A Formula For Success: Constructing Cleveland’s Bullpen

Of the top 10 bullpens in Major League Baseball last year, Cleveland’s pen had the most innings pitched.

There were 39 pitchers who made at least 70 appearances last year. Cleveland had four, including 80 appearance man Bryan Shaw. Terry Francona used Shaw, Cody Allen, and Scott Atchison for 70 innings each, give or take a few here or there.

When Francona was managing the Red Sox from 2004 to 2011, he utilized his bullpen less than every team in baseball outside of the Angels and White Sox, at least in terms of innings pitched. But he had one of the most effective bullpens, proving that less usage equals greater success. But he did that because he had the pieces in place.

You could go on with a list of names from some of the most important pieces like Jonathan Papelbon to someone like former Indian Dan Wheeler. But it isn’t the names, so much as it is the roles those names fill and how the roles lead to results.

From ’04 to ’11, Francona’s Red Sox compiled a 4.04 ERA, and for those of you in the “advanced metrics” crowd, there’s plenty of data to suggest a Tito managed team’s bullpen throughout that period was better than any other.

And look how he used the pitchers he had at his disposal. He had all sorts of arms to use for different situations throughout his tenure. While a guy like Mike Timlin appeared in 322 games, he still only pitched in 325 innings, making it a virtual inning per game average. Seems like the only guys that far out-paced how many innings they pitched in accordance to their appearances: Justin Masterson and Alfredo Aceves. And we all know Masterson was primarily a pen guy with Boston that could give you innings before the Indians gave him the full-time shot as a starter. Aceves sort of filled that role after Boston dealt Masty to the Tribe.

Now he’s at the top in just two years with the Indians. No bullpen has thrown more innings the past two years than Cleveland’s. The same sort of principles still apply though as mentioned with the big three in Allen, Shaw, and Atchsion. Generally, they are not out-pacing their innings pitched with their appearances. And he has his guys like Marc Rzepczynski who he’ll use in every single game, but play the lefty-matchup game. His Javier Lopez and Alan Embree if you will.

It is a strange reversal of numbers, having gone from one of the team’s with the lowest amounts of relievers with innings pitched to the highest. Why? I think it has a lot to do with not having the piees in place. An up and down situation with Chris Perez in the back end his first year, an eventual faltering of John Axford until he found Cody Allen as the piece, it has contributed to a bit of instability. Roles have been shuffled, he just now is finding the arms he relies on and the ones that fit his puzzle.

Add in the variable that you cannot control in all of this. The starting pitching. Tito can control who he uses in his bullpen and in what situations to only a point. He can (to a point) control the players and how he uses them and how much he uses them, when he uses them, most of the time. Starting pitching though will effect the bigger end number. If that starting pitching staff is giving you consistent starts, you obviously have a fresher bullpen and can utilize them more effectively.

And that’s really what I’d like to look at. It is incredibly hard to compare an eight year tenure with a two year one, so I can’t do that beyond looking at the trend in how he utilized his players. They seem to be generally the same, but you have the two year tenure resulting in the most innings pitched and the eight year with the least. In my mind, the more innings pitched, the worse your starting staff is, but that isn’t the case with the Indians the past two years, so that eliminates that. Has Cleveland been the best the past two years? No, they’re middle of the pack but they’ve had effective years from starters like Kluber, Jimenez, and Masterson who have all held their weight in going deep into games.

Photo – Chuck Crow via Cleveland Plain Dealer

So, here is what I’m in search of. You have a manager in Terry Francona who clearly has a way he likes to utilize his bullpen. But has seemingly gotten away from it, by choice or necessity, I’d guess necessity. It has proved to be effective, but really, there is a formula that really makes an effective bullpen, outside of having the right talent. And I think Tito knows what that is and is ready to get back to the ways he did it in Boston. But he can only do it, because the pieces are in place.

It is true that you really never know what you will get with a bullpen. A guy can throw a heck of a lot of innings the year before and be super effective (which is probably why a manager will keep going to him), but then that catches up with him and he’s not as effective. You could have inconsistencies at the closer position, or you lose a key piece in the middle and stuff doesn’t get bridged properly from starter to closer.

Any minor detail out of place can really mess with how a bullpen turns out. You can assemble talent, but you could still end up not being effective for one reason or another. You could have some pieces in place, but not sure about some spots and end up as one of the best pens in the league because someone came out of nowhere to fill a spot you didn’t think you had.

The idea though is this. If you have a strong starting staff, your chances of having an effective bullpen go way up. I’ll give you two examples that I’d like to work with primarily, and one more that sort of illustrates what I’m talking about in terms of “finding the pieces” that make it all work.

Over the course of the entire season, the best starting rotation was in Washington. National’s starters pitched in over 1000 innings and compiled a 3.04 ERA. That is incredible in its own right but then you look at the fact that their bullpen also had a 3.00 ERA and can’t help but be impressed with the arms the Nationals have, from top to bottom, pen to rotation, back to front. Their bullpen was effective (not as effective as our next example of course), but it also was very under-utilized. Just 468 innings pitched, the Nats had a good balance of starters giving them innings to the point where they could keep their arms fresh.

The other example, and perhaps the best example of a strong staff equals a stronger bullpen is Seattle. They had the best bullpen, bar none, from start to finish last year. While they aren’t Washington they had one of the most consistent groups of starters with four guys who started 28 or more games. Felix Hernandez, Chris Young, Roenis Elias, and Hisashi Iwakuma accounted for 74 percent of the 162 game schedule. Washington’s 92 percent from five starters makes that look completely average, but we aren’t searching for the best rotation here.

We are searching for something consistent and above average, which is exactly what you get with Seattle. I could even take a team like Cincinnati, who compares very similarly to Seattle’s situation with four starters accounting for 75 percent of their team’s starts. But then you look at their bullpen and because they didn’t have a consistency at the back end from the start, had some issues. Aroldis Chapman missed the first month and a half, making it necessary for Jonatha Broxton to be bumped up to close for a brief period of time. While he was effective in his chances, he didn’t get many.

Even with Chapman, the two other relievers that made up a majority of the Reds reliever innings? Sam LeCure with 56 and JJ Hoover with 62. Their ERAs were 3.81 and 4.88 respectively. Logan Ondrusek was relied upon for 41 innings and he carried a 1.61 WHIP and a 5.49 ERA.

It is a textbook example of not having the right pieces in the right place. Had they had the pieces in place, and the right pieces, Cincinnati would have been in contention. They had one of the best rotations in the entire game, better than just about any rotation not in Washington. Their starters pitched more innings than any other team in the game and they were effective. But their bullpen? Their bullpen was one of the worst.

So that is the model we look at up in the great northwest. Seattle had the right formula for the entire year. They figured it out perfectly because the difference for them between 2013 and 2014 was their back-end. If you exile Houston from 2013 (which you should, because that wasn’t an MLB team, that was awful), Seattle’s bullpen was the worst. Houston’s bullpen almost hit a 5.00 ERA, which is bad, but Seattle was more of a “okay, that’s the MLB-worst” bad. Their relievers pitched in over 500 innings with a 4.58 ERA, with the next closest bullpen ERA coming in a 4.23.

So how did they go from one of the absolute worsts to the best in the game? What changed from 2013 to 2014? The starting pitching, right?

Remember, Seattle was good last year, but not the best. And while they were not the worst in 2013, they weren’t great. They had only three starters make at least 30 starts and four starters accounted for 72 percent of their starts. Their innings pitched in 2014 was at 952. In 2013 it only topped out at 924. It isn’t big, but just that slightest lack of consistency can put all sorts of pressure on a bullpen. A bullpen that didn’t have a back end. A bullpen that got 24 saves from Tom Wilhelmsen (what?) and 16 from Danny Farquhar (double what?). A bullpen that let Carter Capps (not Matt) pitch in 59 innings to the tune of a 1.63 ERA and a 5.49 ERA. Numbers look familiar, Cincinnati?

You can’t do anything with any of that. Their two more dependable relievers in the middle, Charlie Furbush (65 IP, 3.74 ERA, 1.18 WHIP) and Yoervis Medina (68 IP, 2.91 ERA, 1.31 WHIP) had more stable roles in 2014. Furbush was used a lot, but his innings went down considerably, with 67 appearances but only 42 innings pitched (resulting in a similar WHIP and lower ERA). Medina’s appearances were also high but his innings were cut down and the results were a much better ERA and an even better improved WHIP.

And they slid down Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar from those back-end roles they had no business being in because Fernando Rodney came in to be their closer. Farquhar and Wilhelmsen were in roles that more suited their abilities (extended inning appearances, not late innings). And of course they added left specialist Joe Beimel who pitched exclusively to left-handed hitters.

Not much changed from bad year to good year. Yeah, Rodney was added, as was Beimel, but they shifted the roles of four of the key components from 2013 because of it and look how much better they all turned out for it. Add in more consistency (not necessarily a ton more pressure and innings pitched) from the starting pitching staff and you have a bullpen that was reborn into one of the best in the game.

So what’s the point in rehashing all of this?

The Indians have a formula that may translate into exactly what is needed to win in today’s MLB landscape.

What’s that formula? It is what Seattle did last year, to an absolute tee. I know, you’re sitting there telling me that they didn’t even make the playoffs, so how could that be a formula for anything? Well for one, the Indians need an offense to, which I would believe that they have, but that isn’t what this is about right now, is it? Nope, we are talking about the bullpen.

The formula for a formidable bullpen that can help contribute to your success?

Capable Starting Pitching + Defined Roles

You had a Seattle team with more than capable pitching. Where they the best? No, again, they had just enough talent, a Cy Young contending ace here, a solid number two there, an innings eater here, a young gun over there, and that got them through six innings more than not and kept their team in the game.

Photo – Getty Images via Zimbio.com

Last year in the second half, when Kluber was out of this world, Carrasco had turned it on, and there were other performances cobbled together, the Tribe’s staff was third in starting pitching ERA and had the fourth most innings pitched. That isn’t just good enough, it is well above average. And the thought is, that above average combo is coming back for a full year in 2015.

The belief is that the Indians have an ace in Kluber ready to contend for another Cy Young, a secondary guy in Carrasco who is pretty good, and additional pieces that can all give you the necessary innings to get you through an entire baseball season. Bauer is a young up and comer with potential, House could keep you in most games and give you six solid, and Salazar, if he puts it together, look out. Part one looks capable, if it all pans out as desired.

The second part is the biggest. The Indians didn’t really add much in terms of bullpen arms this offseason, but do they come in with some pieces, many of which emerged last year. With all the possibilities, I don’t think Tito will have to resort to using four guys for 70 plus innings. He can go back to managing a bullpen in the same fashion he did throughout his tenure with the Red Sox.

He has more options so that he can use the less is more approach. He’ll spread innings out. He’ll still use guys a lot, but with far less of an innings demand. And if he had to not take that approach and use and abuse four guys for 70 innings yet again? Well, some of those guys may not even make it and they sure as heck won’t be as effective.

Just look at the guys he has and the roles they could end up filling.

Cody Allen is the closer, that doesn’t change, but I think Tito will use him a little more than strictly in that position. He knows he can use him effectively in other spots.

Scott Atchison is his “give me a hitter or give me nine” swing arm that he’ll use depending on his mood during the season.

Marc Rzepczynski is his versatile lefty that he’ll use primarily for a lefty matchup, but not necessarily just that. If he can find his second lefty in Hagadone or Crockett (or both), he’ll be set. Plug in one of these guys (give me Hags, he’s on the way up, ready to break out in my opinion), and there you have the depth.

Bryan Shaw is his Mike Timlin.

And with a few starters likely to miss out on the fifth spot, but not exactly needed in Columbus, you could see them fill that Masterson/Aceves role of someone who can give you innings, but also be a higher leverage arm. Zach McAllister would be perfect.

Look, bullpens are finicky. As I said earlier, you may think you have the makings of a good one and it could crumple before you know it because there isn’t a piece in place. The important thing is there seems to be a few defined pieces at the back end, which is ultimately the biggest key as we saw with Seattle. They got that back end piece in place and whether he was the best (but he, like, kind of was), he provided an opportunity for the rest of those pieces to fall into place.

Cody Allen lets these other pieces fall in place.

When there was more stability last year in the second half and Allen was closing things out on a regular basis, the bullpen pieces fell in line. Shaw, 2.45 ERA, Atchison, 2.53 ERA, Hagadone, 2.37 ERA, Rzepczynski 0.72 ERA, and Crockett, 1.62 ERA. You can go further. You can see that none of those pitchers had a LOB% lower than 75%, Allen included. They had roles, they had consistency, and when you have consistency you have success, more times than not.

Someone’s going to get hurt or not be up to snuff, but that is why you have other options. That’s why you sign guys to bring in and take early season beatings. If Bruce Chen, Scott Downs, Jeff Manship, or Anthony Swarzak make the roster, it isn’t because they are better than a guy like Kyle Crockett, it’s strictly because Crockett is finishing the year in Cleveland, so he doesn’t need to be used in the 5th inning of a game that the starter couldn’t handle.

The way the bullpen has been put together looks like a winner. But as I said, bullpens are finicky. Things don’t always start out like the end and things don’t always fall into place just like you assume they are. I don’t know if the way that Seattle’s bullpen panned out last year was what they were aiming for, but I do know that they figured Rodney would settle some things down and that’s exactly what happened.

I get the argument that some people make about not needing a closer and at the time last year, the best option for Cleveland post-Axford was what they did until Allen settled into the role. The closer by committee contingent will point to stats that show you are much better being more strategic and that may be true. But you can’t deny success and that Seattle pen was successful. Your other hope is to get Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera-like invincibility and a stud closer like Greg Holland as your 1-2-3 punch.

Find that two years in a row, or even once every decade and I’ll show you a team that got hot and made it to the World Series. That’s a lot to rely on and a lot of pressure to put on three guys. They can’t pitch in every close game, let alone every game, especially if most of your games are close. Even the ones you are losing, you want an arm out there that will not let things get worse.

The Indians have done it right. They’ve found their back-end guy in Allen and have assembled the necessary pieces around him. They’ve got what most would consider a capable starting rotation, which is the second part of that formula. They aren’t hoping for another repeat performance from someone like Wade Davis and only Wade Davis or shuffling roles around based off last year’s performance in one spot.

They found a combination that worked in 2014 and it just happens to follow a model of 2014 success. And they get to carry that into 2015, hopefully to establish their own model of success.

And Terry Francona? I’m sure he’s just happy he can utilize a bullpen the way he is accustomed to instead of overworking two or three arms. Managerial life is far less stressful when you have more options.

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