Bullpen construction is one of the more difficult tasks a general manager faces. Relief pitchers' performances vary widely from season to season, so with all but a few pitchers there is very little certainty in signing even the biggest names. In Baseball Prospectus's latest book Extra Innings, Ben Lindbergh looked at the top 50 relievers, as measured by WARP, in each season from 1980 to 2010 and found that 60 percent of the top 50 turns over in a single season, and the pace of turnover is accelerating as teams use more roster spots for pitchers, which means more specialized roles and fewer innings pitched, which in turn means less of a sample by which to judge them.
As recently as 2006, the Angels featured one of the best bullpens in baseball. As measured by Baseball Prospectus's Fair Run Average (FRA) for relievers, from 2003 through 2006 their bullpen ranked in the top six teams in the majors, leading the American League in 2003 and the majors in 2004. Since then, the Angels have had mixed results from their relievers, but 2011 and 2012 were abysmal: they finished 26th and 27th in the majors, respectively. General manager Jerry DiPoto will no doubt act aggressively to rebuild the bullpen, but should he? The answer depends on what you mean by "aggressively."
Even with some relievers you would think of as well established, there are no guarantees; success over multiple seasons is incredibly rare. According to Lindbergh, in 2010 just four pitchers appeared in the Top 50 for the fourth consecutive season: Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Jonathan Broxton, and Heath Bell.
While there is some clamor for the Angels to spend big bucks on the bullpen, the above makes for a cautionary tale that DiPoto should heed in selecting relief pitchers this off-season-or there's a chance the situation gets much worse. Just ask the Marlins, who will pay $8 million of "proven closer" Heath Bell's contract next season just to have him off the roster and pitching for the Diamondbacks.
Ah, but I know what you're thinking: Could it really get much worse than last season? The Angels were 27th in the league, losing 23 games after carrying a lead into the seventh inning, a big number when we're talking about a team that finished just short of the postseason. And yet, it could get worse-but also better-because the same variability that affects individual reliever performance combines to make whole relief staffs unpredictable. Consider the top ten in team relief FRA. Ever year, it turns over by roughly half:
Table 1. # of teams on that year's top-ten list for FRA/Relief that were also on the list the year before.
Year Year -1
During the 10 years referenced here, only 11 teams spent three or more consecutive years in the FRA/Relief top 10, including the Angels from 2003-2006. These were led by the Padres, who have been in the top 10 every year since 2003, the Dodgers, who had six straight years (2006-2011), and the A's, who had five (2005-2009). Eight teams also had three or more seasons in the bottom 10, beginning with the Orioles, who broke a seven-year streak this season. The Tigers (2007-2011) and the Royals (2008-2011) also broke long streaks. Indeed, that two of the three teams broke out of the bottom 10 in 2012 without a change of general managers should suggest that a GM cannot will success in this area.
Conversely, the Padres did change general managers, from Kevin Towers to Jed Hoyer after the 2009 season and yet their bullpen has continued to be baseball's great outlier, maintaining quality for nine straight seasons. Hoyer's bullpen is not the same as Towers' last, with the only holdovers being righty Luke Gregerson and the spot lefty Joe Thatcher.
Note also that money is not a guarantor of building a successful bullpen. Teams overpay despite diminishing returns, making relief pitchers the most expensive position for a team to fill. From 2001-2010, teams paid on average $4.33/WARP for relief pitchers, nearly double any other position. The free-spending Yankees have had all the monetary resources in the world to throw at their pen plus one of the greatest relievers of all time in Mariano Rivera, yet they finished in the bottom ten in relievers' FRA in 2005, 2007, and 2010.They were also in the top ten five times, but 2011-2012 were their only consecutive seasons there.
For the Angels, this season's struggles were a carry-over from 2011's equally bad bullpen. Though the better parts of the 2011 pen -- Scott Downs, Jordan Walden, Hisanori Takahashi, and Rich Thompson among them -- returned in 2012, in trying to add depth, DiPoto fell into the trap that has snared so many general managers have before him: He signed veteran relief pitchers, thinking they'd be the best option, and unsurprisingly, they were not. The Angels signed 39-year-old LaTroy Hawkins to a one-year, $3 million contract, which didn't make much sense beyond the name recognition. In a trip even further down memory lane, they signed 39-year-old Jason Isringhausen, who had been around long enough to be one of DiPoto's teammates with the Mets, to a one-year, $650,000 contract, this despite there being four years and two elbow surgeries between Izzy and his last good season.
They made another addition in May, this time a successful one, acquiring the 26-year-old Ernesto Frieri from those aforementioned Padres when Walden struggled as the closer. In all, the Angels paid their relievers over $15 million this season. Of ten relief pitchers that threw over 35 innings, only three were below league average FRA (collectively, they averaged a 4.64 FRA).
After two seasons being at the bottom of the bullpen charts, the Angels are obviously going to have to do something-but the decisions they make in improving the bullpen this winter shouldn't be about seeking big-name free agents, veterans, or big contracts. In fact, they should consider the opposite. Short-term, inexpensive contracts make more sense when signing relievers, even closers, than going all-in on expensive free agents. Hopefully the failures of this season don't have those in charge convinced that they need expensive relievers to improve-and if the relative success of the Frieri experiment doesn't convince them then the return to respectability of Kevin Jepsen and the nigh-miraculous turnaround of exiled former closer Fernando Rodney ought to serve as sufficiently ample testimony as to the variability of relievers.
Though the 2003 bullpen was the work of former general manager Bill Stoneman, his approach then could serve as a valuable lesson. Closer Troy Percival was the bullpen's only bullpen's only expensive component, costing the team $7.88 million that season. Scot Shield, Scott Schoeneweis, and Francisco Rodriguez had come out of the farm system. Schoeneweis was a failed starter, and the Angels weren't sure what Shields was yet. Ben Weber and Brandon Donnelly were minor league veterans who had come to the Angels in their thirties as the result of a waiver claim and free agency, respectively.
The main focus that season wasn't on spending money to fix the bullpen, in large part because it had already been fixed during the 2002 world championship season (though not in time to save it from ranking nineteenth in the majors in relievers' FRA that year). This was not done with name relievers, but with the conversion of Schoeneweis to the bullpen, the emergence of Donnelly, the promotion of Shields from the minors, and finally and most famously, the last-minute promotion of K-Rod.
The good news is that though the Angels are far deeper in position player prospects than they are in potential relievers, there is still sufficient talent on hand for them to build a bullpen in the same inexpensive, no-name way they did 10 years ago. David Carpenter and Steve Geltz might yet contribute. Nick Maronde looked good in his September cup of coffee and if he isn't returned to starting could help stabilize the southpaw side of the equation. R.J. Alvarez was only in the Midwest League this year, but relievers with his stuff can rise quickly, and the same goes for Daniel Tillman despite his difficulty making the jump to Double-A this season.
With those pitchers, along with consistency from Frieri (minus the September slowdown) and the ever-inconsistent Jepsen, and improvement from Walden, there should be far less need to pursue the old and infirm. When you consider all of the variables, that's why it's best to look for pitchers that give good indicators that they'd make good relievers through their statistics and scouting reports rather than relying on the narratives that accompany veterans. And fingers crossed they don't go all-in on a closer -- they don't have to.