Season In Review: Part 1 of 5
I’ve divided this review into five parts: The bullpen, the starting pitching, the defense, the hitting and overall review. Assuming nothing really drastic happens, one week shouldn’t skew these numbers too much, and if something dramatic does happen, I can always go back and edit.
Let’s get the worst over with first.
Ah yes, the “bullpen from Hell” or shortened, “the hellpen.” The first two months of the season, the Indians had by far the worst bullpen in captivity. While the ineptness of the bullpen wasn’t even close to being the worst in baseball history, it felt like it. David Riske started the year as the closer, blew several saves, and thus began a series of bullpen shifts as manager Eric Wedge tried to find someone who get somebody, ANYBODY out. Jose Jimenez (free agency) and Scott Stewart (trade) were brought in last winter to shore up the bullpen, but turned out to be gascans. Baseball Prospectus ranked the bottom ten relievers by Adjusted Runs Prevented as of August 6th, and Jimenez and Jeriome Robertson were the bottom two.
Short FAQ: What is Adjusted Runs Prevented (ARP)?
A: The number of runs prevented over the average pitcher, adjusted for situation, league, and park. For a more in-depth explanation, go here.
The good news is that those that have remained on the team have pitched much better over the final half of the season. Replacing Jose Jimenez, Scott Stewart, and Jeriome Robertson have been Bob Wickman, Bob Howry, and Matt Miller. David Riske has been a lot better in the second half of the year, and Rafael Betancourt, the team’s most consistent reliver in April and May, hasn’t fallen off in August and September.
“That’s nice,” you might be saying, “but how should the team fix the bullpen next year?”
From what I’ve seen from front office/manager quotes in the past month or so, I don’t think you’ll see them spending a lot of money in the bullpen. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, due to the maddening deviations in reliever effectiveness. For every Eric Gagne or Keith Foulke there’s ten other relievers who go from ‘great’ to ‘suck,’ depending on which year they’re playing. Scott Stewarrt was one of the better left-handed relievers in the National League when the Indians traded two prospects for him last winter; now he’s been banished to Los Angeles, and may resurface somewhere else two years from now as an elite reliever. Jose Jimenez, contrary to what you feel about him now, was a pretty effective closer in hyperoffensive Coors Field. Look at Ricardo Rincon’s career. Look at Paul Quantrill’s career. You really don’t know what you’re going to get from even the better relievers from year to year with a couple exceptions. So while of course you grab a couple guys from the “proven” pool every year, I don’t think it’s real smart to allocate big bucks to one of the least reliable positions on the roster.
For example, look at the composition of the bullpen in July and August, when it was more or less effective:
Closer – Bob Wickman – Acquired for Richie Sexson, among others in 2000. Blew out his arm a year after getting a three year extension in 2001 worth $18M. Finally came back after this year’s All-Star Break and has been very shaky, yet has only blown one save in 11 chances.
Setup – Bob Howry – picked up for a minor-league deal last winter while recovery from arm surgery. Came back after the All-Star Break and has been the best pitcher in the bullpen.
Setup – Rafael Betancourt – a former infielder converted to pitcher. The Indians picked him up two years ago as a minor-league free agent. Brought up in the second half of the 2003 season, and has parlayed a quirky short-arm delivery to become a very effective reliever, provided he isn’t overused.
Setup – Matt Miller – a 33-year-old who had pitched a grand total of 4.1 major-league innings before this season. The Indians signed the side-armer to a minor-league deal last winter. After pitching well in Buffalo, he was brought up and dominated right-handed hitters, holding them to a .214 average. He wasn’t drafted.
Setup – David Riske – drafted in the 56th round in 1996 (they only have 50 rounds now). He flew through the system, made his MLB debut in 1999, and bounced between the high minors and Cleveland for the next three years. Out of options in 2003, he was one of the better relief pitchers in the American League. This season he started as closer, blew several games, and looks to have stabilized as a 7th/8th inning guy. His ERAs by month are 12.27, 4.72, 1.00, 5.40, 1.76, and 2.08
Long Man – Rick White – When the bullpen was in the height of its throes, the Indians traded an organizational guy to the Dodgers for White’s services. He started out pitching in high-leverage situations, and was better than what the team had. Since then he’s been pushed to mop-up duty, and will probably be a NRI in someone else’s camp in 2005.
The moral of the story? With relievers, sometimes it all comes down to luck. Of course you have to find and recognize talent, but, especially in the bullpen, sometimes you just have to get lucky.
Of course, if money is no object, you can go ahead and spend $30-40M on “proven closers”; but the Indians can’t do that. Throwing 30% of your payroll at the least reliable of investments is a sure way of hamstringing your team down the road. The best way a small-market team can build a bullpen is to (a) develop your own talent, or, if that doesn’t work (b) pick up undervalued pitchers and see if they stick. To some extent, that’s what Mark Shapiro has figured out in the best three years as GM since trying the “proven closer” method. Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Davis, who have more or less struggled as starters, are going to be tried out in the bullpen, and Andrew Brown may eventually join them. Fernando Cabrera, after three years as a starter, is now a full-fledged relief prospect. Scott Sauerbeck was signed this summer to a 2005 contract in the hopes he becomes the next Bob Howry. Brian Tallet, after recovering from Tommy John Surgery, may find himself in the bullpen as a LOOGY. Cliff Bartosh and Kaz Tadano should figure into the mix as well.
I’m not insane enough to predict which among this collection of arms will be the core of the 2005 bullpen at this point in the offseason. A more realistic prediction is to identify a “pool” of possibles, and say that the majority of next year’s relief corps will come from it. And I’d still probably miss a guy or two; Betancourt and Miller were almost off the radar screen before their first appearances. Given that the New York Yankees had charcters like Tanyon Sturtze, Felix Heredia, Scott Proctor, Gabe White, and CJ Nitkowski logging multiple appearances this season, it’s safe to say that bullpen construction is definitely not a science; in fact, it almost resides in the pseudoscience realm along with remote viewing and witchcraft.