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Billy Eppler and the reliever volatility problem

A review of the available quality bullpen arms from November through February and how they might have impacted the team

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

The Angels bullpen has been bad. We don’t need some long analysis to understand that, but here is a short synopsis of just how bad they have been. They are decent at striking people out, but are also 10th worst in walk rate and 5th worst in home run rate. They have the 9th lowest ground ball rate which completely defeats the purpose of the Angels solid infield defense, and despite the high rate at which they allow fly balls, they still are 7th worst in home runs allowed per fly ball.

Yet, disregarding the Rays’ current “Opener” experiment, Angels relievers have the 5th most innings pitched. This all boils down to the fact that the fans in Anaheim have seen a lot of bad relief pitching.

Billy Eppler has earned some flak for the so-called “dumpster diving” tactic he has employed when searching for bullpen help. Some of it is warranted. I, myself, have expressed displeasure at the lack of long relievers that this team currently has after a 2017 bullpen showed just how valuable that can be. The likes of Yusmeiro Petit, Jesse Chavez, J.C. Ramirez (who we did keep, but who is also going to be injured until what feels like the heat death of the universe), and Bud Norris were critical to the team’s success up until the organization-wide fade in September. In fact, much of the community here at Halos Heaven called for several name-brand Relievers™ prior to the start of spring baseball in March.

Let us then review the relievers signed to large contracts from the 2017-2018 offseason to develop an effective argument that Mr. Eppler did wrong and must immediately resign because he is a bad GM. I am 100% not being facetious. Seriously.

The Name Brands— Signed to $10MM+ contract

Yusmeiro Petit - $10MM/2 Years (Club Option) - Athletics

Tommy Hunter - $18MM/2 Years - Phillies

Pat Neshek - $16.25MM/2 Years (Club Option) - Phillies

Steve Cishek - $13MM/2 Years - Cubs

Anthony Swarzak - $14MM/2 Years - Mets

Greg Holland - $14MM/1 Year - Cardinals

Addison Reed - $16.75MM/2 Years - Twins

Brandon Morrow - $21MM/2 Years (Vesting Option) - Cubs

Joe Smith - $15MM/2 Years - Astros

Bryan Shaw - $27MM/3 Years (Vesting Option) - Rockies

Luke Gregerson - $11MM/2 Years (Vesting Option) - Cardinals

Brandon Kintzler - $10MM/2 Years - Nationals

Juan Nicasio - $17MM/2 Years - Mariners

Wade Davis - $52MM/3 Years (Vesting Option) - Rockies

Jake McGee - $27MM/3 Years (Vesting Option) - Rockies

Mike Minor would also qualify, but has been converted back completely to a starter (and struggled terribly), so I left him off.

Here’s how the 15 players above have performed thus far in the season.

Fangraphs Custom Leaderboard

The first thing you will undoubtedly notice is that only two of the above have an ERA under 3.00, the same two that also have an ERA under 2.00. Morrow and Cishek have both been dominant for the Chicago Cubs, and their talent for acquiring quality relievers is laudable.

After that, the sorest thumb is the NINE pitchers who have ERAs above 4.00, the lowest of which is Brandon Kintzler’s 4.45. The Colorado Rockies and St. Louis Cardinals spent a metric ton of dollar bills on free agent relievers and have extremely little to show for it, with their combined 5 pitchers struggling to the tune of a 6.53 ERA and their bullpens threatening to pull each of them out of their respective division races and the National League Wild Card race once and for all.

But wait, I said 15 pitchers were listed above, didn’t I? Pat Neshek has battled injuries all season long and is currently rehabbing in A+. When he comes back, he might just solidify the Phillies already strong pitching staff. Or he might not. Lord knows that injuries haven’t helped the seasons of several of the bullpen relievers listed in the chart.

For fairness’ sake, let’s look at the chart sorted according to FIP.

Fangraphs Custom Leaderboard

Once again, the Cubs pitchers are near the top, but Tommy Hunter and Juan Nicasio have both demonstrated a talent for walking very few which reflects very nicely upon their FIP and their WAR. Unfortunately, their ERAs are sky high due to an incredibly high hit rate allowed. Hunter shows that a serious regression might be in store due to his high ground ball rate and skill of home run limitation, but Nicasio’s talent for striking out batters at the highest rate on this leaderboard (11.70) does not change the fact that he is a RHP and righties are slashing .314/.360/.536 off of him.

Addison Reed and Anthony Swarzak, two pitchers who I was interested in prior to Opening Day have basically pitched to Cam Bedrosian’s line. According to 99.9% of Angels fans, he is the baseline for a bad pitcher, so that rules them out.

Yusmeiro Petit has entirely forgotten how to strike people out, the reason he was such a god last season.

There isn’t much there at all. As a General Manager tasked with picking your favorites of those pitchers, you would have had about a 33% chance of acquiring either a pitcher with a sub-4 ERA or FIP. Or maybe you’re Theo Epstein, the ~0.44% who would pick both Cishek and Morrow (Or perhaps their pitching coaches are just phenomenal).

There are pitchers who could have been had for cheap such as Zach Duke (2.96 ERA, $2.15MM/1 Year) or Tony Watson (1.75 ERA, $8.5MM/3 Years) or Hector Rondon (1.61 ERA, $8.5MM/2 Years). They would have been godsends for this team.

But for every Duke, there is a Boone Logan (5.91 ERA, $2.5MM/1 Year, Club Option); for every Watson, a Brian Duensing (6.17 ERA, $7MM/2 Years); for every Rondon, a Sergio Romo (5.10 ERA, $2.5MM/1 Year).

The fact is, finding a reliever who will produce is hard work. Then finding one who will continue to produce is even harder. Relievers are not to be trusted under any circumstances. It doesn’t matter if you have Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller.

It is understandable that many want to lay blame at Billy Eppler’s feet for cutting corners in lieu of finding long term solutions, especially since the dumpster diving the organization has done thus far this season has been relatively ineffective. It is understandable that many want an impact move for a Brad Hand or Raisel Iglesias. It is very, very, very understandable that Akeel Morris, Oliver Drake, Eduardo Paredes, and the like make you physically nauseous.

Despite how understandable all of this may be, you cannot fault an organization for not spending big on bullpen help. Yusmeiro Petit has regressed this year, Blake Parker has also regressed, Jose Alvarez is having a career year and he, too, will regress, and so on and so forth.

And as the years have gone by, prominent relievers have begun to get substantially bigger paydays and longer contracts while numerous figures and projections (especially age, as many/most relievers who hit free agency are between 30 and 33) indicate that they are in for some visible decline.

While the front office has not yet filled the demand for a desperately needed long reliever, it is not in the Angels’ best interest to sign oldish free agent relievers to two-year deals and further age an already ancient 25-man. While some proven bullpen does sound tantalizing at this time, continuing to pull five-dollar bootlegs out of the DFA bin still does have its advantages, especially in the wake of how much was spent on struggling free agent position players.

Now let us all drop to our knees and pray that Akeel Morris figures out that allowing a home run every inning he pitches is not a mandate.