Was the Marlins bullpen really that bad?


I was reflecting recently about how much focus the Marlins spent on fixing the bullpen from last season when something strange occurred to me. Marlins TV play-by-play announcer Rich Waltz specifically mentioned one thing about the bullpen that got me thinking about it. He mentioned (and I am paraphrasing here) that the Marlins led the majors in blown saves last season (they did not, as the Baltimore Orioles had 27 blown saves in 2010, while the Marlins had 25) and that if the team could have simply cut that total in half, they would have been in contention last season.

With all due respect to Waltz, this sort of analysis is complete hogwash. The Marlins led the National League in blown saves with 25, one more than the Arizona Diamondbacks had. But could the Marlins seriously be considered on the same level as the legendarily poor D’backs pen? When we dig further into the numbers, did the 2010 Marlins bullpen do as badly as those 25 blown saves and -2.04 Win Probability Added (equivalent to two wins below average) really perform that poorly? Or did the results come off worse than the process would have suggested?

A Modest Comparison

The D’backs and Fish were the top two teams in the National League in blown saves, but were they really comparable? Here are their (mostly) traditional stats side-by-side.

Team K% BB% HR% WHIP ERA
Marlins 20.1% 11.1% 2.1% 1.40 4.01
Diamondbacks 16.5% 11.2% 3.1% 1.62 5.74

The D’backs pen was worse in almost every single way, but they blew fewer saves than our pen. How can this possibly be? It gets worse when we compare the two teams with the full gamut of stats.

Team K% BB% GB% FIP RE24 ERA
Marlins 20.1% 11.1% 44.9% 4.08 3.91
Diamondbacks 16.5% 11.2% 44.1% 5.09 5.74

Focus in on what I referred to as RE24 ERA. That is a R/9 calculated based on the league average runs allowed per inning and the park-adjusted RE24 as calculated by FanGraphs here. The ERA shown is a better approximation of how mayn runs the bullpen allowed when you discount the rules on inherited runners and such; essentially that ERA measures the actual runs the pen contributed.

RE24 is scaled to runs above or below average. The Marlins bullpen came in at +8.5 runs over the course of the season. The D’backs, on the other hand, came in at an astoundingly poor 90 runs below average. The difference is astonishing. In fact, of the nine teams in baseball who ended up with a negative WPA, the Marlins are the only team whose pen had a positive run expectancy and thus a net positive effect on the team’s scoring. In other words, the Marlins pen last season was actually above average at run prevention.

Leverage and clutch

So what happened? If the Marlins were above the league average (not the league relief average, mind you, but the average including starters) at preventing runs, how come the pen was a clear negative in terms of wins? It would appear as if the Marlins pitched their worst when it counted the most; they were simply unclutch. According to FanGraphs’ Clutch score, which is calculated essentially as the difference between WPA and WPA/LI (leverage neutral win probability added), the Marlins ended up with the third worst clutch score in the game, a full two wins worse when the leverage or importance of an event is taken into account. Even though the Fish did a good job of preventing runs overall, the team’s runs allowed came in more crucial situations that had a bigger role in deciding games, and the team suffered as a result.

All that attention

It would appear as if the Marlins pen pitched well, but not in the clutch. So was all that attention this offseason then really necessary? Did the Fish really have to go out and acquire five relievers to help revamp the pen? That answer is dependent on a few factors. If we suspect that the only major problem with the pen from last season was simply their clutch performance, then there is a good chance that the team didn’t need to replace everyone and start anew. Clutch performance, on either side of the field, just isn’t all that repeatable, and making personnel decisions based on that information would not be wise.

However, the truth of the matter is that the Marlins pen actually outperformed their true talent last season. Going into the 2010 year, I don’t think any of us expected the bullpen to post an ERA of around 4.00 objectively. The pen did better than expected, with Leo Nunez, Clay Hensley, and Brian Sanches among others all outperforming their ERA projections. Going into the 2011 year, however, we would expect some regression back down to their readjusted true talent levels, starting with guys like Sanches and Jose Veras who vastly outperformed their projections. If the team feels they acquired pitchers who are better than their ancestral counterparts, then the team made the right moves.

But did the team acquire such pitchers? Take a look at these ZiPS projected ERA+ (with park adjustments) of the pitchers with the top four innings leaving and the four guys who are expected to replace them.

Leaving Proj ERA+ Replacing Proj ERA+
Veras 105 Webb 98
Sosa 80 Mujica 104
Wood 81 Choate 106
Pinto 105 Dunn 92

If the acquired guys can pitch as well as they have been projected and make up the innings of a variety of outgoing relievers, then this move should be a net positive for the Fish in 2011. Despite the trades being much maligned, the Fish may end up ahead after all with the moves. The incoming group of pitchers appear to be projected as about average overall, and combined with the solid foursome of Nunez, Hensley, Sanches, and Burke Badenhop, the team should come off as a bit better than average this season.

Tags: Arizona Diamondbacks Miami Marlins