State of the Bullpen

Will Fernando Rodney continue to pitch in high leverage situations? - Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays' bullpen has been lockdown and melting down this season. What changes can Joe Maddon make to ensure a steady performance during the playoff run? Has he already made the necessary changes?

When Alex Torres took the mound when Alex Cobb departed Tuesday night against the Baltimore Orioles, he was stepping into a fire. The bases were loaded with no outs while the Rays nursed a two run lead. Torres induced a ground ball that resulted in a run scoring double play and escaped the inning with no further damage and the lead intact. Later, in the ninth inning, Fernando Rodney tallied a save while the Rays lead by three.

Closers in baseball face significant scrutiny: many baseball minds believe managers are costing their teams wins by using them nearly exclusively in save situations. The word "closer" replaced "fireman" as the title for a team’s best reliever as the save statistic gathered importance. Modern closers have become overpaid and underused as they rarely enter a tied game (when the situation is generally high leverage) or before the ninth inning.

This season, the Rays’ bullpen has not accumulated saves as effectively as they did last season. This year’s bullpen has already blown more saves (14) than the bullpen did (eight) last season. The team’s save percentage is currently 70% instead of the impressive 85% mark achieved last season. Only three Rays have pitched in more than five save situations (where a save, blown save, or hold is the outcome): Rodney (36), Joel Peralta (34) and Jake McGee (27). An alternative method of measuring which pitchers are pitching in the most critical situations is called the Leverage Index (LI). These three pitchers are the only three (excluding Josh Lueke who has pitched fewer than 15 innings in the majors) whose Average Leverage Index (ALI) is over one (high pressure).

Pitcher

High Leverage

Medium Leverage

Low Leverage

Games entered while leading

Fernando Rodney

26

18

9

42

Joel Peralta

33

18

10

43

Jake McGee

23

19

13

35

The table above shows how many times the first at-bat was high, medium and low leverage for each pitcher this season and how many times each pitcher has had a lead. Rodney has most commonly entered the game in the ninth inning, Peralta the eighth and McGee the seventh. Peralta, despite pitching primarily in the eighth inning, has seen the most high leverage situations of the Rays' relievers this season.

Why is all this important? When a closer enters a game in the ninth inning in a save situation, there are usually two assumptions at work: First, the closer is the best reliever on the team and second, the ninth inning is the highest leverage situation of the game. The table seems to shed some doubt on that second assumption—often; high leverage situations arise prior to the ninth. The first assumption has to be questioned as well, particularly given Rodney's performance this season.

Pitcher

WPA/LI

ERA+

bWAR

Fernando Rodney

0.0

100

0

Alex Torres

1.5

293

1.6

Joel Peralta

0.7

119

0.6

The column labeled WPA/LI represents situational wins, or Win Probability Added divided by Leverage Index. ERA+ is a park-adjusted version of ERA (higher is better). A case could be made for Torres or Peralta as the best reliever in the Rays' bullpen. Building a case for Rodney would be substantially more difficult at this point of the season. Theoretically, the best reliever available should pitch in the highest leverage situation. First, the manager has to select the reliever to pitch in these situations- this decision is made prior to the beginning of the game. Second, the manager must decide which situation is the highest leverage. This is impossible as it is always possible for a higher leverage situation to arise later in the game.

On Tuesday night, the Orioles loaded the bases against Alex Cobb with no outs. Joe Maddon turned to Alex Torres to protect the two run lead. Torres was playing the role of "fireman," not "closer." Torres did a fantastic job of minimizing the damage, allowing one of the inherited runners to score while picking up a hold. It was extremely likely that the first at-bat Torres faced would be the highest leverage situation of the game, which it was. Torres accumulated .273 WPA during his outing Tuesday night, more than Rodney has netted this entire season. Rodney entered the game in the ninth inning as soon as a save situation arose while Wesley Wright was pitching.

Pitcher

Appearances with Inherited Runners

Inherited Runners (IR)

Inherited Runners Scored (IS)

WPA in appearances with IR

Average initial LI of appearances

Fernando Rodney

10

15

4

-.683

2.66

Alex Torres

9

17

4

.506

1.77

Summary of Relief Appearances 8/20

Pitcher

LI

Average LI

WPA

IR

IS

Decision

Fernando Rodney

2

1.2

.089

1

0

Save

Alex Torres

4.1

3.11

.273

3

1

Hold

Tuesday's appearance with the bases loaded was Torres's third; Rodney has only one this season. Moving forward, how will Joe Maddon manage the bullpen? Peralta leads the team with 22 inherited runners while remarkably only allowing two (9%) to score. Torres has produced the best results of any reliever with strong peripherals but has had trouble limiting walks in recent appearances. It is possible that Tuesday night is a preview of how Maddon will manage the bullpen for the remainder of the season. For most of the season, McGee and Peralta have covered the seventh and eighth innings while Rodney has taken the ninth. Torres has primarily been used in long and middle relief, often while the Rays are trailing. Perhaps Maddon will alter these roles moving forward. Peralta and Torres could be used in the tightest situations while Rodney and McGee could handle medium leverage situations while still accumulating saves. There are a couple of other considerations worth mentioning. When Matt Moore returns, one of the current starters will likely join the bullpen. It could be Chris Archer, who pitched out of the bullpen last season, or Roberto Hernandez. The Rays also obtained Jesse Crain at the trade deadline, a powerful arm if he is able to pitch down the stretch.

There's no denying the talent present in the Rays' bullpen, but how effectively that talent is used is up to Joe Maddon. It's possible that superior bullpen management could add a win to the Rays' total-a win that could be the difference between winning the division and missing the wild card.

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