably not the 2015 bullpen, but it lacks the upside of the 2014 bullpen short of some additions. Another middle of the pack year for this bullpen looks by far the most likely, but keep an eye on pitchers who are young and therefore have projections volatile enough (Altavilla! Diaz!) to improve on their results and help this bullpen outperform its current construction.

Bullpen rank: ennui’d grunt (fWAR)/mildly optimistic sigh (FIP)

UPDATE: Thanks to sound advice from Kate, Jake, et al., the charts should be significantly more readable. I also added a reference point on each chart, which is league average K/9 and GB% for relievers. Thanks, guys!