How bad is the Jays’ bullpen, really?

The Jays’ bullpen has been the ire of a frustrated fan base over the course of this season.  The often cited statistic is the ‘blown save’ which the Blue Jays are tied with the Angels for the most in the American League at 17.

But if we are going to decry the save statistic (which, if you don’t, you might want to remove your breathing orifices from your rectal cavity), then don’t we have to decry the blown save stat too?

The obvious answer is yes, but there is something to be said about a team blowing 17 leads late in games when it’s only late July.  But keep in mind, a pitcher can record a blown save if he comes in with one out in the seventh inning with the bases loaded and a one-run lead, and then surrenders an infield-single before striking out the next two batters; there are certainly gaping flaws.

Blown saves inevitably occur in both good bullpens and bad ones.  Just as it is flawed logic to look at how many saves a certain bullpen has to determine how good they are, it is almost equally as absurd to look at blown saves to judge how bad one is.

Let’s get back to our Blue Jays.  Yes, they have 17 blown saves this season, but to say they have “cost” the team 17 wins isn’t true.  Looking at some advanced statistics gives us a much broader brush with which to paint this group of pitchers.

Toronto sits eighth in the AL in bullpen ERA at a respectable 3.64.  Obviously, ERA is not the greatest stat to look at either, but it does paint a slightly different picture than the 17 blown saves.

So what about advanced metrics?  Well, the Jays rank seventh in the AL in Fielding-Independent Pitching, a stat derived from looking only at what a pitcher can control directly (strikeouts, walks, hit-batters, and home runs allowed), at 3.87.  That number would suggest that their 3.64 ERA is roughly what you’d expect from them going forward with their current set of peripherals.

But sometimes FIP is flawed too.  For instances, not all homeruns allowed are based on the skill of the pitcher; HR/FB rate is often an indicator of luck if the number varies too far from the 10%-mark; this is where xFIP comes in.  The Jays rank a surprising third in bullpen xFIP in the AL at 3.72 behind only the Sox White and Red.

The more ‘luck-based’ statistics also tell a story for the Jays.  If the left-on-base percentage of a pitcher (or a group of pitchers) is much higher or lower than 73%, luck has probably played a part one way or the other.  The Jays do appear to have been a tad lucky in that regard with a bullpen LOB% of 75.2, but that isn’t enough of a variation from the mean to make any definitive conclusions.  And what of batted-ball average?  It too is right around the league average at .285.  The Jays’ bullpen has not really been lucky or unlucky this season.

The Jays’ relief corps also ranks seventh in the AL in Wins Above Replacement at 1.4.  Knowing that the FanGraphs version of that stat is kind of flawed for relievers, it’s hard to say if they actually have contributed 1.4 wins to the team’s effort, but Baseball References’ WAR (one that is supposedly better for relievers) has them at 5.1 wins above replacement, meaning they’ve contributed more than five wins above a group of fringe major-leaguers and AAA-replacements.

Then there are the Win-Expectancy statistics.  These stats measure the amount a player (or group of players) have contributed to their teams chances to win, weighted appropriately for situation.  For instance, a three up-three down inning in the seventh inning of a 10-1 game is weighted differently than one in a tie game in the ninth inning.  The Blue Jays’ bullpen ranks fourth in the AL in Win-Probability-Added at 2.31.

Another valuable pair of Win-Expectancy stats are shutdowns and meltdowns.  A shutdown is recorded by a reliever if he has increased his team’s chances of winning by more than 6% during his outing.  A meltdown, correspondingly, is credited to a pitcher who decreases his team’s chances of winning by more than 6%.

The Jays rank third in the AL in shutdowns with 84, and they sit fourth in shutdown percentage (a ratio of shutdowns to meltdowns) at 67.7% behind only the Clevelands, Red Sox, and Yankees.  The Rays (55.6%) and the Rangers (56.8%) are the two worst bullpens in the AL according to this stat.

In sum, the Jays at worst have a middle-of-the-pack bullpen and at best are at least in the top-half of AL teams.  So why do our eyes tell us that they have been so bad?

Well, for one, we always remember the blowups and very rarely remember the shutdown performances.  Secondly, the Jays’ bullpen has been greatly overused.  They have appeared in more games than any other team in the AL by a lot; a total of 315 appearances, compared to the next highest team, the A’s who have 290.  They also sit third behind only the Orioles and Royals in total innings-pitched.  Therefore, fans of the Jays see their bullpen a lot and if you tend to remember the bad outings more than the good ones, well then you’re probably going to think your bullpen is pretty bad, especially if the meltdowns are particularly dramatic (which they always seem to be).  Overuse of the bullpen can also lead to random spats of ineffectiveness, which can help explain why they’ve given up so many leads lately.

The other reason not to concern yourself too much with this is that the current Jays ‘pen is much, much different than the one that will be out there next season, or in any subsequent year.  The acquisitions of Octavio Dotel, Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, and the re-signing of Jason Frasor serve a very specific purpose: to accumulate draft picks or to be used as trade-chips while giving the team respectable arms for the year.

Alex Anthopoulos acquired (or re-upped on) those players in order to bolster next year’s draft with a ton of compensation draft picks.  The same reasoning can be used to explain why AA has shown interest in certain members of the Padres’ bullpen.

The Jays are not a contending team this year and although a bullpen that tends to blow late leads can be tough to watch, it’s ultimately a product of what Toronto is trying to build going forward.  Francisco, et al. are going to continue to get appearances and save chances because those are the incredibly arbitrary stats that baseball’s free agent compensation rules are based on.

The moral of this story is simple:  Stop worrying about it.  The Jays’ bullpen is actually not that bad at all, and even if they were, it wouldn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things.

**Photo credit goes to ‘the internet’.  Thanks internet!

Managerial touch of the right arm to Chris Sherwin (@biggerunit on Twitter) for the inspiration for this post and also some of the stats and observations.

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7 responses to “How bad is the Jays’ bullpen, really?

  1. Sure they’re a middle-of-the-pack bullpen for a middle-of-the-pack team but isn’t bitching hysterically about it more fun than being rational?

  2. They’ve probably (it feels this way, anyway) pitched a lot of good middle innings, keeping the Jays in games they could’ve been out of by the time the save situation came around. In part, that’s a consequence of using the guys who are pitching the best like Janssen, Rzpeczynski, Frasor and Perez in the middle innings and using one mediocre (Rauch) and one underperforming/unlucky reliever (Francisco) in the 9th/save situations.

  3. I don’t think the Blue Jays bullpen has been nearly as bad as some people will let on. No relief corps is ever completely bulletproof, and the struggles of the Blue Jays relievers have been widely documented.

    That being said, there are a lot of positives to take away from the bullpen: Dotel has been dynamite against righties, Zep is transforming into a steadfast reliever, and Shawn Camp, Casey Janssen and Jason Frasor continue to prove they are reliable veteran relievers.

  4. Great post. Things are never as bad as they seem.

  5. Did anyone seriously get through all that. I just wanted to know how many games our hurtin’ bullpen may have cost us this year. We’ve got some young bucks on the mend and coming up. Let’s hope things get better.Go Jays. SQQUUUAWK!

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