The Bullpen

Okay, I planned on addressing Gabe Kapler, and I will, but first things first; the bullpen. Lance Cormier, Joe Nelson, and Brian Shouse have been fine, good even. The rest have issues, let's talk about those issues in a (mostly) nice and cordial manner.

 

Cormier has been used in mostly low leverage situations thus far this season. None of his own fault, that’s simply his role given the current bullpen construction. Cormier has gotten 11 groundballs compared to only seven flyballs + liners. Good. Cormier is essentially replicating his 2008 season all over again, and that’s fine. Perfect as far as the last man in the bullpen is concerned.

Nelson has been similarly effective, and should find his way into higher leverage situations as this season progresses. His change-up has proven effective versus lefties -- as you would expect – and he was used well today, despite the odd timing of his entrance.

Shouse’s raw data is a bit unpleasing, but once you dig past the fact that entering today he has seen double the amount of righties as lefties, it’s easy to understand. He’s absolutely shut the southpaws he has faced down, exactly as asked.

Okay, now on to the others.

Howell has been decent, although not nearly to his 2008 levels. He’s getting less winging strikes, but more called strikes along with less balls. He’s also allowing an absurd amount of line drives and flyballs. Howell has groundball heavy splits throughout his career, he’s not suddenly turning into a flyball pitcher. Once that rights itself he should be fine.

Balfour has been wild in the past, but this is even too wild for him. 47.5% balls entering today, his previous high was 44.7% in 2007 for Milwaukee. Unless there’s something wrong with him, that will correct itself. He also doesn’t figure to suddenly go from a double digit swinging strike percentage pitcher to a below league average whiff inducer over one off-season. More strikes, less balls, more hacks.

We warned about Wheeler’s pending regression all off-season. His BABIP will not stick at .400, but it’s not going to come near .200 again. Whatever the hell is going on with his release point and velocity might be beyond his control and that’s a terrifying – yet somehow calming – prophecy. If he’s hurt and struggles that’s understandable, if he’s completely broken down, that’s more than reason for concern. Small sample size and all, but his flyballs rates are up again and his line drive percentage matches his groundball rate. Oh deary me, please go the other way.

And then there’s Percival. I’ve been fine with giving him another shot. The injuries, it was probably the injuries last year. Well, either he’s still hurt and lying to everyone, or he’s just toast. The sample size is still too small to say with any certainty, but yet again he showed next to no control over any of his pitches. Two of his three curveballs land up and in to righties, the other was fielded by Michel Hernandez after a bounce. His low-90s fastball was thrown mostly down the middle. The thing is, his fastball still has some movement, in to righties, so if he’s trying to run it in to righties – despite being what the break indicates he should be doing – then he’s lost control of the pitch, that or he can’t aim for the outer corner.

Honestly, the upside here is limited. Percival’s been over replacement level two of his last five seasons. Projecting a 4.9 FIP going forward puts him above replacement level, and honestly we have the talent in the Triple-A bullpen to replace Percival’s performance and even upgrade it. Percival seems entrenched in the closer role despite being Todd Jones at this point, and that’s reason enough to want a replacement reliever. At least if it’s a non-Jason Istringhausen type, he can be pushed and pulled to the extent of his performance and not to the extent of his relationship with the manager.

Percival should not be in the game during high leverage situations but that seems unfeasible given the circumstances. That means either he needs to go on the DL, out the door, or to the back of the pen. The organization has shown a willingness to accept sunk costs in the past, with Dan Miceli, Shinji Mori, and Chad Harville. It may be time to eat another one.

If you’re looking for someone to replace, it’s Percival. If you’re looking for a way to replace them, do not look towards trading an asset like one of the young starters. Relievers are highly fungible. Odds are, who we have the same odds of working out as those in other organizations. Also don’t consider moving David Price or Wade Davis to the pen. Both are far to valuable to the franchise’s future to consider advancing (and shifting them to the bullpen) for minimal gains this season.

This is a matter of construction as much as personnel. The Rays seem to have five relievers who will be fine, Wheeler who could be useful when avoiding high-leverage situations, and Percival. Ultimately people are going to freak out because of those two, but honestly the situation is far from being that dire. This is the problem with establishing roles and signing players with those roles emphasized. Percival is the weakest pitcher on staff and yet has the highest leveraged job. That’s not a good combination, and it needs to be fixed.

You can play the results based analysis game all you want concerning Percival’s save success rate, but eventually the processes are going to bite the team in the ass.

 

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