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2009 Bullpen: All or Nothing

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Baseball is a game that requires patience, steadfastness and a long term commitment to an organizational philosophy from management probably more so than any other sport. Of the 3 major US sports, baseball is the only sport featuring a tried and true farm system that all players must work their way through in development. Baseball features twice as many games in a season as basketball and ten times as many games as football. Yet for some reason, the casual fan is quicker to jump to impulse conclusions leading to a "demand for action" in baseball, more so than in other sports.

The performance of the Rays bullpen left a lot to be desired in the first two months of the season. Troy Percival somehow had "earned" his way back into the closer's role. Last year's STFD champion Grant Balfour was throwing 2 miles per hour slower than in 2008. JP Howell had allowed as many inherited runners to score in the first month of the season than he did in all of 2008. Dan Wheeler was still serving up gopher balls at alarming rates. Newcomer Joe Nelson also was a victim of less velocity, very concerning given his history of arm problems. Local talk radio was whipped up in a frenzy about the lack of a traditional closer, lower recorded velocities, and calls to exile just about every pitcher in the pen not named Howell or Cormier.

 

And then June happened. The patience of Rays management was handsomely rewarded. Sometimes the baseball gods work in mysterious ways. To begin 2009, there was an expected regression on Batting Average on Balls in Play, but it seemed like every Rays pitcher was suffering at the same time. Well this month everything has clicked. The BABIP to date in June is a silly .207 which is lower than 2008's low month total of .239. .223 is the lowest full month recorded over the past two seasons by any team. That certainly does not qualify as sustainable, but then again that's what we argued in May. 

We know BABIP involves a good deal of luck. Has there really been performance improvement? Absolutely. The Rays' bullpen's Fielding Independent Pitching metric for June is 2.73. Last season's monthly low was 3.45.  The K:BB ratio has improved nearly a full strikeout compared to the first two months of the season going from 1.81 to 1.84 to 2.73. This is real pitching performance improvement. It is atypical for everyone in a bullpen to be "hot" at the same time just as it is for everyone to be "cold." Things should probably balance out more so than the all or nothing 2009 bullpen has performed to date. It has been nice to ride this wave back into contention in the ultra-competitive American league East. Let's hope Lady Luck continues to watch over the Rays bullpen as they continue to blaze through June.

One last thing, under the watchful eye of the Rays organization, journeyman Randy Choate has become a .000 BABIP pitcher, the first in baseball history. Give it up for Jim Hickey! See how silly impulse reactions sound?