In a post earlier this week I took a look at the Rays bullpen usage so far this year as it’s starting to become a hot topic amongst those that see the Rays as a bellwether for emerging trends. The Rays may be leading the charge to further lower offensive output across the league, or at the very least, turn middling starters into useful assets.
The wildly incredible Russell Carleton dug in as only he can do in the public sphere. You should read that because not only is he able to articulate the things that I’ve been saying all year in a much better way, but also because he produced an algorithm that gives an idea of the break-even point for when a pitcher may be ready to hit the showers for a fresh set of wheels with a full tank of gas. He also hit on the point that this has been possible due to the Rays being able to shuttle players back and forth between Durham and St. Pete.
Over at Fangraphs, Craig Edwards also took the time to give an idea of the situation. This site is grateful that he linked to the previous look at the pen over here so do Craig a favor and check out his thoughts on the matter. If you think my name-dropping is getting out of control, well, I’m just getting warmed up. Draysbay masthead author and friend of the site(s), Nomo.Red.Evil asked this author to take a look at this stuff using something only the biggest of nerds know as WPA/LI.
The link to Tango’s site is a nice introduction, but I think the best piece that you’re going to find on this sabremetric tool was written by Dave Studeman a little over a year ago. The comments are especially informative as Studes can get a little technical at times, but his work is unimpeachable. With these introductions out of the way the basic idea is that WPA/LI is a very good way to look at how performance on the field contributed to wins or losses, while neutralizing the leverage of the moment, to an extent. It’s not without flaws, but this is arguably the best way to look at relief performance.
For this study I took a look at only the Rays that have seen a minimum 10 appearances out of the pen. That means that when Geltz was a “starter” won’t be included and neither will guys like Grant Balfour or Kirby Yates or the pen appearances from Erasmo Ramirez or Matt Andriese, amongst others. Here’s what that looks like over the course of the year:
I’ll get more into who this includes below, but for now get the gist of what the author is throwing down. Each dot shows the WPA/LI for a given plate appearance and the black line is a 50-plate appearance moving average of each of the dots. The detective likes dots, but some of those are a lot better than others. You’ll notice that on the plus side a pitcher can really only push his numbers up to a certain ceiling just shy of .030 outside of certain circumstances. The other side of the coin (please note the axis is truncated to call attention to the trend line) sees just how much a pitcher can get beat up in a single plate appearance. The best appearance (+0.064) was Kevin Jepsen retiring Kyle Blanks in the top of the 8th on May 10th. The worst appearance (-0.342) was when Brandon Gomes surrendered a home run to professional strike out machine Mike Zunino on May 25th in the top of the 9th. As you can see, a single bad pitch can offset the very many good ones that came before it.
What you will notice is that the first half of the season was mostly very, very good before an abominable stretch. The pen bounced back to get above-average or damn near it before sliding again and then rinsing and repeating with higher amplitudes in both directions. You’ll notice that the most recent stretch HAS been pretty lousy. The second worst stretch of the year behind that trough around halfway through the timeline. Maybe there is something to this fatigue thing. To check on that let’s dig into the seven most heavily-worked relievers on the team that have been the source of all that sweet, sweet data shown above. Let’s set the table by showing one:
Brief stretches of competence bookended by pretty lousy performance that was just escalating in scale in the wrong direction. I don’t want to dwell here so let’s move on:
Jepsen got off to an incredible start to the year, but has mostly traded good for bad since then with his worst performances of the year also being his most recent. It appears that the team is trying to get him some rest of late as he has fallen down the pitch rankings a bit since the last time I took a look. He’s now sitting around 22nd and has actually been surpassed by Boxberger, but he has still thrown a ton of pitches and needs more than a couple days off to build back arm strength before serious damage takes place. I think he can be good again, but it would be pretty nice if we could get him some rest starting now and going through the All-Star Break.
Next up is alleged ROOGY turned everyman (by necessity or stupidity?) Brandon Gomes. He’s another guy that had a very nice first half of his season working around a rather obvious stumble. The back half has seen a few catastrophically bad plate appearances, but also check out the gaps on the positive side of the ledger. Previously he strung together many solid performance between hiccups, but those good stretches have seen more interruptions and bigger gaps. Of particular note is just how bad he has been of late.
The man they call Boxxxy has seen some lackluster performances of late, but has mostly avoided the dog shitting on the carpet performances of his predecessors. He has been good of late and very good prior to that so I think he can battle out of this. Before I keep banging the fatigue gong I should also mention that this could just be a bad luck thing seeing all of these guys being less affective right now. It could also be related to a shift in opponent talent level, and while I can model that I definitely do not have the time to adjust for who the pitcher is facing or which park these happened in. Stay tuned, but let’s keep rolling for now.
Now we get to a guy that has been rather contentious since he has arrived. He should be used as a LOOGY. I peg him as an expected 96 wRC+ against the average lefty, but that goes all the way to 110 versus the average righty. He’s being misused a bit, much like Gomes, but he has mostly been pretty good around that stretch in the middle of the season. His most recent stretch shows a guy that has mostly avoided all negative outcomes, except of course for his very most recent plate appearances.
We now get to the affable Geltz who has done everything asked of him this year and has mostly been pretty good. While he has mostly oscillated around the average he has seen good stretches before embarking on that otherworldly 28 straight retired batters. It has been a mixed bag since then with some successes, but you can see the nature of the beast and a potential inherent flaw in this type of analysis. For as good as he was, and make no bones about it he was the definition of perfect, a pitcher can only lift their WPA/LI to a certain point, but there is nearly no limit to how bad it can go in the other direction. I think this is a good reason to not get too worked up over some of the guys, and the group, being negative on the year, though it’s a very handy tool for charting the ups and downs.
That brings us to the magic man Jake McGee who has been the very definition of shutdown since emerging from the Disabled List outside of one pitch to Kyle Seager. This highlights the pro of using WPA/LI because it doesn’t crush him for giving up that homer to Seager when even a single would have been a crushing blow due to the Base/Out state. He has been really good and outside of an injury re-emerging I wouldn’t worry about that little guy.
What we see is a pen that hasn’t performed as well of late. You know. You watched with your eyes, but while the Occam’s Razor answer is to chalk it up to fatigue we won’t really be able to establish that until we adjust this model for opponent’s ability and the park where the plate appearance took place. Make no mistake this is something that Cash and crew need to get cleaned up, but if the answer is fatigue we just need to limp into the All Star Break, lick our wounds and then get back out there consistently getting the outs you’re called upon to get.
I think there’s reasons for optimism, too. When Jake Odorizzi gets back we will officially see someone like Alex Colome relegated to the pen where he can get big outs or many outs depending on the situation and should work interchangeably with Andrew Bellatti and/or Enny Romero riding the shuttle back and forth to help out as needed. Cedeno and Gomes should start being able to face same-handed guys more often instead of seeing their weaknesses exposed. Soon we could be looking at something like:
Alex Colome Longman
Romero/Bellatti/etc. riding the shuttle for low leverage and long outings
Geltz Medium – High Leverage
Jepsen Medium – High Leverage
Boxberger High Leverage
McGee High Leverage
This has one too many guys in the pen assuming the Rays will use their 7-man bullpen that is a staple of modern baseball. Or maybe they’ll blaze that trail too. T’were it up to me I would probably risk Gomes on a DFA before I gave up the notion of the shuttle service. If he had an option he could have
Get the legs of those guys back under them and I think you’ll see things get back into the positive more often. The other, and perhaps most important, is the aforementioned return of Odorizzi as that should transfer around 9 – 12 outs from the pen back onto the starting staff each turn through the rotation. This should be the real key to getting everyone to slot back in so his arrival can’t come quick enough. Now just pray for everyone to stay healthy and available for the rest of the year so that this pen and staff can get back to carrying the walking corpse that has been the offense.