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The Rays 2015 bullpen: From Average to Top?

After an average 2014 season, the Rays bullpen looks quite different this year with the arrival of Kevin Jepsen and Ernesto Frieri and the departures of seven relievers. Can all those changes benefit Tampa Bay in 2015?

Ernesto Frieri
Ernesto Frieri
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

During their very busy offseason, the Rays acquired two new relievers: Ernesto Frieri, signed as a free agent for $800,000, and Kevin Jepsen from the Angels in a trade that sent Matt Joyce to the Halos. Meanwhile, they let seven relievers go, who represented 45% of the innings pitched by their bullpen in 2014. Whilst players like Jake McGee or Brad Boxberger are still around, the 2015 Rays bullpen could be posed for a major improvement.

First, let's have a look back at the 2014 numbers and compare them with last season's league average.

Rays 9.5 3.34 0.92 9.3% 3.71 3.60 3.00
League Avg 8.5 3.30 0.78 9.0% 3.58 3.60 2.83

As you can see, the Rays' statistics are very close to the league average, especially for walks per nine innings, home run-per-fly ball ratio, FIP and even fWAR. However, two particular differences emerge on the table presented above: strikeouts and home runs per nine innings. Considering the profiles of closer Jake McGee and reliever Brad Boxberger, two veritable strikeout machines, there isn't much surprise here, although it is worth noticing that the Rays' bullpen was ranked as the 3rd best in the MLB for this category.

Aside from this very satisfying fact, there is still this well-below-average home runs conceded per nine innings statistic. A mark of 0.92 compared to 0.78 might not seem extremely bad, but it was the seventh worst average put up by a major league bullpen in 2014. How can a bullpen be one of the very best when it comes to strikeouts and slightly above-average in a general way get a record that bad for home runs?

Rays 0.280 0.960 20% 40% 41% 11% 9.3% 3.24
League Avg 0.294 1.343 20% 45% 34% 10% 9.0% 3.50

By looking at these batted ball statistics, you can still argue that the Rays' relievers formed a very average bullpen last season. However, the .280 opponent BABIP was the 5th best among all MLB teams in 2014. But, as for the numbers discussed earlier, there is some downside to very pleasing fact. The 41% fly-ball percentage was the worst among all teams last season. Here's an example of how statistics put out of context can be tricky. The 9.3% HR/FB ratio looks quite good compared to the league average only because the Rays bullpen allowed the most fly balls in the big leagues.

Of course, allowing more fly balls and more home runs than the league average does not mean that you will automatically blow up your chances of winning in the late innings. The runs scored per nine innings ratio actually compares favorably to the league average and was similar to the Royals last year (3.41) for instance. Yet, since Tampa Bay acquired two new relievers and with the departures of Joel Peralta, Cesar Ramos, Juan Oviedo to name a few, can we expect some improvement in the home runs conceded, and globally in 2015?

The guys who are still here

Jake McGee 71.1 11.36 2.02 0.25 2.90% 1.89 2.58 2.6
Brad Boxberger 64.2 14.47 2.78 1.25 18.80% 2.37 1.95 0.9
Grant Balfour 62.1 8.23 5.92 0.43 5.10% 4.91 4.49 0.0
Kirby Yates 36 10.5 3.75 1.00 9.30% 3.75 3.78 0.1
Jeff Beliveau 24 10.5 2.63 0.38 4.50% 2.63 3.06 0.5
Steve Geltz 8.1 15.12 5.4 3.24 27.30% 3.24 3.92 -0.3
C.J. Riefenhauser 5.1 3.38 5.06 0.00 0.00% 8.44 5.46 0
Alex Colome 5 0.00 7.2 1.80 10.00% 10.8 8.00 -0.2

The guys who left

Joel Peralta 63.1 10.52 2.13 1.28 11.30% 4.41 3.11 0.6
Cesar Ramos 52.1 7.74 3.78 0.69 7.70% 2.92 3.90 0.1
Brandon Gomes 34 6.35 2.91 1.32 10.60% 3.71 4.40 -0.3
Juan Oviedo 31.2 7.39 4.55 0.85 5.80% 3.69 5.32 -0.2
Josh Lueke 30.1 5.64 1.48 2.08 17.50% 5.64 4.10 -0.5
Heath Bell 17.1 6.23 4.15 0.52 8.30% 7.27 4.68 -0.2
Erik Bedard 3 0.00 3.00 0.00 0.00% 0.00 6.60 0.0

Obviously, considering the different fWARs of the now former Rays relievers, Tampa Bay didn't lose too much in the offseason. Of the seven pitchers who left the organization, four had a negative fWAR in 2014 while the other three have only accumulated 0.7 Wins Above Replacement. Moreover, if we take a closer look at Joel Peralta, Brandon Gomes and Josh Lueke, some of the most used relievers last year, we can see that their HR/9 ratio is well above the league average. Also, their strikeout per nine innings ratio, aside from Peralta, aren't that great either.

Actually, the average HR/9 allowed by the top five pitchers with the most innings pitched who left the Rays this winter is almost twice the one accomplished by McGee, Boxberger, Balfour, Yates and Beliveau.

Top 5 still w/ TB 257.4 0.66
Top 5 who left TB 210.5 1.24

Nonetheless, we cannot satisfy ourselves with realizing what we probably avoided for the year to come. Since there will be at least two newcomers to the Tampa Bay bullpen, we should also take a look at them and what they could offer.

Photo credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The new guys

Ernesto Frieri

With four seasons in the big leagues, Ernesto Frieri landed in Tampa Bay this offseason after spending his 2014 season between the Angels, the Pirates and Pittsburgh's AAA affiliate. It wasn't a great season at all for Frieri who posted a horrendous 7.34 ERA in 41.2 innings pitched. The Rays signed him in November for $800,000, probably hoping that he could get back to his level pre-2014.

Season IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 HR/FB ERA xFIP WAR
2011 63 10.86 4.86 0.43 3.60% 2.71 4.34 0.4
2012 66 13.36 4.09 1.23 12.90% 2.32 3.36 0.6
2013 68.2 12.84 3.93 1.44 11.80% 3.80 3.49 0.7
2014 41.2 10.37 3.02 2.38 19.30% 7.34 3.67 -0.8

It is quite hard to look at these career statistics and be optimistic in the same time. Even if the Rays acquired him to eat some innings and bench other relievers in the mean time, signing Frieri does not appear to make much sense, especially considering the Rays' bullpen biggest issues last season.

However, there is always hope for a bounce back season. Indeed Frieri will only be 30 years old this July, and he hasn't suffered from any injury since 2011. In fact, ZiPS projects him to have a league average FIP- of 100 and a zWAR of 0.1, which isn't very good but still better than some other relievers who pitched for the Rays in 2014.

ZiPS 2015 Projection IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP zWAR
Ernesto Frieri 58.3 11.58 3.86 1.39 3.86 3.74 0.1

Kevin Jepsen

In 2009, Kevin Goldstein wrote about Kevin Jepsen in Baseball Prospectus, saying that he had "tons of velocity and enough other stuff to be a very good set-up man for a long time". In 2015, this statement could become truer than ever. Jepsen put up great numbers with the Angels in 2014, posting a career-low 2.78 FIP and a career-high 10.38 K/9 in 65 innings pitched (also a career record).

If you want to know more the secret behind his recent success, you can still read the piece Ian Malinoswki wrote about him after his trade. But for now, let's focus on Jepsen's career numbers.

2009 54.2 7.90 3.13 0.33 4.30% 4.94 2.86 1.2
2010 59 9.31 4.42 0.31 5.00% 3.97 3.03 0.9
2011 13 4.15 6.23 1.38 13.30% 7.62 6.41 -0.5
2012 44.2 7.66 2.42 0.60 5.90% 3.02 3.21 0.6
2013 36 9.00 3.50 0.75 7.00% 4.50 3.38 0.3
2014 65 10.38 3.18 0.55 7.70% 2.63 2.78 0.9

According to the statistics presented above, Jepsen will fit extremely well in the Rays bullpen in 2015 with his 9.69 average K/9 over the last two seasons and a well-below-average career HR/9 at 0.65. Furthermore, since 2010, Jepsen has been able to maintain a very good velocity on his fastball and finished 2014 with a 95.8 average velocity, one decimal point over his career average.

Depending on his performances in the early part of the season, or even in Spring Training, he could very well become a premium setup reliever for the Rays and take some innings in the closer role especially if Grant Balfour does not bounce back after his poor 2014 season.

2015 ZiPS Projection IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP zWAR
Kevin Jepsen 56 9.48 3.38 0.8 3.37 3.31 0.4

Overall, I think Jake McGee's position as the Rays' closer will be safe for another year, but behind him there might some competition especially with the arrival of Kevin Jepsen. Also, considering the poor performances put up by the pitchers who left the organization this offseason and the addition of Kevin Jepsen, the Rays bullpen could very well become of one the best in the American League. It could be also very interesting to see more of Jeff Beliveau if he is given more innings in 2015 or Kirby Yates, after encouraging 2014 performances in the big leagues and in AAA.

All statistics used for this article come from Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference. Contract and injury information were taken from Baseball Prospectus.