Why relief pitchers have been so hard to figure out

MLB

LOS ANGELES — Andrew Friedman had high hopes for his Tampa Bay Rays bullpen in 2014, but it struggled. He worried about the group of Los Angeles Dodgers relievers he took into 2017, but they were a revelation.

In five years as the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, Friedman has experienced a fair share of both hits and misses acquiring relievers. Joe Blanton, Brandon Morrow and Tony Watson worked out, for the most part. Joel Peralta, Sergio Romo and Jim Johnson did not. For years, fans clamored for him to spend money on established middle relievers, and so he did, giving Joe Kelly at least $25 million over the course of three seasons. Now Kelly is statistically one of the worst pitchers in the sport.

In about a month — if not sooner, if not already — Friedman will shift his focus to other teams for outside help. Yes, the Dodgers will be — are — in the market for relief pitchers. So is practically every other team with aspirations of playing into October, because nobody has this department figured out.

Reliever volatility has transcended the information age.

“Every year, going into the year, the bullpen performance is what keeps me up at night,” Friedman said. “And it’s funny because the years that I’ve had the most confidence is probably the years where we’ve struggled the most, and the years where I’ve been the most afraid are the years where we’ve been the best.”

This season, so far, it’s the former.

The Dodgers, two-time defending champions of the National League, are a juggernaut everywhere except in their bullpen. Their lineup boasts the sport’s third-highest OPS and includes the MVP favorite. Their rotation ranks second in ERA and includes the Cy Young favorite. In the field, they have accumulated 83 defensive runs saved — 46 percent more than the runner-up.

And then there’s the bullpen, with that suboptimal 4.25 ERA. The Dodgers have lost only 24 of their 72 games this season, and 17 of those losses are on the ledgers of their current relievers.

Before the trade deadline comes and goes at the end of July, the Dodgers will join a dizzying list of teams hoping to upgrade their bullpens. The Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves will probably be aggressive here. The Rays, Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers could stand to add, as well. The New York Yankees and Houston Astros have outstanding bullpens, but they’ll probably look for reinforcements, too. The Chicago Cubs would also be on this list, but they beat the crowd by signing Craig Kimbrel.

Most relievers are failed starters, their volatility largely a product of their simply not being as good. There’s also that whole thing about small sample sizes and how they skew numbers, most notably for those who pitch only an inning at a time. And perhaps there’s something to be said about executives falling in love with raw stuff and not putting enough emphasis on the ability to pitch from their relievers. Friedman pointed to another reason for the sheer unpredictability of bullpens.

“We as an industry have learned a lot about managing starters’ workloads and appreciating various increases and what it means, and we have no idea on relievers,” Friedman said. “And part of that is not just the total number of times that they throw in a year — it’s the frequency in which they throw in a week, or in two weeks, or the number of times they get up and get hot.”

To “get hot” means to warm up at full intensity, or close to it. Relievers hate nothing more than to throw off a bullpen mound with the intention of getting into a game and be told to sit back down only to oftentimes stand up, stretch and start throwing again, ramping up the intensity in earnest. Many equate the act to an appearance, but it isn’t accounted for in any meaningful way.

The Dodgers know how often their own pitchers warm up, but they’re clueless about the rest of the league. The 29 other teams face the same predicament.

“The hardest part that people always forget about a bullpen is stuff versus rest,” retired former closer Huston Street said. “There’s a direct correlation.”

These days, reliever volatility has reached a new high. League-wide, relief pitchers are allowing 4.75 runs per game, the highest mark in 12 years. The reason, many will say, is that they’re exhausted. Starters aren’t allowed to pitch deep enough into games, so bullpens are accounting for more innings. And even when relievers are not making official appearances, the tendency to let situations dictate usage — as opposed to assigning specific roles — is probably leading to their warming up more often than they used to.

“More is being asked out of bullpens,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “You start accumulating seasons of the starter getting pulled the second time through and more burden placed on the pen, it’s going to take a toll.”

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he “feels good” about his bullpen within the grand scheme of a season. He pointed to the recent surge of Kenley Jansen — 10⅓ scoreless innings, with 16 strikeouts and one walk from May 12 to June 14 — and the steady reliability of Pedro Baez and Dylan Floro. He brought up the importance of getting lefty specialist Scott Alexander healthy, and then he brought up the obvious — getting Kelly right again.

“We’re going to need him,” Roberts said. “That’s just plain and simple.”

When Kelly pitched low leverage against the San Francisco Giants on June 8 and struck out the side, Friedman claimed it might have been the most impressive combination of raw stuff and pitch execution he had seen in his half-decade with the Dodgers.

Three nights later, Kelly pitched against the Los Angeles Angels and couldn’t do anything right. His inning included an errant pickoff and two pitches to the backstop. He absorbed his third loss and saw his ERA increase to 7.59, and Roberts agreed that part of his struggles might have been mental.

Kelly claimed he was “not that far off” and that it “probably looks worse than what it really is,” and he would know.

Kelly encapsulated the volatility of relief pitching in one season last year. His month-to-month ERAs with the Red Sox went from 3.09 to 0.63 to 8.31, 8.38, 1.42 and 8.31. The 31-year-old right-hander just so happened to be right during the postseason, which culminated in six scoreless innings — with 10 strikeouts and zero walks — during the World Series. His current teammates lived it up close.

“He’s just going through a rough time right now,” Jansen said. “People can doubt him and say all the stuff they can say, but we believe in him. I believe him. I’m sure Doc and Andrew and everybody believes in him. He’s a champion. A true champion. What he did last year against us — he’s a true champion. It’s a long season, man. All we need him to do is figure it out at the right time. And that right time is closer to the end of the season.”

Last year, the Colorado Rockies spent $106 million on their bullpen only to see their three new arms — Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee — underperform. Edwin Diaz, Cody Allen, Kelvin Herrera, David Robertson, Andrew Miller, Joakim Soria and Trevor Rosenthal all switched teams over the offseason, and none has pitched particularly well.

The Dodgers will eventually get some help, whether it’s Brad Hand or Will Smith or Greg Holland or someone else. Relievers are usually the most available commodity in the summer, but they’re also the trickiest to trade for — because their value is suspect, because so many other teams need them and because they’re so darn unpredictable.

“We’re comfortable being aggressive,” Friedman said of his approach to acquiring bullpen help. “We’re not comfortable being stupid.”

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