It’s a common refrain of the sabermetrically inclined that you shouldn’t spend money on bullpens. It’s easy to see why this is: a pitcher that can throw 180-200 innings in a season (a starter) will usually be more valuable than someone whose peak is around 70 innings (a reliever). Even accounting for leverage and situations, the best reliever in baseball by WARP (the Yankees’ Dellin Betances) isn’t as valuable as someone like R.A. Dickey, a player whose public perception doesn’t necessarily line up with his value. And Betances’ number is less than a third as much as the best starter in baseball by WARP, Clayton Kershaw.
We did see a bit of a different trend in the last offseason, however. With the Royals having made the World Series two years in a row, and having had excellent bullpens both seasons, other teams set out to form their own fantastic relief cores. Boston traded for Carson Smith and Craig Kimbrel. The Yankees acquired Aroldis Chapman, even with Andrew Miller and the aforementioned Betances already in tow. Even the Blue Jays got in on the action a bit, acquiring deposed Nationals closer Drew Storen. All sports tend to copy success, and the Royals having success with their bullpen meant teams were going to try and emulate that.
In building these better bullpens, however, teams had to commit resources to doing so, in prospects and/or cash. In that vein, for money and value, let’s see how the Blue Jays compare to some of their competitors. We’re going to stack them up against the Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, and Royals- three divisional competitors, and the team that set the gold standard for bullpens. For the purposes of this comparison, we’re using the 2016 PECOTA projections, and the 50th percentile of those projections- in plain terms, the average outcome. Innings were rounded to the nearest third of an inning, and $ per WARP rounded to two digits after the million. I generally went with the team’s current bullpen, and limited it to seven players, though there are some exceptions that will be explained when we go through the teams.
Notes: For the Jays, I did not include the DFA’d Arnold Leon, and did included the recently injured Franklin Morales over the less recently injured Aaron Loup or call up Pat Venditte. That’s an educated guess as to who spends the most time on the roster, given Venditte having options, and Loup’s struggles last season. It should also be noted that the Jays could cut Morales and save three quarters of his salary, which they may do if he’s below replacement, as his projections suggest. The projections also include a handful of starts for Jesse Chavez, Gavin Floyd, and Morales, which I would deem as probable, possible, and unlikely, in that order. Eagle-eyed watchers will note that Storen’s salary is lower than it’s actual number, because I accounted for the money that the Nationals sent over to cover part of his salary.
Analysis: The Jays are spending $6.22 million per WARP on their bullpen, based on these projections. With the late inning trio of Osuna, Storen, and Cecil, most would say this is a fine bullpen. After an uneven season last year for the Jays’ bullpen, there was a focus in the off-season in adding depth, and pitchers capable of starting games if needed. Storen was the flashy pickup, but Chavez and Floyd provide additional value with less fanfare. It’s interesting seeing how the value is distributed according to money, because Osuna, who makes the minimum, grades out the best pitcher. But let’s see how the Jays stack up against the rest here.
Notes: Even though Aroldis Chapman is not currently on the team due to his suspension, it would have been disingenuous to not include him in the Yankees’ calculations, given his talent level. That meant dropping one of their current pitchers, so I kept John Barbato and Kirby Yates, and dropped Luis Cessa, because he has starts included in his projections, and skews the calculation the most. Ivan Nova also has starts included, but he’s more likely to stick with the team, given his history.
Analysis: The Yankees have a top-heavy bullpen, but they, like the Jays, will probably get the most value from a young pitcher making the minimum. Betances’ ascension has given them a fearsome late inning combination, one that will be bolstered further by the pending return of Chapman. With players like Betances and Chasen Shreve (and the departed Adam Warren), the Yankees have done a good job over the last couple years finding value to fill out their bullpen, to compliment the high priced assets. Though they’ve spent more money than the Jays, they certainly have more talent, so they grade out a little better at $5.76 million per WARP.
Notes: Another one where we accounted for an injury, and this time, I put in Carson Smith over Tommy Layne, who is currently on the roster. No one’s quite sure when Smith will come back, so this projection could be less optimistic than the results. PECOTA doesn’t differentiate a lot once you get past the top few here.
Analysis: PECOTA seems more bearish than I would be on Boston’s bullpen, which seems to have reasonable depth at first glance. One suspects they don’t care for Craig Kimbrel‘s move to the tougher American League East, or figure that Koji Uehara‘s age will slow him down at some point. Or perhaps this just reinforces the idea of relievers not making a ton of difference. The projections make the view of the Boston bullpen less flattering, as they’re spending $10.57 million per WARP. Given the struggles their relievers at points last season, the acquisitions of Kimbrel and Smith still made sense for a team that sees themselves as contenders.
Notes: The Rays started the year without presumptive closer Brad Boxberger. He’s in for this one, and Ryan Webb, who is currently in the bullpen, is out, as he had the least optimistic projections of the current group for the Rays. Former Blue Jay Dana Eveland checks in with six spot starts in his calculation.
Analysis: The Rays’ opening day budget was under $70 million for their entire roster, so it’s unsurprising that their bullpen is a who’s who of “who’s that?” And while they certainly did an excellent job of saving money, as their efficiency gives them a rosy $1.75 million spent per WARP, there are questions that come with the course they’ve chosen. There’s a lower ceiling for performance with their lesser talent, and there will be questions as to defined roles until Boxberger returns. But on a team that’s always concerned about their budget, this is the best approach, even if they lack the upside of the others teams in the division.
Notes: I desperately wanted to find a way to include current Royal Chien-Ming Wang in this group, but with Mike Minor scheduled to return in May, I assume Wang’s the one that will bite the dust. Danny Duffy has fifteen starts in his projections, which inflate his numbers.
Analysis: We notice a couple things right away about the Royals’ collection of arms. First, that they intentionally spent money on everyone, with not a single player making the minimum. Secondly, there are a lot of former/failed starters in this list, with only Kevin Herrera having been a reliever for his entire major league career. I’m surprised by the results here, though. The numbers have the Royals as the least cost-effective of our sample group, spending $10.78 million per WARP on their bullpen. It should be noted though that PECOTA hasn’t liked the Royals in the past, either. The loss of an effective Greg Holland hurts them, though their track record and high-end talent will probably make this group better than the numbers suggest.
Even with these four teams, we have seen several different ways of building a bullpen. From a statistical standpoint, it may not make a lot of difference- the spread between the worst relief corps to the best is only 2.3 WARP. Each team had a clear philosophy in who they acquired, and how much they paid for them. The Rays clip coupons and cut corners wherever they can, taking home trophies for being efficient and saving money, but are rarely able to crack the glass ceiling in a cutthroat division. Would an improved bullpen help that? Probably not as much as a bigger budget overall. So saving money makes sense.
The Yankees and Red Sox throw their financial weight around, supplementing any bargains and fixing problems whenever they come up. The Yankees didn’t really need Aroldis Chapman, but saw a bargain (for unpleasant reasons) and decided that another elite arm would help them get back to the top of the A.L. East. Boston’s pen struggled with depth at times in 2015, with only Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa as reliable options to finish off games. Their offseason saw them add two crucial pieces to their bullpen puzzle.
The reigning champion Royals are the trend-setters, and have built their own philosophy, with a clear belief in proven performers and defined roles in a bullpen. Various projection systems have never been able to quantify that value, but the Royals don’t worry about what the projections say. They have the results. No amount of regression or bad luck will take away the two American League pennants, or the World Series banner that hangs in Kauffman Stadium. If insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome, perhaps the Royals are entirely sane to keep doing something that has been working until it doesn’t.
As for the Jays, they grade out fine, looking at their competitors, sitting smack-dab in the middle of these teams in how they’ve spent. They’ve acquired the arms in a variety of ways: free agency (Floyd, Morales), trades(Chavez, Storen), a Rule 5 pick (Biagini) and their own homegrown talent (Cecil, Osuna). Their bullpen has had rough games so far, and like any bullpen, will have a few more blown games before the season’s out, but the talent is there, and they weren’t afraid to add when the opportunity to acquire Drew Storen came up. They’ve got more depth this year at AAA, which they’ve already had to tap into because of injuries (hello, Pat Venditte), and more arms ready when someone else gets dinged up.
For now, the Jays should have confidence in their bullpen – both how it will perform for the rest of the season, and the process by which it was assembled. They probably won’t be the best relievers in baseball, but the Jays don’t need them to be the best. They just need it to be fine, and it can definitely be that.
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