Editor’s note: This piece was written prior to Thursday’s doubleheader, which has obviously had an impact on the short term makeup of the bullpen. However, as the long term outlook remains unchanged, the analysis herein should still be applicable. – JH
Coming into the 2018 season, the consensus among many experts was that if the Toronto Blue Jays were to be successful, they were going to need to rely on the strength of their rotation. However, entering Thursday at the 30 game mark, the Blue Jays had only registered 11 quality starts and ranked 13th in ERA (5.21) in the American League. However, eveb with the early struggles of the rotation, the team had won 17 games which would project to a 92-win season over 162 games. Much of this success has been due to the dominance of the Toronto bullpen. After 30 games, the bullpen ranked first with a 2.33 ERA and has thrown the third lowest number of innings in the American League.
The bullpen success has been due to the strong performance of their elite closer Roberto Osuna, two late inning homegrown relievers in Ryan Tepera and Danny Barnes, and three veteran relievers that the Blue Jays management added in the offseason; John Axford, Seung-hwan Oh, and Tyler Clippard. An interesting note about the bullpen – the entire seven-man bullpen will be paid under 13 million dollars in 2018. In comparison, the Colorado Rockies are paying Wade Davis 16 million dollars alone this year to be their closer. The Blue Jays have built a cost effective bullpen and are reaping early dividends based on their sheer dominance over the opposition.
At first glance, the Blue Jays bullpen’s statistics and overall performance has been nearly perfect, but when exploring the numbers further and you begin to realize their may be some areas of concern.
As Gregor Chisholm of MLB.com wrote this week, the Toronto bullpen have logged fewer innings than most of the bullpens in the American League, but the individual pitcher usage has led to a greater concern. Clippard and Tepera have each pitched in 16 games, Barnes in 15, and Oh in 14 games. The quantity of innings may be low, but the appearance numbers are almost unsustainable. Why? The process of getting warmed up in the bullpen to then pitching in the game has its physical impact on pitcher. This effect is magnified when they get less rest between outings. Dr Mike Sonne has done research on this with his Fatigue Units. This is independent of the number of actual pitches thrown or innings pitched. This over-reliance on the bullpen could have a negative impact as the season progresses.
Certainly some of the bullpens success should be credited to manager John Gibbons, in particular to their usage. He is aware that his bullpen is made up of seven one inning relievers and as such he has been consistent in not attempting to extend their outings beyond one inning. Until recently, he has only stretched veteran lefty Aaron Loup and Axford for multiple innings.
On the other hand, Gibbons has been somewhat lucky. He has not had multiple or long extra inning games or been faced with short starter outing that would have required more multiple inning appearances. At present they have added an eighth man to the bullpen in Carlos Ramirez. That reduces the options on the bench that can be used late in a game and the flexibility to rest veterans and keep them fresh during the season, but if they want to return to a seven-man bullpen, having all one inning relievers is not sustainable. The Blue Jays would soon get to the point where they will need to add a reliever who can pitch multiple innings or be the long man in the pen.
So the bigger question is that if fans and media believe there is a need for a multi-inning reliever, why are the Blue Jays management and coaches neglecting this need? Are they aware? Yes, as that can be concluded from the addition of Ramirez to the bullpen. But why not simply remove one of the short relievers and replace them with a multi-Inning reliever? That may simply be explained by preserving the depth, they want the best bullpen but don’t want to potentially risk losing an arm that can help them during the season. Oh, Axford, and Clippard can not be sent to the minors, and Tepera has been too good to be optioned. As such, it’s possible the Blue Jays management and coaching staff are using the first couple of months to assess what they have before they make a decision. They may have their hand forced in the next few weeks with the position players dealing with injury (Grichuk, Pearce, Tulowitzki) and ineffectiveness (Travis, Diaz).
So lets take a deeper look at the actual performances from the bullpen to see any early candidates who could potentially be part of a roster shuffle.
Let’s start by taking a closer look at each reliever’s leverage index in order to break them up into tiers. It is clear from the chart below that closer Roberto Osuna and set up man Ryan Tepera are entrusted with the highest leverage situations late in the ballgame. The trio of Barnes, Oh, and Clippard enter in medium leverage situations through the middle innings, and finally, the Loup/Axford combination enter the game often with the team trailing or winning by a large margin in low leverage situations.
Secondly exploring deeper into the peripherals we are able to get a better understanding of the actual effectiveness of each pitcher, which could help predict their performance going forward.
High Leverage Relievers
Osuna has actually pitched better than his numbers indicate based on his FIP and higher than normal BABIP. He has mostly regained the velocity of his fastball back that seemed to disappear late last season and has returned to his fourseam fastball-heavy ways. The combination of late movement and higher velocity has resulted in an increase in opposite field contact by the hitters (up 17.4 percentage points), which helps to avoid power. On the negative side, there has been a notable decline in his swing and miss rate (down five percentage points), leading to a heavily reduced strikeout rate. This is likely at least partially due to poor location of his slider, as indicated below. This is merely mechanical, however, as the break on the pitch hasn’t changed, so there is hope that it corrects itself.
Seems to be a big problem with his slider location (This year on the right, 2015-2017 on the left) pic.twitter.com/2uODr12IqV
— Joshua (@JoshuaHowsam) May 2, 2018
Tepera’s FIP would suggest that he hasn’t pitched as well as his preliminary numbers would indicate. That said, while he has seen an increase in hard contact (41.2%), that can be attributed to being victimized by long ball early in the season. On the other hand, he has also had an increase in swing and miss strikes (16%), resulting in higher strike outs, a decrease in walks, and a reduction in overall contact (68.6%). Also, in high leverage situations opponents are hitting .071.
Both these pitchers have earned the trust of their manager and are performing well and dominating the opposition. Together they make one of the better closer/set-up man tandems in the American League.
Medium Leverage Relievers
Barnes’ peripherals indicate he has been more average than outstanding. He has been plagued by a higher walk rate and a tendency to give up the home run. His contact and swing and miss rates are also similar to last season when he had an ERA of 3.55. Should he regress to those numbers he will still be a viable reliever for the middle innings.
Oh’s numbers appear to be reminiscent of this rookie year dominance in 2016 with St Louis. His strikeouts are up and his walks are down. He has been victim to a higher BABIP which would indicate some bad luck early. However, his rookie home run suppressing skills have eroded, and he is now allowing home runs at a league-average rate on flyballs; similar to last years down year in St Louis (10.5 % HR/FB). With a decrease of two mph off his fastball, he has relied more on a combination of curveball, change up, and slider to change speeds and eye leves. He is likely to face regression to probably a pitcher somewhere between the dominance of 2016 and below average pitcher of last season. That said, if he continues to limit walks and stays away from the long ball, he will be remain a strong reliever to bridge the gap to Tepera and Osuna.
Clippard has the potential for the greatest regression as indicated by his 5.32 FIP. He has a BABIP that would be impossible to maintain, as of his five hits surrendered – three are home runs (which are not “in play”). His peripherals more closely resemble last season, which was his major league worst, with a high walk rate and high HR/FB % (13.0). What he has benefitted from is that he has been able to minimize the big inning, stranding the walks and surrendering home runs with no one on base. The key for Blue Jays is that Clippard lower his walk rate and see his fly ball percentage regress to more recent years from its 67.6 % to around 50 %. If not, he would be the first candidate to see his leverage situations change.
All three pitchers have had exceptional results in the first month of the season. They have been given the role of middle relievers, pitching in medium leverage situations with the job to get the ball to the back end of the bullpen. However, each of them will most likely see varying degrees of regression based on their peripherals. Barnes has options and Clippard and Oh, on one year deals, could simply be released in a worst-case scenario. The pitchers to watch are Tyler Clippard as his numbers indicate the greatest regression and Danny Barnes who, may see some time in Buffalo if he struggles.
Low Leverage Relievers
Axford came to Toronto with the reputation of a pitcher with swing and miss stuff that has a tendency to be wild. He has, at times, struggled to consistently throw strikes, but overall has seen a nice improvement in his walk rate. His peripherals have indicated that his preliminary numbers are fairly true indication of his performance. He also has seen an increase in velocity from 95 to 96.1 mph, has performed well in low leverage situations and has shown the ability to pitch multiple innings one day and come back and pitch he next day. He is also the only groundball pitcher in this bullpen (54.5 percent), so should someone falter in higher leverage situations, Gibbons may have the reliever to step up for the task in Axford.
Loup is the longest serving Blue Jay reliever and the unluckiest. His peripherals, in particular FIP and poor BABIP, indicate that he has performed better than his numbers indicate.
I get it… I really do… but people have been saying Loup has been unlucky for approximately four years now. https://t.co/GlfyVWFgCs
— Gregor Chisholm (@gregorMLB) May 2, 2018
However, as the only lefty in the bullpen, he has struggled to retire left-handed hitters consistently. They are hitting .333 against him. He is predominantly being used in low leverage situations – and when forced into higher leverage situations, such as game one in Minnesota this past week, he has struggled with opponents hitting .500. Also it is important to note that Gibbons has relied on his right-handers, such as Clippard, who have excellent reverse splits against left-handed hitters. In addition, Loup averaged less than an inning per outing which does not bode well for a reliever tasked with pitching in games in which your team is losing or with a big lead and the one goal is to get the game to its conclusion.
Axford and Loup are on one year deals and if they didn’t perform they could easily be released or DFA. However, based on early results Axford has provided great value to Gibbons. He is pitching multiple innings and could pitch himself into more high leverage situations. On the other hand, Loup will need to start be a little luckier and more importantly effective against left-handed hitters. He needs to gain the confidence of his skipper or he may be on the outside looking in when the need for a multi inning reliever becomes too important, or a lefty who can actually get lefties out.
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