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2018 Angels season preview: bullpen

Texas Rangers v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Blake Parker looks up to the heavens and says ‘hey, thanks’. Also, nice beard.
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The 2017 bullpen begun with cries for signing bigger-name, proven relievers and ended with the Angels procuring the fifth-best results of any bullpen in baseball, for 6.6 wins above replacement (per Fangraphs) and the lowest walk-rate of any relief unit in baseball.

2018 looks to be more of the same — instead of Bud Norris, it’s Jim Johnson. Instead of Yusmeiro Petit, it’s Noe Ramirez, Felix Pena, and Dayan Diaz.

Despite the plethora of proven, quality arms on the market this winter—many of whom signed early and received sizable contracts—Eppler has opted to repeat the process of securing relievers that could benefit from a change of pitching philosophy yet have the arsenal needed to succeed.

Angels’ 2017 bullpen results

When one can get results in building a bullpen for little to nothing: Yusmeiro Petit, David Hernandez, Bud Norris, Blake Parker, Noe Ramirez, Blake Wood, why spend much of the budget on highly volatile players when one can simply acquire cheap assets and then utilize them more effectively?

Here is your rundown of the 2018 Angels bullpen.

Blake Parker

Parker broke out in a big way in 2017, putting up a monster year to be one of the Angels’ most valuable relievers. He pitched well in a variety of roles, utilizing his splitter in the dirt to elicit swings and misses and a low to mid-90s fastball with the appearance of rising action. All in all, it added up to a 2.71 FIP (2.54 ERA) for Parker, who by FIP was 37 percent better than league average.

Cam Bedrosian

Much has been made of Bedrosian’s late-inning struggles, but the inability to get the third out is simply an untimely coincidence. His expected wOBA was lower than his actual wOBA by 18 points, and an early groin injury last year limited his velocity by several ticks, lowering his effectiveness. Interestingly enough, hitters’ overall contact rate against Bedrosian decreased by three percentage points, indicating the ‘stuff’ itself is still there.

With health, he should perform quite well.

Keynan Middleton

Filthy movement on a rising fastball and a hard slider characterized Middleton’s 2017 tenure. An inability to keep the ball in the yard (1.70 HR/9) and spotty control yielded inconsistency in outings, though the promise is there. An improved changeup along with better sequencing/command should facilitate matchups against opposite handed hitters, and more experience should help him handle high-leverage situations.

Nobody doubts the stuff, though. An upper-90s fastball and a high-80s/low-90s slider decrease reaction time for hitters. If the only difference between 2017 and 2018 is that he can place pitches where he wants to, he is a high leverage relief arm.

Jim Johnson

Johnson isn’t the name brand that he once was. He won’t knock your socks off, but he is not as awful as you might think. When he was acquired, I wrote:

Johnson’s ugly ERA is contrasted by his stronger peripherals, which paints a picture of a low strand rate (62.3% LOB) and uncharacteristically high home run rate (1.27 HR/9). Johnson missed bats last season, striking out over a batter per inning with a 4.22 FIP, and carries experience pitching in high leverage. Per Pitch Info, the reliever averaged 93.7 miles per hour on his four-seam fastball.

Steamer (3.87 FIP), SIERA (3.87), and xFIP- (92) all point to him being a above-average reliever next year. Statcast backs this up; Johnson’s expected wOBA generated based on opponents’ quality of contact was 0.314 this season, seven points below that of league average. He’s not the All-Star he once was, but he’s a useful piece that every team needs, coming at a cost of $4.5 million.

Jose Alvarez

Despite facing opposing hitters, the LOOGY Alvarez has still performed well with the Angels (sub-4 ERA, 3.82 FIP career). He does it with a deceptive four-seam that gets on hitters quickly thanks to deception but last season experienced some struggles, especially to the new baseball. The continuation of the juiced ball, the inability to keep the ball down, and the presence of average stuff makes it difficult for Alvarez to be anything more than a left-handed situational reliever.

Nothing exemplifies this more than Alvarez’s K/BB in his career: he’s a lot better against lefties (4.63 K/BB) than righties (2.11 K/BB).

Luke Bard

Bard made the team this spring, having been selected in the Rule 5 Draft from the Twins. The story on Bard is intriguing. He is a late bloomer (he’s 27) but was selected from college and was injured much of 2012-2014. After being rather unimpressive throughout his career, he posted a strikeout rate north of 13 batters per nine in Double-A and Triple-A, throwing in the mid-90s and a quicker pace. One of the beneficiaries has been the data: one of the highest fastball spin rates in baseball has the Angels hoping they uncovered a gem.

Noe Ramirez

Ramirez immediately impressed after coming over from the Red Sox on a waiver claim in August. In 10 appearances, he put up a 2.16 ERA (2.20 FIP) with a bugs-bunny changeup that leaves hitters flailing. His unique arm slot introduces deception, and the strategy of utilizing offspeed (he throws a sinker, slider, and changeup) and dotting the corners can help his arsenal in particular.

There is danger if he cannot spot it since he does not throw hard, but when he can it is nearly impossible for hitters to follow.

Ramirez served as a “fireman” late last season, coming in during high-leverage situations to induce ground balls. I could see Scioscia pursuing a similar strategy this season, if need be.

Blake Wood

While Wood does not generate excitement among the fan base, he does generate something even more valuable: swings and misses. His bat-missing abilities (a mid-90s fastball and hard slider) are the very reason he is on the team, which are more important than ever thanks to the new ball that is carrying further and further. Combined with a career groundball rate of 52.2 percent, Wood will make full use of the Angels’ strong infield defense this year.

There is not much more to say about Wood beyond his 11+ K/9 and .386 BABIP in 17 innings last year with the Angels and with a little better luck (and less home runs), could be one of the better pitchers in the bullpen this year.

While spring training performances haven’t been great, it is important to remember that outside of health and injury, spring training is an extremely poor predictor of regular-season performance. While the need for midseason reinforcements may become apparent, the Angels have some depth in Salt Lake (Dayan Diaz, Felix Pena, Parker Bridwell, Nick Tropeano), which should be sufficient for now.

In any case, if the Angels are unable to reach the postseason, the bullpen will not be the inhibitor of doing so. With Scioscia’s much improved bullpen management, there is no reason to believe the team will not maximize the use out of the talent they have at their disposal.